The late Norman Fain, one of the principal owners of the Apex stores, would only occasionally visit his properties. Most times it would be at night about an hour or so before closing. Mr. Fain was a quiet, unassuming man and I think very few of his employees even knew who he was as he wandered the aisles dressed in a conservative, grey suit with a fedora perched on his head.
“Good evening, Mr. Fain.” I said as he entered the major appliance department in his downtown Pawtucket store where I worked part time after my Army discharge in 1971 and my return to college.
I continued, “I had couple in today who said they were great friends of yours.”
Mr. Fain half smiled, looked at my name tag, there was no reason he’d know my name, and replied, “Well, Jim, if I had all the friends who claim they are my friends when they come here to buy something, I’d be broke by now.”
“Keep up the good work.” he intoned as he headed for the garden shop.
These days I think of this, and many other memories, every time I drive past the rusting pyramid, the stain splotched facade and the unkempt grounds of the present, sad iteration of the once iconic Apex Pawtucket store.
My family, and I suspect many other local families, had a long history tied in with the Apex store evolution. Both my parents worked at the original Central Avenue location.
My Father in the appliance department (apple and tree analogy) and my Mother as an office assistant in the 1960’s.
My first job when I became old enough to work was in the product pick up warehouse. One of our many duties was bicycle assembly. To break the monotony of this boring task we devised a “test track” to assure the quality of our work. We built multiple ramps by angling shipping pallets propped up on mattresses and we’d ride pell mell over this course with tires squealing on the concrete floor. One afternoon a much older supervisor, perhaps back from a liquid lunch, ramped things up by constructing a circle of fire for us to jump through! So, if you received a singed bike for Christmas from Apex in the 1960’s now you know why.
Despite these shenanigans I was promoted and at 17 wound up as a salesman in the men’s clothing department. I was a very shy teenager and my first customer was a stunningly beautiful young woman who I guessed to be in her early twenties. I was so tongue tied I barely was able to answer her questions. She was buying an assortment of shirts and ties for her boyfriend. I was bedazzled! Who knew such angelic creatures existed? My nerves were so frayed during this, my first retail sales transaction, I could not even get her selection into the Apex shopping bag. With profound patience, and I believe a bit of humor, she helped me arrange the gifts to fit the bags.
During the next few years the Apex empire expanded with new stores and I managed to gain some maturity and much needed confidence. College and Uncle Sam intervened and yet, as noted above, I once again turned to Apex after my Army stint for a perfect part time job while finishing college. In fact it was while working in the major appliance department of the Warwick location that I was recruited by a wholesale distribution company and a long, satisfying marketing and sales career was launched.
So the dilapidated Pawtucket shell of my former employer, much in the news this past year, saddens me. The sorrowful condition allowed by present owner Andrew Gates, grandson of the Apex corporation founder Albert Pilavin, remains a blemish which makes more difficult the daunting task of revitalizing Pawtucket. Larry Lucchino, CEO of the Pawtucket Red Sox recently described Mr. Gates as, “ ..a stubborn owner.”
The Apex stores were always impeccably maintained, customer friendly and the Fain family were generous philanthropist. All of this is now destroyed. Mr. Fain, who passed
in 2003, would not be pleased. Neither are the many former employees of this once cherished institution.
The ballpark proposal failed. The city is talking about purchasing the Apex site for future development. Let’s hope the parcel becomes something to be proud of and the obstinance of one man does not prevail.
Now, here’s the truth about the real friends of Mr. Fain. If a sales associate at an Apex store noticed the numeral “3” as the third digit of the Apex credit card that signified a true friend of Fain and no credit checks were needed!
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Jim Raftus, a retired marketing executive, lives in Cumberland.
Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org