By JON BAKER
Based on the non-stop phone calls and interruptions, Tessier’s General Store – also known in these parts as “Tessier’s Hardware” – seems to be be faring rather well in this day and age of COVID-19.
Ask Bud Tessier if that’s the case, and he just laughs.
“It could be a couple of things – (either) business is pretty good or there are some hectic situations going on; sometimes it doesn’t look good, and sometimes it does,” offered Tessier, the owner/proprietor with son Ed. “Like (Thursday) is a quieter day, but there’s still so much going on with this COVID thing, and with so many different situations both in life and in business.”
Tessier’s store is approaching quite an amazing feat this year, as it will turn 104. Even Tessier himself, who has been in charge since taking over for his dad back in 1970, can’t believe this familiar spot has been around for that long.
“It’s been a family-run business for four generations, and now it’s my son and me (not to mention Bud’s wife, Janet, and a few friends on the payroll),” he stated. “It’s quite a milestone; many family businesses don’t last that long. We’d had some ups and downs, with different traumas the country’s been through and survived, like the Depression, World War II and now COVID.
“We’ve also had to face the coming and going of all sorts of different competition,” he added. “Obviously, that’s the reason there aren’t many small stores left; it’s very hard for people to stay focused and realize that you are, in fact, a viable alternative.”
Tessier claimed the hardest part of remaining vibrant as a business is trying to change newer generations’ focus.
“There are a lot of young people out there who haven’t grown up with a hardware store being the center of their world, like it was in their parents’ and grandparents’ day,” he said. “When I was growing up, if you are going to paint the house, you went to the hardware store. If you were going fix the plumbing, you went the hardware store.
“With the newer generations, it’s not that way. Say there’s a 25-year-old person who is buying a house and wants to fix it up, that person is so bombarded with advertising that ‘Home Depot is the best,’ or Lowe’s, that plug is so strong, they forget the little guy, the guy down the street. They don’t realize all the knowledge that our clerks have gained over the years, that we’ve fixed what they’re trying to fix.
“That’s why we have to keep evolving, keep trying to make ourselves relevant.”
Incredibly, employees at such huge chain stores have actually helped Tessier’s conduct some business.
“We’ve found that when they don’t have an item because they don’t stock it or they don’t have an answer to a particular question, they’ll say, ‘Hey, try Tessier’s! They’ll know,’” he noted. “Honest to God, when I first found out after customers told me, I was surprised, too.
“Remember when we had all those ice dams about four years ago and everybody’s roofs had them? We were able to get roof rakes and ice melt when nobody else had it. Lowe’s and Home Depot were sending us lots of people, and they told us the same thing – ‘Go to Tessier’s. They’ll help you out.’ We have a pretty good relationship with them, though I never have anything negative to say about anybody.
“The thing we can’t compete on is hours; they’re open, nights, Sundays and holidays, and we can’t; we don’t have the manpower.”
Another way Tessier’s has remained relevant is to change with the times – that is, the selling of beer – and wine-making equipment and supplies. He indicated his son has tons of knowledge in that area.
“We’ve been doing that for about three years, and it’s been very successful,” he said. “We have an extensive supply of things to make beer and wine. We call my son ‘The Brewmaster’ because he was into it before, and he’s connected with all of the brew clubs and breweries around. As you know, Pawtucket is a big brewing city, and a lot of those clubs buy their supplies from us and pass on the information.
“That’s another thing – (our success) is mostly word of mouth,” he continued. “We’ve tried some advertising, but most of it with a store like ours is the spoken word, where someone says, ‘Hey, I found a great little store named Tessier’s! Let’s go down there. They’ll have just what we need.’ With brew supplies, Ed knows his stuff. He knows what he’s doing.”
Surprisingly, Tessier’s General Store came to be as part of a trilogy of businesses created by Bud Tessier’s grandmother, Anna Tessier. He explained that Anna moved from Canada and settled with her husband Emile in nearby Rehoboth in about 1915.
She decided to start up the old “Kozy Nook” diner on Route 44, and Tessier’s aunt and uncle ran that, but that wasn’t enough. She then came up with a notion of opening a general store on Central Avenue, then started up Anna Tessier’s Dry Goods Store on Dexter Street in Central Falls shortly thereafter.
“She was quite the woman of her time, opening three businesses,” he said with a chuckle. “My my grandfather ran the general store, but he liked doing tin work and wanted to be more in the field, so my dad took over when he was about 20. My father had some severe heart trouble, so I had to take over.
“I was still going to (Providence College), so I’d go to my morning classes, get out, open the store and work into the night. We were really a one-man show at the time, though my wife, who was also a Barrington school teacher, helped, too.’
When COVID-19 wielded its ugly head last March, Tessier had no choice but to close completely for five weeks.
“A lot of stores like ours stayed open through it, but I have older clerks who may have been impacted by the virus, and I wanted to keep everybody safe,” he stated. “After that, we came back in and took phone orders and move stuff out the back door. We also had commercial accounts like the City of Pawtucket – we have all different accounts – Pawtucket Country Club and Pawtucket Credit Union.
“All these different companies will call us or come in ad get supplies, so we have in-house charge accounts. We also have contractors come in, so we have a lot to cover.
“At the beginning of all this, we were selling plexiglass like crazy. We had companies from around the state calling us; actually, we’re still selling it to companies who are making shields or if they need (barriers) around a desk. We also sell hand sanitizer, and we have plenty of PPE. Right at the start, we started buying as much as we could and selling whatever people needed relating to the pandemic.
“We’re always able to find something that people are looking for.”
At this point, Tessier’s is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Folks interested in ordering anything of need during this particularly frigid cold snap, merely call (401) 726-9627. Someone on hand will be ready with a friendly response and a ready answer.
“We’re only open part-time; I feel that for the clerks, wearing a mask and gloves for six hours, that’s enough for most people,” he said. “Can I believe we survived all of this? Well, this yer has been something else, and 2021 doesn’t seem to be too much better yet, so it’s going to be a couple of years of this. Still, we are very fortunate we have so many loyal …
He hesitated, pondered, then added, “People call them customers, but in small stores like ours, you develop a personal relationship with these people. A lot of them have become friends. They come in,, they know your name and you know theirs.
“It’s kind of like (the TV sitcom) ‘Cheers.’”