Stowe's Storied Store

For 34 years, the Savelas have been at Shaw's helm

by Portland Helmich

Ken and Ann Savela have owned Shaw's General Store in Stowe since 1966. Ann is the granddaughter of Howard E. Shaw, the store's original owner, who opened the Main Street store 105 years ago. Shaw's location in the heart of downtown Stowe has been an important factor in the store's longevity.

Strolling through Shaw's General Store in the year 2000 is surely a different experience from the one patrons must have had in 1895, when the Stowe establish-ment opened its doors on Main Street. Back then, customers could purchase everything from a can of paint to a spool of thread, or a cut of beef to a tractor. Today, Shaw's still bills itself as "The Store With Most Everything," though it's no longer a general store in the traditional sense of the word because it doesn't sell groceries. Casual clothing, footwear, novelty gift items, and some sporting goods are staples of the business today. What hasn't changed, however, is the family that owns and operates the 105-year-old institution.

The sign hanging above the store's entrance pays homage to the original owner, Howard E. Shaw. When he died of polio in 1924, his son, Gale Shaw Sr., took over the business and ran it until his death in 1964. By that time, Ken Savela, Gale Shaw's son-in-law, was already smitten by the retail bug. He began working as a salesperson and a buyer in 1960, right after completing three years of service in the U.S. Air Force. "It was put up for bids when my father died," says Ann, Ken's wife, "but we didn't have the money to buy it." For two years, Ann's sister, Barbara, owned the store, selling it to Ken and Ann in 1966. "My sister and her husband cosigned the notes for us so we could purchase it," Ann recalls. Barbara's husband, Hilton Wick, was president of Chittenden Trust at the time.

For 34 years, the Savelas have been at Shaw's helm "eight days a week," wisely bending with the trends of the times. Half of the store was an IGA when they took it over a side of the business that didn't appeal to Ken. "I didn't like selling cans of peas and having someone steal a can, and there went your profit," he remarks. Coincidentally, an IGA representative came into the store one day and asked Ken if he liked the grocery business. "I said, 'No,'" Ken remembers with simplicity, "and he said, 'Would you mind if we opened up an IGA store nearby?' I said, 'No,' and in '69 we closed down the food shop."

Irene Parsons has been Shaw's bookkeeper for 36 years. She feels fortunate to work for the Savelas. "They've always been supportive," she says.

They began to concentrate on developing Shaw's into a sporting goods store and proudly state that they were Stowe's first ski shop and Vermont's first snowboard dealer. However, due to limited space and increasing competition from the plethora of sporting goods shops that began springing up on the Mountain Road, the Savelas shifted their inventory in the mid-1970s to the inventory they maintain today. "We're probably the best boot or shoe store in Stowe," offers Ann, "and we sell lots of T-shirts, sweatshirts, parkas, socks, and men's and women's underwear people can come in here and get fully clothed."

The Savelas rely on Stowe's many annual visitors to make their business thrive. "Stowe is a destination community," explains Ken. "It's a hotbed right now." The Savelas say business has been booming for several years, a fact that they attribute to the economy and to the town's many special events, but even more to the advent of snowmaking. "Winter is still our busiest time," says Ken.

"One winter before there was snowmaking," Ann chimes in, "we had to mark our parkas at half price on January 1st because we'd had such a mild Christmas that nobody came." She adds that fall business has also improved over the last 10 years due to the increase in motorcoach tours.

"Location, location, location," injects Ken with a smile, asserting his belief that Shaw's presence in the heart of Stowe's downtown can't be overlooked as another reason for the store's longevity.

Peter Dresser, a longtime friend of the Savelas who has filled in at the store during the winter months, seems to see it a little differently. "They've worked like dogs over the years. They've put in long hours," he says, "and Ken just loves that store. It's his domain. They're probably going to have to carry him out of there."

Anne-Marie Stevens, Ken and Ann's daughter, manages the store. "In the future, I see the store as pretty much the same, but I'd like to reduce the inventory and do a little bit of reconstruction to update the appearance," she says.

Ann acknowledges that her husband's friendliness has been an important feature at Shaw's. "He's the personality kid; I'm the backdrop," she notes.

Ken explains, "I just like talking to the customers. I like asking them where they're from, why they're here, and where they're going next."

Another of the 66-year-old's loves is locating unusual items that pique customers' interests. Though Ken and Ann have passed major responsibilities like buying to their daughter, Anne-Marie, who now manages the store, Ken still delights in discovering the occasional novelty item. Opening up a $10 package of Billy Bob false teeth, the Massachusetts native inserts the denture-like device into his mouth and smiles. With a mouthful of crooked and missing teeth, he exclaims, "See, these are funny. They get people talking about the store. I had to send six of these to Australia."

Purchasing clearly activates his playfulness, but the task was also a challenge for Ken in years past. "Keeping up with the styles and the fads was the most difficult part," he admits.

Ann agrees, but for a different reason. "The worst part was the buying," she explains. "If one of us bought something that didn't sell, then we'd get angry at each other." For Ann, the best part of the business is the security of being "completely solvent.

"Ken is the one who interacts with the customers, but I'm the one who pays attention to the finances. That's the part that interests me the money," she laughs.

