Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: Remembering the Giftos' contributions to Berkshire business

As a youngster living on Holmes Road, I would often ride my bike down to the Giftos Store at 221 Elm St. It was the neighborhood place to get comics, candy and baseball cards that we'd flip to win or lose with other grade-school kids.

The variety store was started in 1941 when Greek immigrant Charles (Constantine) Giftos leased a vacant building at 222 Elm St. and called his store Elm Street Confectionary. It is now the home of Berkshire Hills Coins & Estate Jewelry Shop and two other businesses.

Charles' five sons, all recent World War II veterans, joined their dad in the business. By 1946 the variety store outgrew its space and the family needed a larger store. They acquired an old icehouse directly across the street at 221 Elm and hired contractor Peter Francese to build a larger store on the site. The new building nearly cut off the entrance to Pittsfield's Deming Park. It had been said that city leaders "kicked themselves" for turning down a $500 price tag to buy the property a few years earlier.

Now named the Giftos Store, the successful business enabled the entrepreneurial family to consider other ventures. Two years later in 1948, Charles and his sons bought the wholesale candy and sundries business from their supplier, Pittsfield's Kaufman Brothers (who went on to build KB Toys). The Giftos family rented space at 37 Bradford St. for their new venture.

Charles retired after the purchase, and sons Sarantos, Arthur and John took over the new wholesale enterprise called Giftos Brothers. Their brother, Bill, managed the Elm Street store until Peter, the youngest brother, completed college and took his turn. But as the wholesale operations continued to grow, the brothers sold the Giftos Store in 1955 to a local couple, Larry and Martha Palmer. For the past 63 years the Palmer family has operated the same store that they had renamed Palmer's Variety Store.

In the 1950s, Giftos Brothers expanded the business with vending operations that included food, snacks and drinks and moved operations to 52 Summer St. In the 1960s, the Giftos Brothers leadership changed as Sarantos, the company president, unexpectedly passed away, Arthur retired and John relocated to Florida.

Bill took over as president and Peter became the CEO. By the 1970s Peter assumed the role of both president and CEO.

During the 1960s and '70s, Giftos Brothers bought out competitors in wholesale sundries, and vending operations. These included Pittsfield's Dearstyne Brothers, Joslen Wholesale in Hudson, N.Y., and the J.F. Collins Wholesale Co. in North Adams.

The family business expanded its warehouse to add more office space and a catalog showroom. The next generation of the Giftos Family entered the growing business with family members managing various company enterprises including a catalog show room in the Allendale Shopping Center. In the late 1980s, Peter was elected president of the 2,000-member National Association of Tobacco Distributors.

Giftos Brothers had become the major regional wholesaler of confections and sundries with some 80 employees. However, according to Peter, in the 1990s, their business could not match the low prices or expensive technologies of the national chains like Costco, BJ's and Walmart that were entering the region. The local company that started as a variety store closed its doors in 1994 after 53 years of operation. Peter Giftos shared that this was a difficult move for the organization as employees were like family members.

Over the years many members of the Giftos family became recognized for their contributions to the community. Charles and his sons had leadership roles in many civic and benevolent organizations such as the Rotary Club, Civitan, the Berkshire Family YMCA and Berkshire County ARC. Peter was founder and president of Civitan and is still very active in the community at age 90.

(Many thanks to Peter for sharing some of his favorite memories of Giftos Brothers.)

Jim Shulman, a Pittsfield native living in Ohio, is the author of "Berkshire Memories: A Baby Boomer Looks Back at Growing Up in Pittsfield." If you have a memory of a Berkshire baby-boom landmark, business or event you'd like to share or read about, please write Jim at jesjmskali@aol.com.


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