‘Wonderful’: 51 years at Loeb’s in Lenox

BY CLARENCE F ANTO Eagle correspondent

LENOX — When Pittsfield native Earl Albert — an orphan with his brother, both adopted and raised by a Lenox couple — had a chance to buy the town’s only community market from Leo C. Loeb, little did he suspect he would be serving residents and visitors for the next half-century, plus one year and a month.

“The town adopted us, I have to say, and we were very fortunate,” said Albert, 78, tearfully, with his wife and business partner, Lesley, by his side last week.

Two days earlier, he had sold Loeb’s Foodtown and its building off Main Street in the heart of the historic village to Bernie and Isabel Fallon, of West Stockbridge. The purchase price of the business and is undisclosed.

Bernie Fallon, a veteran of the food industry, and his wife, Isabel, plan to maintain the market much as it has been, while expanding fresh, healthy offerings and soon extending hours until 8 p.m.

And to no one’s surprise who knows him, Albert plans to stay on at least for a few months, working in the deli and the meat department, though cutting his hours back sharply from his typical 84-hour work week.

The transition to new ownership has been smooth, he pointed out, much to the relief of a loyal clientele keen on the market’s personal attention, local delivery and a down-home, welcoming touch, treating customers like extended family.

Opening day for the Alberts was April 29, 1968, Lesley recalled during a conversation at the Lenox Community Center with 18-year staffer Francie Sorrentino and bookkeeper Beth Parsons, Lesley’s niece, a 37-year employee, sharing the memories.

Lesley and Earl Albert, shown about six years ago, have sold Loeb’s Foodtown in Lenox after running the downtown market for more than half a century.

PHOTO PROVIDED BY EARL ALBERT

WHAT’S NEXT FOR LOEB’S FOODTOWN: Meet the Lenox market’s new owners, Bernie and Isabel Fallon.

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All along, the market has provided first-time employment for the town’s high schoolers and neighborhood youngsters — 211 by Sorrentino’s count: “the ones we can name, and it’s probably closer to 400.” Some stayed on for many years.

“It was like family,” Earl said. “There’s a lot of camaraderie, still today, though maybe not as much because they all have cellphones and televisions. There’s so much more communication, but in our day, you did things together.”

Earl and Lesley had been scoping out a potential sale for the past year through a Realtor, he said, agreeing that the Fallons are ideally suited to carry on the tradition that the Alberts have nurtured for most of their adult lives. “His philosophy is the same as ours — customer service,” Earl said.

“I’ve known Bernie all of his life,” said Earl, who befriended Fallon’s late father, also named Bernie, many years ago.

The year Earl graduated from Lenox High School in 1959, he remembered, Leo Loeb opened the store in the building that had just gone up on the site of a former inn, the Corner House, which had been demolished even though the classic, turreted Victorian was in good shape.

Earl had earned his marketing spurs working as a meat cutter for the First National Stores (Finast) chain, which closed in 1993, making the rounds of the company’s stores in Pittsfield, Lee, Adams and Great Barrington.

Albert went to work for Loeb during a Finast strike, with the condition that he get the first chance to buy the building and the business when they became available.

The handshake agreement bore fruit in only a year, enabling Earl and Lesley, a Pittsfield native and school nurse he had recently married, to buy the business and then acquire the building after another year.

“We’ve done it together and it just lasted,” Earl said.

“As an independent store, the biggest and only thing we had to sell was customer service and the loyalty you build,” they said in unison.

“That’s the key, and we’ve been very fortunate that way,” he added. “It was wonderful, and we’ve enjoyed a great relationship with everyone in town.”

“I’ve also been very fortunate to have my own family working for me,” Earl said, including his son Michael “who decided he wanted to do something else, which is fine.”

Inevitably, the sale of the store is a bittersweet occasion for Earl, who acknowledged that “all of a sudden, over this past year, I realized that I was 78, time was catching up to me and I could tell that my body was telling me to back off.”

Furthermore, turning emotional, Earl described how lucky he was to “have a wife working with me day in and day out. We were a real team,” until ill health forced her retirement two years ago. “Lesley’s feeling it just like I am. You reach a point when you know you can’t do it anymore; you have to make a decision.”

“It’s been our life,” she agreed.

“I’ve had a certain pride in being part of the town of Lenox,” he continued, voicing confidence that the Fallons as a local couple working as a team will continue the Loeb’s tradition. “And I’ll be there, at least through the busy season, as long as they need me.”

But he’ll work half-days, with weekends off for the first time, enabling him to fish as a member of the Alford Brook Club in West Stockbridge, revisit Maine with Lesley, where they met in Ogunquit and married in 1966, and spend even more time with their three grandchildren.

“They’re our buddies,” Earl said. “We do a lot with them, go to all their games, and it’s actually fun because they keep you happy and keep you going.”

“When we were adopted, we were nothing,” Earl said, recalling his childhood with his brother in the home of Ernest and Caroline Albert on New Lenox Road. “The town adopted us, too. That’s important; I was blessed.”

And giving back to the community, the Alberts made sure less-fortunate residents always had something on their table on Thanksgiving Day, Sorrentino recalled.

Years ago, a Shakespeare & Company intern cried at the deli counter because she couldn’t afford a sandwich, Parsons recalled through tears. “Earl said, ‘What do you want? Here you go, I’m not going to let you go hungry,’” she said. “She came back years later and continued to be a customer because she was treated well.”

On a lighter note, Parsons mentioned a customer who paid for a quart of Jim Beam bourbon and left it on the counter. “As he walked out, he said, ‘I stole that when I was a kid, and came back to pay for it.’” “We just want to say thank-you to everybody — employees, patrons, customers, friends,” the Alberts concluded.

“It was wonderful to be able to support each other and for them to support me,” Earl said. “It’s been a great marriage.”