Ben’s in Lee: The more things change, the more they stay the same

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By Sunday, Dec 18 Trade and Commerce
Marcie Setlow
Tracy and Sean Stephen, new owners of Ben's in Lee, Massachusetts.

Lee — There seems to be a pattern emerging here: Vern Kennedy bought The Morgan House Inn in Lee and Castle Street Café in Great Barrington, and pledged to keep them exactly as they were. And now Sean and Tracy Stephen have bought Ben’s in Lee, established in 1932 by George Slaminsky and his younger brother Ben and run by the Slaminsky family until its sale to the Stephens this fall, and they have also promised that things at Ben’s will stay the same. Clearly, “same” is not boring. It’s comforting, and it follows the old adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “

Rich Aldrich and Tony Blair from Stone House Properties, who brokered the sale, described Ben’s as “a unique clothing general store with everything from a child’s pajama to Carhartt Clothing for contractors, and everything in between.” But, there’s another part of the Ben’s story – the family that built the business – and here the Stephens are the perfect fit to carry on the behind-the scenes traditions.

Ben and Ruth Slaminsky soon after their marriage in 1952.

Ben and Ruth Slaminsky soon after their marriage in 1952.

Ben and Ruth Slaminsky, the original “Mom and Pop” at Ben’s, both brought retail experience to the store. Ben had worked for his brother in the family’s original Army/Navy store and Ruth brought big-city retail sophistication, fresh from a job as an assistant buyer for the Bamberger’s chain in highly urbanized northern New Jersey. And the Slaminskys had two daughters, Marcia and Jane, who worked in the store, helped keep it alive and vibrant all these years and eventually sold it to the Stephens. Now, Sean Stephen comes to Ben’s with significant retail experience at Orvis and Brooks Brothers, while his wife Tracy, who also once worked at Orvis, brings the modern-day equivalent of Ruth Slaminsky’s big-city retail sophistication — she oversees the online marketing of merchandise for National Geographic in Washington, DC. But what clinched the deal, according to Marcia Slaminsky, what made her and her sister want to sell to the Stephens, is that the Stephens have two daughters, Molly and Bridget, who help out in the store, as the Slaminsky sisters did, and who just might one day take it over.

The Slaminsky sisters, Jane (l) and Marcia (r) in Ben’s before they sold the store. Photo: Marcie Setlow

The Slaminsky sisters, Jane (l) and Marcia (r) in Ben’s before they sold the store.

Things never really do stay the same. We should not be surprised if we find new dishes on the menus at Castle Street Café or the Morgan House Inn, or new kinds of merchandise at Ben’s. In fact, even though we think of Ben’s as a fixed institution, Marcia Slaminsky tells stories about all the ways the store kept reinventing itself over the years to survive. The original store had three chairs in the shoe department, until Ruth pressed for half the store to be devoted to shoes, as it is today. In the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s, when young people were creating their own style of dressing, Marcia ventured off to the national boutique show in New York to bring back new kinds of merchandise. And then in the year 2000, when the Lee Outlet mall opened, the Slaminskys had to scramble to avoid complete disaster. Timberland had a store in the mall, so Ben’s stopped carrying Timberland. But, they managed to keep selling Levis, despite the store in the mall, and they sold only first quality Levis at prices lower than at the mall. And, through smart marketing and negotiation, small-town Ben’s has grown into one of the largest independent dealers of Carhartt clothing in the country.

New owners Sean and Tracy inside Ben’s a few weeks after they bought the store. Photo: Marcie Setlow

New owners Sean and Tracy inside Ben’s a few weeks after they bought the store. Photo: Marcie Setlow

The shoe department at Ben’s, which Ruth Slamnsky grew from three chairs to half the store. Photo: Marcie Setlow

The shoe department at Ben’s, which Ruth Slamnsky grew from three chairs to half the store. Photo: Marcie Setlow

Ben died in 1985 and Ruth came into the store every day until she was in her late 80s in the year 2000, but the Slaminsky daughters maintained the traditions they felt counted most – honesty, integrity, hard work and attention to detail. And low prices, always. Merchandise may change, says Marcia, but as long as you keep those fundamentals, your customers will keep coming back.

Part of the childrens’ department at Ben’s. Photo: Marcie Setlow

Part of the childrens’ department at Ben’s. Photo: Marcie Setlow

 

So now, in this holiday shopping season with its emphasis on shopping local, you can rest assured that you will find at Ben’s all the merchandise you’re accustomed to finding there – Carhartt, Woolrich, Levis, underwear for keeping out the cold, shoes for the whole family at all price points, warm jackets, sizes to fit everyone from tall to short to wide to narrow. And the dedication to service that the Stephens exhibit (“We’ll order anything you want, and we’ll even open on a Sunday if necessary.”) gives every indication that, despite the expected changes that will have to come, the fundamentals will remain.

 


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