Jim Shulman | Baby Boomer Memories: When (S&J) Variety was the spice of life
After World War II, the Morningside section of Pittsfield was the most vibrant neighborhood shopping area in Pittsfield beyond North Street. I spent much of my youth and teen years in the heart of Morningside as my dad opened what is now Jim's House of Shoes there in 1946. In 1950, Tyler Street and Woodlawn Avenue were home to 70 businesses, four churches, a cinema, a branch library and, of course, the General Electric Co.
Among the businesses, there were seven variety stores, and these were my favorite Morningside destinations as a youngster. Many weeks, I spent my 25-cent allowance, plus earned money, to purchase sweets, comic books, baseball cards, toys and plastic models. Two of my favorite spots were Kirk's Variety (still operating) and S&J Variety Store. The latter was a much bigger store with more diverse offerings.
S&J Variety began as the Glenwood Confectionary Store in the late 1920s. It was so named as it was at Glenwood Avenue, but in 1935, the store moved up to 640 Tyler St. In 1947, two brothers, Samuel and Jason "Jay" Katz, bought this variety store, replete with a lunch counter. In 1950, the Katz brothers received the right to operate a postal station, and the store soon became the most popular Morningside variety store. Since the location was no longer at Glenwood Avenue, in 1954, the brothers changed the store's name. It became S&J Variety, the initials of the owners.
Samuel, his wife, Sylvia, and two children, and Jason, his wife, Ruth, and son, all worked in the family business and provided great service. Morningside was a second home to the Katz kids whose families lived in the south end of Pittsfield. The kids worked in the store in high school and college summers.
Jason's son, Bill, recalled his dad's love of fresh doughnuts and how he wanted to sell them at the store. Jason was at a trade show and was sold on an automatic doughnut-making machine that could make 37 dozen doughnuts an hour! He bought a Belshaw Donut Robot that is still made today without much changes in 50 years. Although the variety store had a busy lunch counter, the doughnut business never took off and was ended in five years. The robot was sold to Bonanza in Coltsville Corners.
Perhaps one of the most successful additions to the store was the sale of lottery tickets.
S&J had several noteworthy winners over the years since the inception of the lottery. People buying tickets at the store included winners of $1.75 million, $1 million and $650,000, and as recently as October 2011, the store sold a winning $100,000 ticket.
Eventually, Sam and Jason bought the entire building in which the store was located and expanded to fill half of it with toys. But in the 1960s, as retail toy business waned due to big-box stores, this part of the store was repurposed to sell greeting cards.
In the 1960s, another Katz brother, Henry, opened his own variety store, Katz's Korner, at 697 North St., across from Berkshire Medical Center. Samuel and Jason helped get him started, but his operation was totally independent.
Samuel retired from S&J in 1986 and moved to Florida. He died at age 80 in 2001. His wife, Sylvia, now lives in Ohio, near their daughter, Lynn. Jason's wife, Ruth, had passed away in 1988, but he continued to run the business on his own until he sold it in 1996 to Deborah and Joseph Boldyga.
In that fiscal year, Jason sold a record number of lottery tickets totaling $1,692,744. After selling the store, he worked for a few years at Home Depot. Jason died in 2011, at age 82. In June 2014, S&J Variety Store, one of the longest Morningside businesses, became the short-lived Mezzie's Variety and Luncheonette. With the projected redevelopment of Morningside, many await the rebirth of a family variety store just like S&J's, where youngsters can have great future memories, as I have.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.
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