"I couldn't care less," quips Ken, utterly serious.

The two met in Burlington in 1955, while attending the University of Vermont. Ken was working nights at The Ski Shop, a store owned by Ann's sister, Barbara Wick. (Three years older than her husband, Ann had graduated from UVM in 1953). "We met in December of '55, were pinned in February, engaged in April, and married in June of '56," Ann recalls. "He was going into the service, and the most important thing to him was getting his wings he didn't want any encumbrances. So I said, 'Fine, you go and if I'm here when you come back, fine.' And so he said, 'O.K. Let's get married.'"

They have four grown daughters and six grandchildren. Though Ann admits that she is ready to retire, Ken is not. "I'm still here because I like it," he says. "I like being here to open up in the morning, and I like having my coffee across the street with the boys." Still, there will likely come a day when the two pass the torch to their second daughter.

"Anne-Marie doesn't quite have the time yet because her boys are still young," Ann explains, "and with the economy doing so well, there's a real shortage of help." Thus, Ann can often be found working the cash register or overseeing finances upstairs with Irene Parsons, the store's bookkeeper of 36 years.

Depending on the season, the store maintains between seven and 12 employees, several of whom have worked for the Savelas for more than 15 years. While Ken and Ann emphasize that there is a connection between their good fortune and the devotion of their staff, Parsons feels the staff is fortunate to work for the Savelas. "They've seen me through many personal crises," she says. "I've had six broken bones and other illnesses, and they've always been so good. They've never been angry or cross if I couldn't come in. They've always been supportive." Ken explains why. "We're a team," he says. "It's all about teamwork."

Some might have expected that a small family business like Shaw's would not survive the onslaught of massive retail chains popping up at every turn, but Ken says chains haven't hurt his business one bit. "They actually help us by getting people in the buying mood," he speculates. Moreover, he adds, "We have the more unusual items, the better selection, and the more quality products."

Products, for sure, are not in short supply at Shaw's. Every crevice of the store contains merchandise. "Our cheapest item is a 5-cent piece of maple taffy," Ken says, "and our most expensive is a $500 Callaway golf club." Priscilla Bowen, who worked at Shaw's many years ago and has been friends with the Savelas since 1956, appreciates the wealth of merchandise that can be found at the store.

"You could spend two hours looking in there and not see everything they have. It's always jam-packed," she chuckles.

"People say that it's like a museum," says Ann. "You can't see everything the first time around."

Dresser understands the reason. "Ken," he says warmly, "has never gotten rid of anything in his life. When I was working there, I'd throw something out, and he'd go back in the trash and rummage for it. He'd say, 'You never know when somebody might need that.'

"When somebody comes into the store," Dresser continues, "and says, 'I've got a new pool table, but my cues are broken,' Ken loves that he's got them. It may take him a moment to find them, but one of the charming things about the store is that customers love to help you find stuff."

"My father is a bit of a clutter bug," admits Anne-Marie Stevens, who is waiting until Shaw's is hers alone to make changes. "In the future, I see the store as pretty much the same, but I'd like to reduce the inventory and do a little bit of reconstruction to update the appearance." What would update the store most is a computerized inventory system, as Shaw's still keeps track of all its merchandise with pen and paper. "We run out of things, and I think they could be stocked more efficiently," Anne-Marie says, "but my father won't allow it. Resistance to change, I guess."

Nonetheless, the 40-year-old divorced mother says she loves her work. As the store's primary buyer, she travels to Boston and Salt Lake City a few times a year to do one of her favorite things. "I get paid to shop. Not many women can say that," she jokes. Like her father, she also enjoys conversing with the store's many customers. "It's easy to talk to people in this business because they're generally happy. They're on vacation, so they're in a good mood. I find that uplifting," she notes.

One of Anne-Marie's concerns about the store she will someday inherit is the town in which it is located. "The Stowe Mountain Resort expansion plans are critical for our business," she says. "We need updated facilities, but number one we need snowmaking. Without it, people aren't going to come." Her concern is fueled by the fact that the snowmaking plans that have been in effect the last 10 years are expiring this year, and new plans have yet to be approved. On the Stowe Area Association's board of trustees, Anne-Marie is keenly aware of the crucial role tourism plays in her family's business. "Stowe's accommodations are passé," she says. "The other ski resorts are much more updated, but development plans keep getting shot down here by environmental groups and Act 250."

Her concern for the financial bottom line will likely intensify once Ann retires. "It will be a transition," admits Anne-Marie, who is content to leave the financial details in her mother's and Parsons' experienced hands. "I've always kind of put it off; I've always felt like I was never in any rush to jump into that level of stress," she says.

"It'll be O.K.," her mother reassures her. "Irene will still be here." While Ann will happily step aside and pass Shaw's General Store on to a fourth generation, it is hard to imagine that her husband will exit quite as gracefully.

Sitting on a stool in the offices located just above the store, Ken is chomping at the bit to get back to his domain, where his daughter is now manning the floor. "Is it time for me to leave? I'm getting nervous," he concedes with a chuckle. "I've got to get down there and watch what's going on. Anne-Marie's moving my stuff around, and I want to know where she puts it!" •