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The Spag's Mentality

Jim Magay
Jim Magay

Spag's was, from 1934 to 2004, a discount department store on Route 9 in Shrewsbury, Mass. The store was considered an early pioneer of discount retailing and was notable for its longtime resistance to accepting charge cards (cash only until 1992) and offering plastic shopping bags (late 1996) and shopping carts (introduced in 1998).

The term "Spag's mentality" was coined to describe the thrifty mindset found among the store's customers. Depending on the context it is used in, it can carry a positive or negative connotation. One example of the Spag's mentality is the sheer number of shoppers that would visit for the store's annual spring tomato seedling giveaway. Beginning in 1957, the store would give 25 tomato seedlings to visitors; in 1985, the store gave away one million seedlings. The prices of many goods at Spag's were written on them in indelible black Magic Marker, and another aspect of the Spag's mentality was to display the handwritten price proudly, as proof of one's resourcefulness as a shopper.

It is fitting that Spag –AKA Anthony Borgatti, would open his emporium next to Worcester – a blue-collar city that values thrift and a “deal” above all else.

It might be said that the “Spag’s Mentality” is really the “Worcester Mentality” for there has never been a place quite like Worcester for doing business. I have reliably been told by many business people that if you can be successful in Worcester you would have been three times as successful anywhere else!

But I digress, Spag was a customer of ours, He was a small man, very profane in his language, always wore Dickie’s khakis and a 10-gallon cowboy hat. (When he came into our store I always looked around to be sure there weren’t too many ladies within earshot.) His grasp of business was legendary. It was said the Harvard “B” school would send delegations of students and case writers out to Shrewsbury to study Spag’s methods. (No doubt leading to the proliferation of Big Box stores all over America)

It happened that Spag always wore an American Optical rimless frame, yellow gold orbal or numont shape – can’t recall which. Cable temples 6 1/2 long. Every so often one would break and in he would come. By now the frames were quite discontinued – or as some manufacturers would have it, “retired”. I remembered a drawer in the back room with a treasure trove of old parts, so this particular day I matched up a set of temples and installed them – now you must realize these were brand new, 40 year old temples, my grandfather paid maybe .60 cents for a pair. What do you charge for them today? (Today being in the 1990’s) Feeling magnanimous I said to our illustrious customer, “there will be no charge for those”.

I can still hear his outrage at my temerity for offering him what he termed “charity”. He lectured me on the evils of giving my livelihood away, and nothing I could say swayed him to the idea this was just a simple act of human kindness.

I mention this story because it resonates so nicely with the article last month by Anthony Record on “Ending Free Service.”

Spag and Anthony would have gotten along great, and who knows – they both are probably right – but how do we change our ingrained behavior?

Jim, “I’m Baffled” Magay

Jim Magay

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