By Michael Perna Jr., Contributing Writer
SHREWSBURY – For more than fifty years, “Spag’s” was a colorful discount store known throughout New England. The business was started in 1936 by Anthony “Spag” (his nickname due to his fondness for spaghetti) Borgatti using $25 that he borrowed from his mother. Initially, he operated out of part of a large building on Route 9 in Shrewsbury that was owned by his family. At the time, “Spag” was only 18 years old.
Expansion over the years
The business started out selling car batteries, tires, oil and some other items, mostly due to the business being located on the then fairly new Route 9 and the volume of traffic passing by. It eventually grew larger and larger until it became a huge retail complex. Several nearby buildings were bought and turned into specialty type shops for the main store.
These buildings included the Garden Shop, which had been a private residence on Baker Avenue, that was expanded into the main parking lot; the Christmas Shop, which previously had housed part of the Frongillo Lumber Company on Route 9; the Sport Shop, which had previously housed an Italian restaurant; and “Spag’s Schoolhouse,” which was located in what had been the Ward School. In addition, the main store itself, which originally housed a trucking company, was expanded several times over the years.
Borgatti was also renowned for starring in the TV commercials filmed at the store. Clad in his trademark cowboy hat and khaki work shirt, he welcomed people to visit, and dispensed folksy advice in his strong Boston accent, ending with the tag line, “And you’ll always save money!”
Former customers will surely remember “The Ramp,” which connected the original store and the area that had many cash registers facing the main parking lot. “Door 10” was also a well-known stop used for picking up orders. A further addition was built which allowed tractor trailers to unload directly into the store, this being built on land “traded” to the town for property on Maple Avenue, which has been used as soccer fields ever since.
A large warehouse facility was housed in the former Chelmsford Ginger Ale building on Maple Avenue. The gates at the Route 9 entrance to this long-vacant facility still have two large cowboy hat-shaped metal decorations on them, the “ten-gallon hat” being something he was rarely seen in public without.
In the years shortly before the business closed, an expansion was attempted. A Spag’s store was opened in the Springfield area but did not prove successful.
After initially selling automotive supplies, Spag’s expanded into items like fishing gear, sporting equipment, tools and hardware. Later on, the business would sell almost anything imaginable―everything from shoes and clothing to toys, hardware, household goods, gardening equipment and plants. Other traditions associated with Spag’s included free tomato plants given away in the spring and oranges (Spag reportedly owned an orange grove in Florida where the oranges were grown).
Legacy lives on
After the death of Borgatti (in 1996) and his wife Olive, their daughters took over the business for a number of years until it finally closed in 2003. The building was used as a Building 19 store for a few more years, until it was finally sold and torn down. Today the Lakeway Commons complex is located on the site. The legacy of Spag’s lives on however. The Whole Foods Market there proudly displays the original, restored neon “Spag’s” sign inside the store. In addition, a restaurant on the upper level of the store is known as the “Borgatti Bar” and displays several photographs of the original business. A monument was also erected in the shopping complex, honoring Spag and his legacy―a metal ten-gallon hat graces the top of the structure.
To say that Borgatti and his family left a lasting impression on the town of Shrewsbury is an understatement. He was known as a generous man, donating large amounts of money to various causes throughout the area. Examples of his generosity include picking up the cost of “mercy” meals for town residents that passed away, donating a bookmobile to the Shrewsbury Public Library, and supporting town families that were in need. One memory that stands out in the mind of this writer illustrates how Borgatti operated. In the early 1960s, a member of the Shrewsbury Fire Department passed away suddenly right before Christmas, leaving behind his wife and young children.
Spag contacted my father, who was a lifelong friend and also a fireman. He told him to come to the store and pick out as many toys as he wanted to give to the deceased fireman’s children. At the time I was about twelve years old. I went to Spag’s with him on that cold December night, helped load the toys into his car, and brought them to the children. The cries of happiness of the children and the tears of joy from the fireman’s widow remain a touching memory even today.