MILLERTON–A couple that Lew Saperstein hadn’t seen in a while stopped by his shop on Wednesday, looking for hard-to-find men’s pocket T-shirts.
During their conversation with the longtime owner, they brought up the TV commercial he had cut several years ago in which he stood on his head, touting the apparel store made famous by his father, Irving Saperstein.
They all got a kick out of it and laughed at old memories before the happy pair departed with a sack of the treasured shirts.
It’s stuff like this that has set apart the landmark Saperstein’s department store at 41 Main St.
“People come in here, and they always remember going to a store like this years ago,” said Saperstein. “It’s a nostalgic trip for a lot of people.”
The building with the orange facade has been a fixture in the village of Millerton for 40 years. It goes back even further, starting as the Millerton Store a few blocks down in 1946.
No doubt, it’s been a heck of a run for Saperstein, who joined his dad in 1977 to help run the family-owned shop at the current location, a one-time grocery store.
After his father’s death in April 1999, Saperstein soldiered on, watching times and buying habits change, but always striving to be that place where neighbors bond and celebrate milestones.
Over the years, he’s outfitted customers for weddings, helped families get their kids ready for school and made special orders for shoppers in need of merchandise, even for something as little as a unique shade of panty hose.
He’s catered to celebrities like Meryl Streep, who has been shopping there for years, and actor Kevin Bacon, whom Saperstein described as a private person.
He has served as the merchandise buyer, face of the store and anchor of the community–all roles he has relished over the years.
But it’s about to end.
The 70-year-old shopkeeper is tired and longs to lounge. That’s why he put Saperstein’s on the market two weeks ago.
Harney Real Estate, along with Stone House Properties in West Stockbridge, Mass., are actively marketing the 9,500-square-foot, two-level store for $600,000 and business for $300,000.
Already, the interest has been great, with a few prospects touring the store and pondering its future.
Saperstein hopes the buyer will continue the business and its customer-centric tradition begun by his father.
“I would prefer to sell the building and the business together and see it continue on, but if I get a good offer just for the building, then I will go for that and then sell the inventory.”
Saperstein has two grown children–a son, who is a novelist and daughter in New York City–neither of whom wants to take over the business.
The store, often said to be a place that time forgot, carries basic family apparel and shoes and even rents tuxedos and carries Boy Scout uniforms and badges.
While much of the merchandise is basic and no-frills, Saperstein does sell some brand names like Dockers and Levi’s pants as well as durable Carhartt apparel and Wigwam socks.
Many of the signs in the store are hand-written, adding to the place’s intimacy and its 70’s vintage feel.
Saperstein said while he will miss his customers and the “problem-solving” that goes along with the business, he hasn’t taken much time for himself in the past 40 years.
“I really want to retire. I live 30 miles away in Pleasant Valley. I’ve talked about it with my wife, and I’ve decided to do it,” he said.
“I never had a lot of time off. I think a couple of times, I took 10 days off in a row, so I plan to relax.”
Now that Saperstein has made the decision to sell, he can look back at all the high and low points that made the business what it is.
One of the worst memories was the fire of 1986 at the Main Street location. The building was destroyed, but the family rallied and rebuilt from the ground up, adding a second level.
To this day, Saperstein believes an arsonist was responsible and singled out the business because it was Jewish-run.
“There were a lot of fires in the area at that time,” he said. “In fact, the day before, there was one in Canaan, Conn., at another clothing store that was also run by a Jewish family. It happened to be on Hitler’s birthday. That might have had something to do with it.”
Though the suspect was never caught, Saperstein managed to put it behind him and give the business his all.
That included zany cable TV commercials like the one a few years back where he stood on his head to plug the one-of-a-kind shop.
He even managed to rise above the recession from 2008 through 2012–a phenomenon he attributes to good service, affordable prices and practical customers.
“In more difficult times, we seem to do better. We sell clothing at a reasonable price, and instead of buying toys for Christmas, they’ll buy an article of clothing– something more practical–so we seem to do OK in all economies. We’ve been lucky that way.”
As far as the future, Saperstein is hoping for a quick sell. He will even offer to stay and help the buyer learn the ropes.
Beyond that, he has no plans to travel to exotic places or play golf all day.
Asked if he might shed a tear or two once he hands off the keys, Saperstein shook his head and cleared his throat.
“I will miss my customers. It’s a lot of fun when people come in and we talk and get to know each other,” he said.”They were good times.”