This week for the second time in less than a decade, Alley’s Store, a venerable West Tisbury institution, is changing hands. Howard and Susan Ulfelder of Hingham are buying the store from Charlie and Teena Parton, who bought it from the Alley family six years ago.
Six years ago the Gazette wrote, “Alley’s is more than a store and post office. It is an institution, a meeting place, even the heart of West Tisbury, complete with veins and arteries that convey the blood and nourishment of the town.” Today, after six years of the Partons’ kindly reign, that is more true than ever and the town views the change, which has been rumored for many months, with intense interest and with apprehension that borders on alarm.
Charlie Parton is reassuring. “In the course of negotiations the Ulfelders have become real friends. Teena and I feel we’re putting Alley’s in the best of hands.”
The Ulfelders themselves seem amazed by Alleys, Dealers in Almost Everything. “We’ve created enormous envy among our peers,” he says. “Apparently it’s everyone’s dream to move to New England and run a country store.”
The Ulfelders are no strangers to the Island. They have been coming here for summers for the past fifteen years, renting first in Edgartown, then later up-Island which they now prefer. At present, they are renting the Zimmerman house at Nat’s Farm next to Misty Meadows, while they are designing their own house with the help of West Tisbury architect Ben Moore. They bought land more than a year ago at Prospect Hill in Chilmark.
“We were planning to move to the Island for good before we ever knew Alley’s was for sale,” Mr. Ulfelder says. “We were going to test retirement. We knew we wanted to find something, work at something, and when we heard Alley’s was for sale, it seemed the perfect answer.”
Mr. Ulfelder, a native of Cambridge, is a graduate of Harvard University, with graduate degrees in business from Claremont College in California and the University of Virginia. Previously he was in corporate finance, and with his family moved all over the country, living in California, Minnesota and Michigan before returning to Massachusetts and Hingham where they have lived for the past 15 years. During those 15 years, he has been a retailer in the liquor business, with stores in Hingham and Duxbury.
His wife Susie was born in Chevy Chase, Md., and they first met when Mr. Ulfelder was in graduate school in Virginia. Mrs. Ulfelder is a painter, an art major who switched to psychology at the University of Massachusetts. She has a masters degree in counseling from Leslie college in Cambridge. She has been a social worker for the elderly, among other things, but has continued to paint and at present is “moving into the abstract.” Will she have time to paint, as co-owner of Alley’s store? “I’ll find the time to paint,” she says with great determination.
The Ulfelders have four children ranging in age from 17 to 27. Abbie, the youngest, is the only one still living at home. Unlike the other children, who were moved from place to place, she has known only the house in Hingham as home, and her feeling about moving to the Island are somewhat mixed. “Anyhow I’m going to boarding school next winter,” she says. She is delighted at the prospect of her parents owning Alley’s. She is a grave and articulate young woman, with decided opinions. “You know who’ll be really running the store,” says her mother resignedly.
The Ulfelders are a friendly and attractive couple. He is a stocky, well-built man, with a deep sun tan and dark eyes. His abundant hair and down-turned mustache are flecked with gray. Mrs. Ulfelder is slim, blond and elegant, with an engaging smile. Like their daughter Abbie, they are both very articulate. Both of them approach Alley’s store with something akin to reverence and its traditions.
“We plan to keep all its traditions, including the Doldrum Sundaes on Wednesday nights in the winter,” says Mr. Ulfelder. “The only changes we plan to maker are finding a way to enlarge the post office, and converting the car-wash and the laundromat to something else. This Island is so fragile, and they really oughtn’t to be there.”
Though six years may seem in some communities a lengthy time to own and run a store, in Alley’s history it is a brief moment indeed. Established in 1858, by Nathan Mayhew, in its first 122 years it belonged to only three successive families, all of them native to West Tisbury. Nathan Mayhew took his two sons Sanderson and Ulysses into the expanding business, and they took over on his retirement. The store was legally called S. M. Mayhew Company, but was referred to locally as Sanderson’s, a name the Ulfelders toyed with using before deciding it would have meaning for too few people, and that they would retain Alley’s. In 1914, Charles Turner, who had been a clerk there for many years, bought the store in partnership with Benjamin Woodaman, also of West Tisbury. Mr. Turner later bought him out when the Woodamans moved off-island. Mr. Turner also became postman and for the first time the post office was located in part of the store.
In 1945, Albion A. Alley, who had been a clerk in the store for 22 years, bought it and also became postmaster. In 1953, he officially changed the name from S.M. Mayhew Company to Albion Alley and Company. The slogan “Dealers in Almost Everything” seems to have been around since the very beginning. When Albion Alley resigned, three of his children, Phyllis Smith, and James and John Alley, all of whom had worked in the store much of their lives, took over. James became postmaster in 1965, a job he still holds and plans to continue to hold. The Alleys sold the store to the Partons in 1980, and the town was agog at the idea of outsiders running it. The outsiders quickly became insiders, an integral part of the community, building a house overlooking Look’s Pond. They promised at the beginning that any alterations would be more in the nature of restoration than change and they have been true to their word. The store, like the rest of the Island, has become increasingly sophisticated in the goods that it carries, and it has reflected Teena Parton’s interest in gourmet fare and in cooking, particularly Chinese cooking. It has also reflected the Partons’ mutual interest in gardening and their fascination with the history of the store. Charlie wrote an excellent article on its history for the Dukes County Historical Society’s Intelligencer. Alley’s still retains the ambiance of the country store it has always been.
For two years after they bought the store in 1980, Charlie, who is a pediatric surgeon, continued working as administrator and associate director at Mount Sinai Hospital in Hartford, Conn. and teaching at the University of Connecticut medical school and the University of Hartford graduate school. Teena minded the store during the week and Charlie came on weekends to help her. After his retirement from the medical world, he too worked at the store full time, and in connection with his duties at the store, learned the trade of a locksmith, a trade he will continue to practice independently. They will continue to live in their new house and be part of the community they have come to love.
“Actually, when we bought the store, we planned to retire when I reached sixty,” Charlie says. “And I’m sixty-one now. We’ve reached the age when we want more time for ourselves, more time to garden and enjoy this Island.”
When rumors first started going around that the Partons wished to sell the store, one friend and customer was dismayed and said to Mr. Parton, “You shouldn’t sell it now. You’ve really just gotten your teeth in it.” Charlie answered ruefully, “Yes, but the teeth are getting a bit long.”
The Partons advertised the store for sale in the Wall Street Journal, but though there were inquiries, nothing came of it. Half-jokingly, one of their small ads in the Gazette read “Store for Sale.” Mostly it was word of mouth that the Partons were ready to sell that brought people seriously interested in buying, and it was by word of mouth that the Ulfelders first heard of the opportunity to own Alley’s. Negotiations have been going on for almost a year and if all goes well, should culminate in this week’s sale.
Even Lambert, the store cat, has been taken care of. An agreement that is part of the sale stipulates that Lambert will retain his position as store cat and will be responsible for keeping dogs out of the store. In return, Lambert is gauranteed a constant supply of kibble and water as well as cat food twice a day, and complete medical care for health maintenance. He is also guaranteed - in writing - love and attention, as long as he lives. Alley’s Store, thus protected and mindful of the past, marches bravely into a new future.