AMHERST — AJ Hastings, a third-generation retail store that has been a cornerstone of downtown Amherst since it opened in 1914, will close next month.
A large closing announcement hung in the front window on Friday. Inside, store owners Mary Louise Broll and Sharon Povinelli, who are married, said they were looking forward to traveling and focusing on their hobbies – activities that often take a back seat to running a business open every day of the year. The two own the building and said they were looking for tenants to occupy the space.
“I’m a little relieved,” Povinelli said Friday, standing in a back room of the store filled with notebooks. Years before, workers used to stack newspapers ready for delivery on the same counter where she sat. “Extremely sad,” Broll added, standing next to his wife. “This store has been a big part of our lives and our family.”
AJ Hastings has been a downtown anchor for generations on South Pleasant Street, opposite the town common. For many, it was where they got their daily newspaper, chatted with neighbors, or worked their first job as a clerk or paperboy.
“Hastings has survived two world wars and two pandemics,” City Manager Paul Bockelman said. “It’s a great loss for the city.”
Bockelman also pointed to the fact that most of the store’s employees have worked in the “mom-and-pop” boutique for several decades.
“The people who work there are the ones we will miss,” he said. “It hurts my heart.”
The store has been in the Hastings family since 1914, although it has been around for much longer.
In 1849, a man named Mirick Spear opened a shop on the corner of North Pleasant and Main streets, according to company history. His store, called Spear’s, moved and changed hands several times before Asa J. Hastings purchased the stationery and newsstand business on July 17, 1914. In 1937 it moved to its current location, anchoring the business block on what is known as Merchant’s Row. .
Asa and his wife, Maude, ran the store and their sons ran the paper rounds and did other chores. A son, Donald Hastings, took over the family business in 1953 and ran the store until his son David Hastings took over in 1982.
In 1997, David Hastings was hit and killed by a car while cycling home from work shortly after Christmas. Broll, his wife, took over running the place and raised the couple’s two sons, Sam and Ben. Povinelli, who started out as a store clerk, married Broll in 2009.
The store has been open every day since it opened, regardless of the weather or day. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, AJ Hastings shut down, as did other businesses.
“That’s when you knew the pandemic was real — when Hastings first closed for real,” Bockelman said.
In addition to carrying office and school supplies, the store maintained a close, albeit informal, relationship with Amherst College, carrying college merchandise as well as extensive UMass Amherst college equipment. Povinelli said unlike most other stores, AJ Hastings does everything in-house, from payroll to accounts payable. “That kind of business doesn’t really exist like that anymore,” she said.
That’s part of the reason the couple decided to close up shop – it would be difficult to train other people to run the business, and their children don’t live in town to take over. Things have also changed over the years. They said the store deals directly with suppliers, buying directly from the source.
“And then mergers, acquisitions, spin-offs,” Povinelli said. Soon companies were asking them to order a certain amount of products just to talk to them.
Then other changes happened. “Staples are coming, CVS is coming,” Povinelli said, as Broll finished his sentence: “And then the Internet.”
Many have described the closure as the end of an era at Amherst. Stanley Rabinowitz, a professor at Amherst College who moved to the city 49 years ago, described the closure as “terrible news”.
“It’s the last place that remains of the old institutions of Amherst,” he said. “It was as much a place to chat and catch up on local news as it was to shop…I literally can’t imagine what this city would be like without it.”
Local developer Barry Roberts, chairman of the Amherst Business Improvement District, said the store and its owners “will be greatly missed.”
“I think both owners deserve to retire and there’s no one to take over the reins,” Roberts said.
Shopping in the store on Friday was Susan Varnot, who now lives in California but grew up in the area. She said coming to AJ Hastings is an essential stop whenever she’s back in town – the one place she’s sure to find everything from sheet music paper to beloved National-brand notebooks.
“This place has been there forever,” Varnot said. “It feels good to be able to walk into a place… I always know that I can find something that I won’t find in a chain store.”
Dusty Christensen can be contacted at [email protected]