The Fairfield Store: Retail icon recalled on death of former owner

In the minds of many Fairfield residents, the legacy of Stanley Manasevit, who died Jan. 19 at the age of 89, was his life's work.

Manasevit and his family, from 1921 to 1996, owned the largest independent store in Fairfield Center. That store -- the Fairfield Store, corner of Post and Reef roads -- was downtown's linchpin retailer and is credited with drawing customers to the central business district and helping smaller mom-and-pop stores survive.

Bob Sussman, owner of Fairfield Center Jewelers, a longtime business downtown, described the former 75,000-square-foot department store as "the anchor store in Fairfield Center," and said the Manasevit family "ran a business that gave everyday value, great selection and great service."

"They were just a tremendous asset, a tremendous asset to the town, and they defined Fairfield Center," Sussman said. "Anybody who comes in and remembers the Fairfield Store recalls it with fond memories of the fine establishment that they were."

"We still miss them, we still miss their presence," Sussman said.

Sherri Steeneck, who was the director of the town's Office of Community and Economic Development shortly after the Fairfield Store closed after three-quarters of a century in July 1996, said the store had quality merchandise and that its closing had a huge impact on downtown retailers.

"It had been there a long time. People really missed it," she said. "Things around it started to go down because it wasn't drawing the traffic for the smaller stores."

"It definitely was a draw and when they left, it definitely had an effect on downtown," she said.

Bruce Manasevit, Stanley's son, said his father enjoyed owning the landmark department store, and he attributed customer service as a key to the longevity of the business and the loyalty of its customers.

"We were very focused on providing an excellent level and unusual level of service to our customers," recalled Bruce Manasevit, a Fairfield resident. "As an example, sometimes people needed pants tailored on Saturday for Saturday night, and we would get it done and deliver them to their house if necessary."

"We would pretty much do anything to keep customers happy," he said.

In addition to drawing customers to Fairfield Center, Manasevit said the Fairfield Store also was a gathering place for the community on Saturdays. He said customers would see people they knew shopping in the store, and that his family was also a visible presence on the sales floors. "The four of us were always on the selling floor on Saturday so we were visible to everyone," he said, referring to his father Stanley; Frank Manasevit, Stanley's cousin; Deren Manasevit, Frank's daughter, and himself.

The Fairfield Store's sales people, he added, also were longtime employees and knew customers by name.

Bruce Manasevit said the Fairfield Store drew customers from a wide area and that his father was aware of his store's importance to the economic well-being of the smaller stores in Fairfield Center, many of which also were independently owned at the time. "We were very aware of it. It was the central corner, central block in the downtown area. It had a tremendous impact on the town and a tremendous draw that the other merchants were able to share, and we were also able to share in the customers they brought," he said.

The Manasevit family decided to close the Fairfield Store in 1996 because the trend in retailing in the department store niche was moving toward an emphasis on price and away from customer service. "We felt we should go out in a very positive way," Bruce Manasevit said. "We wanted, really, to get out while things were very good for us. We felt the future was not as bright for our type of business."

But Stanley Manasevit, whose family owned the two-story building that housed the Fairfield Store, didn't disappear from the business community after the store was closed, Steeneck said. She said he supported developer Louis Ceruzzi's proposal to replace the building with a larger commercial structure, which was divided into outlets for national retailers like Victoria's Secret, Ann Taylor Loft and Borders Books, Music and Cafe (the latter is now the Fairfield University Bookstore).

"He would come to a lot of the meetings when the developer (Ceruzzi) was trying to develop the property, just being supportive in the audience. He was there oftentimes at those meetings," Steeneck said. "I think he was helpful in trying to get that transition over."

Stanley Manasevit's influence among downtown merchants extended beyond his store, his son said. Bruce Manasevit said his father often lobbied the town on behalf of other business owners and was a driving force behind upgrading the center's streetscape with the installation of brick pavers and street lamps. To help foster the goal of downtown revitalization, Manasevit noted that his father served on the town's Economic Development Commission, one of Fairfield's many volunteer boards and commissions.

The Fairfield Store's 75-year run, which began with Samuel Manasevit, father of Stanley, and Isadore Manasevit, father of Frank, likely ended at the right time with the emergence of the Internet and higher property values, according to downtown merchants.

Mark Crofutt, owner of Blinn's, a longtime toy store that was across Reef Road from the Fairfield Store before moving to Unquowa Place in 1980, said independent stores face challenges today that didn't exist for most of the time the Fairfield Store was in business. Higher property values translate into higher rent for independent store owners who don't own the property where their store is located. If they do own the property, higher property values pose another kind of challenge with higher taxes, he said.

Crofutt said Fairfield Center was home to a lot of well-established independent merchants when the Fairfield Store was open, such as Gene's Boot Shop, Henry's Men's Shop and Mercurio's, a grocery store that opened in 1900 and was shuttered a few years after the Fairfield Store closed. "It wasn't chains, it was all independent businesses and, over time, it became more difficult for independent businesses to exist," Crofutt said. "It isn't just Fairfield. That story is playing out everywhere."

Crofutt said it's easier for independent stores to exist when the owners also own the property, which is the case with Blinn's and its 50 Unquowa Place building, as well as Fairfield Center Jewelers and its 1498 Post Road building.

Steeneck said it may be possible for an independent store of the Fairfield Store's size to survive today if the store owners also owned the building, but she added that an insurmountable challenge could be lack of name recognition and an established customer base.

Mark Barnhart, the current director of the town's Office of Community and Economic Development, said chain stores have value in attracting customers to a downtown, but independent stores define a town. If a downtown has nothing but chain stores, it creates "a certain homogenization," Barnhart said.

"If you just have nothing but chain stores, what's to make you different from anyplace else in this country?" he said. "You could be anywhere in the U.S."

Barnhart said Fairfield Center now has a mix of independents and chains, though no independent merchant that approaches the size of the old Fairfield Store. He said it's increasingly difficult for independents to survive because of online shopping as customers search the lowest possible prices. Independents today have to constantly be in tune with customers' needs, be open to change to meet those needs, and set themselves apart in some way, Barnhart said. "You're not always able to compete on price, but you better be able to excel at something else. You need a reason why people seek you out," he said.

Sussman said he's thankful for Fairfield Center Jewelers' loyal customers and that support from residents is vital to an independent store staying in business. He said that support is often reciprocated by independent businesses through their donations of auction items to fundraisers and support for civic groups and schools.

"You hope people remember and want you to be around because in the case of the Fairfield Store, once they're gone, you can't bring them back," Sussman said. "If you like your local businesses and you want them to be here and represent your town, support them."

Andrew Brophy is a freelance writer.