January 27, 2018

Touches of Spag’s at Whole Foods a classy move

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The paint on the walls, and the produce in the bins, will be as fresh as can be when the new Whole Foods opens in Shrewsbury this Tuesday. There will be fanfare and excitement. It’s been a long wait.

But for many, the feeling will be bittersweet.

On this very spot stood the sprawling, folksy, bustling mainstay that served the community as completely as a store possible could.

For seven decades, until the early 2000s, Spag’s set the standard.

The clerks were helpful and cheerful; and the prices — shown in black marker or on neon-orange stickers — more than fair.

There were “no bags at Spag’s,” as one of its slogans bragged — and not a lot of nonsense, either. You came in, got what you needed, greeted your neighbors, browsed for treasures and got out of there. Your arms were probably loaded and your spirits a little lifted, visit after visit.

Remember the pneumatic tubes? The crammed bulletin boards? The free tomato plants and steaming hot dog cart?

Spag’s, which started from scratch during the Depression as a hardware seller, grew and thrived because of owner and founder Anthony “Spag” Borgatti’s practicality, hard work and big heart.

We are pleased that Whole Foods is heralding his legacy — and not subtly, either. The new Shrewsbury store, anchor of the Lakeway Commons development on Route 9, obtained Spag’s items from Lakeway Commons’ developer, Grossman Developer Group of Southborough. Now some of these original, once-familiar pieces are seeing the light of day again.

A massive blue, vertical “SPAGS” marquee inside the store is not a reproduction but the real deal. People can grab their organic pears and other modern wares, perhaps recalling the elbow-to-elbow rummaging along “the ramp” they enjoyed around that same spot, years ago.

In addition to a few such pieces from the past, Whole Foods has incorporated other tributes to Spag’s and the family that ran it. Borgatti’s wife, Olive — who died in 1990, six years before her husband, and was a business whiz in her own right — is the inspiration for the “Olive’s Flower Shop” sign over the blossoms. Photos deck the walls and a spacious eating and drinking area is dubbed “Borgatti’s Bar.” The designer of the decor, Whole Foods’ Jason Boutwell from Billerica, said he remembers shopping at Spag’s as a youngster with his dad.

The grocery store opening Jan. 30 will be gleaming and sun-filled, while looks were not Spag’s strong point. Whole Foods is a chain, now owned by Amazon, and appeals to the well-heeled. Spag’s was a homegrown, pennywise mishmash. The differences between then and now are undeniable.

But certain values endure, or should. Spag’s succeeded because it gave great service and value, consistently and in a congenial atmosphere. It was lively, could be counted on for interesting finds and surprises, and most of all was an integral part of the community. Quietly, Spag’s Supply supported the town library, paid for food at town funerals, and otherwise built reserves of love and respect that last to this day.

That store is from a simpler time, and held on to its core strengths even while changes — big-box stores, the internet — drew dollars to other places. Spag’s was famously slow to adopt credit card purchasing, shopping carts, plastic bags and Sunday hours. It was usually the basics such as batteries, soup and socks that got folks in the door, but the store was extraordinary. Somehow, it made chore shopping into happy work.

If Whole Foods can capture an ounce of the priceless community feeling tied to that spot, and keep it going — well, that would be something. That’d be Spagtacular.

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