BENNINGTON — Ed Maroney is sure there will be emotional moments when the planned sale of Willy’s Variety becomes final, marking the end of his 40 years at the helm of the historic convenience store on Gage and Park streets.
Maroney, 77, who started working at the store for the late Willy Pratt as a boy, is now semi-retired, and his brother, Brian, is also retired from the store. But other family members keep the multi-faceted business running.
They include his daughters, Mary Ellen Devlin and Liza Reif. His wife, Carole, a retired nurse, also occasionally worked at Willy’s, helping mostly with the plants the store offers throughout the spring.
“You know, we’ve had a lot of loyal customers over the years,” Maroney said Monday of the current sale. “And it’s…it’s bittersweet.”
STARTED AS A BOY
Maroney said his own history with Willy’s goes back much further than his ownership of the business.
“After over 60 years in this corner myself,” Maroney said, “from when I was a little kid, you know. I was the only kid Willy would support here. He put the boots on others and let me stay, and I was like a second or third year.
He said he would show up at the store every day after school and on weekends until he landed a regular part-time job, which he kept through high school and two years in college. the former St. Joseph’s College.
“Friday nights I would stay until closing time,” Maroney said. “I just loved it.”
After working at other jobs for a few years, he said Pratt “convinced me to come back” and he worked at Willy’s for 13 years before the store went up for sale.
A new owner bought it and ran the business for a few years, while Maroney changed jobs.
“I did not have money [for a purchase]he said, so I left.
But the new owner changed his mind during the recession of the early 1980s and wanted to leave, Maroney said.
“I went back and talked to Willy, and he said, ‘Here, tell me what you want to pay,’ and I took it back, and I’ve had it for 40 years. It’s been a good race.
He added: “And you know my daughter, Mary Ellen, has been here for 40 years, and Liza has been here for 39 years; then it’s time.
“We enjoyed it,” Devlin said, “but it’s time my parents retired completely and my sister and I tried something different for once in our lives.” I do not regret it; I’ve loved every day, but it’s getting to the point where it’s time for us to move on.
The store’s history dates back to the 19th century, Devlin said, and in 1890 it was called John E. Healy & Son. It then became an A&P or Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Co. market for many years.
The building also housed Howard & Riley Choice Meats for a time, and Pratt told the banner in the 1960s that the building originally housed a saloon before it was converted into a store.
Pratt took over the business with Phil Riley in the late 1940s, and Willy became the sole owner in 1968 when Riley retired. Moroney took over in 1982.
The business is also one of the last – if not the last – of many convenience stores in Bennington that were all owned by separate local families 30 or more years ago. In recent years, new owners have tended to own multiple variety stores or be tied to a chain store.
THE COMPANY HAS EVOLVED
Maroney said the business had evolved over the years, including the addition of a bottle buy-back center in a barn-like building behind the store, which had opened in a smaller section of the store below the owned by Pratt in response to the Vermont bottle deposit bill. The law came into force in 1973.
He also began selling plants supplied by area greenhouses or nurseries shortly after purchasing the business. He eventually added a fenced area along the side of Park Street to display the plants. And Maroney rented and then bought a former bakery building across Park Street to use for storing plants and other inventory, including under tents on the lawn.
Potted plants were usually offered at Willy’s every year until early summer.