Core of New England life

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By Brian Goslow

BOSTON —

Vanderhoof Hardware still has the same phone number  — and two rotary phones — it’s had since its doors opened in 1904. “You could drive nails with them they’re so heavy,” said Bill Klauer of the phones. Klauer, 68, has worked at the downtown Concord landmark on and off for 31 years. “They’ve been on the floor a few times over the years,” he continued, “but it’s pretty durable equipment.”

Just like the business, which has to compete against the big box competitors that have made it harder for family-run operations to stay in business. Fourth generation owner Scott Vanderhoof, 56, has worked at the store for 40 years, taking charge in 1995.

It’s the knowledge and experience of the people working at Vanderhoof’s that keep customers coming back and new ones coming in. “We’ve got customers that are just kids and we’ve got others who are in their 90s and have been coming since they were kids,” Klauer said.

“Scott and the staff are an amazing resource for helping you get what you need,” said longtime customer Steve Golson. “They are local, approachable and have an amazing inventory. And they aren’t afraid to send you to another store if they don’t carry it. But I bet they do.”

Golson usually shops for small hardware items, such as crews and bolts, as well as light bulbs, electrical parts, hand tools and batteries. He has also used Vanderhoof to repair window screens, electric lights and fans. “Where else can you get that sort of work done?” he asked.

Every customer is treated the same, no matter what they’re looking for. “You got to love a store that is happy to spend 20 minutes finding you the exact right screw and making a sale of only 20 cents,” said Terry Golson, Steve’s wife.

“The big challenge today is people want smaller quantities,” Klauer said. “The whole packaging industry’s changed. We used to sell everything piecemeal. Now it comes pre-packaged. People want to buy five and they have to buy 20.”

It also has gotten harder for the store to find some items. “A lot of products have changed because needs have changed,” Klauer said. “We still try and get stuff we carried for years that are being discontinued.”

Vanderhoof’s prefers to sell items that won’t have to be replaced a few years down the line. “If it doesn’t stand up to punishment, we don’t want to even carry it,” Klauer said.

Offering “America’s Best Crunchin’ Apples Since 1778,” the Dowse family has run Dowse Orchards in Sherborn for over 200 years. Since 1853, it’s operated a cider mill and its apple presses, in operation since 1947, bring visitors from throughout the region to buy Dowse’s cider.

Alex Dowse, who is in his 60s and runs the farm with his brother, Jon, who is in his 50s, has a pretty good idea what keeps people coming back year after year.

“There’s a link with the past and as society becomes more mobile, people kind of look to the things that send them back to when times were simpler,” Alex Dowse said. “The other aspect of it is the open space and the alternative (it gives them) to what they face every day.”

Working on the farm has been Dowse’s full-time job for more than 40 years. “I took over running the farm from my dad, who passed away in 1989,” he said. “My grandfather had bought some of the extra land that we use today. You can go back to Revolutionary times on some of these acres.”

Dowse said the thing that drives and motivates him on a daily basis is the ability to be on the land and work it, keeping it looking the way that pleases him. “I like the physical work of raising a crop,” he said. “I’m doing the same work I did 30 years ago. It helps keep you young, I guess. I don’t know what the future’s going to hold in that respect. It’s not a business you buy into very easily.”

During the growing season, when he works a seven-day week, no less than 10 hours a day, he gets to experience things on a daily basis others sometimes only experience once in a lifetime. “I’ve got a hillside with a 20 mile view where the sun rises on one side and sets on the other,” Dowse said. “We might be out there before daybreak, we might be there after dark, and we get to experience all of that.”

His help has changed over the years; where apple pickers used to stay on for 20, 25 years, they now leave after only a few years.

He doesn’t know if the next generation of Dowses will follow in his footsteps. “My brother has young kids but at this point, you don’t know what their interest is going to be or anything else,” Dowse said. “That’s another 10 years away till they’re ready to make a decision in that respect. We’re going to continue to operate under the plan that this place will be here in the future. We just don’t know under what circumstance it will be.”

Tech Pizza has been a mainstay of Worcester’s Highland Street area for over two decades, serving the surrounding neighborhoods and college campuses alike. “There’s no heavy job here,” said owner Paul Bitzas, 62. “(What’s tough) is the hours. I come in early and make the dough, I cut the bread.”

As of late, he’s been joined in the evenings by his son, Michael, 32, who has been working, on and off, with him since Tech Pizza’s opening. The younger Bitzas said his father has taught him how to run the business from top to bottom — and how to deal with customers.

“Many of them have become friendly acquaintances, even friends,” Michael Bitzas said. “It’s fun to be involved with everybody in the neighborhood.”

Over the years, new eateries have opened in the immediate area, including two restaurant-like facilities at nearby WPI; the school used to provide the majority of Tech Pizza’s customers.

Still, filled with pictures and mementos of WPI football teams and fraternities from the 20 plus years Bitzas has been in business, the restaurant’s walls feel like a shrine to the school.

Recently, a customer was looking intently at one of the pictures. “She was the wife of one of the players from the 1991 WPI football team,” Bitzas said, “and she called her husband and said, ‘Your picture’s on the wall at the place where I’m eating.’ ”

The walls also feature postcards and souvenirs customers have sent from around the world: a photo of a pizza-eating regular in Bulgaria; a Real Madrid banner from Spain and a sombrero from Mexico. One of the most cherished gifts came from a former customer who was on a U.S. Air Force carrier docked in Greece — a warm reminder of all the times Paul Bitzas had told him about his homeland, which he left in 1974 to come to Worcester.

His biggest order ever came from WPI’s Theta Chi fraternity — 200 pizzas for a Super Bowl featuring the New England Patriots; the fraternity brothers had invited their families to watch the game with them on the frat house’s big screen TV. “I was here at 4 o’clock in the morning making pizzas,” Bitzas said. “The next week, people kept coming in asking me how did I ever make 200 pizzas.”

Those days of making even 100 pizzas when the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl are gone. “Now it’s down to two or three,” Bitzas said. “They don’t have the money.”

Bitzas knows that his — and his son’s — face is the key to his business’ survival. The customers not only come for the food, but a warm, familiar, greeting. “The people like to see the same face,” he said. “If you change people, you lose that.”

He did make one concession to his seven-day-a-week schedule, in recent years, however. He now closes on Sundays during the summer months, due to there being little business activity and so he can spend time on the beach with his wife and granddaughter.

Despite nearing the traditional retirement age, Bitzas has no plans to stop serving his customers anytime soon. “What else am I doing to do?” he mused.

That’s fine with son Michael, who’s not sure if his own long-term career plans include taking over the business. “It’s been a part of the community for a long time,” he said. “I’d hate to see it leave.”