By Jim Watson
In January 1985, I was skiing in Ellicottville with a couple of old friends of mine from high school days. We had skied in the morning, and stopped into the Gin Mill for lunch and “refreshment.” As I was sitting at the bar along with my buddies, I was reflecting on a couple of things. One was on my father’s recent passing- he had just died in December of the previous year, and had been a strong influence in my life- and secondly, how much Ellicottville felt like Vermont to me, where my wife, Holly and I had talked about relocating to many times prior. Commitments to our family and constraints of the family business, however, was destined to keep us in WNY for the indeterminable future.
As we were having our lunch (and this isn’t for publication; I’m including it because the imagery of it is so incredible) I looked at the back bar, and my gaze initially fell on a Cleveland Indians pennant, which was hanging lopsided next to the bar. I guess everything at the Gin Mill in those days was hanging lopsided….. . Then, in quick succession, I saw a Smallmouth Bass mounted over the cash register, a pack of Camel straights next to the register, and a bottle of Wild Turkey bourbon on the bar. I even heard country music playing on the jukebox! Those were all, somewhat shamefully I now have to confess, symbols of things I enjoyed during those days, but to see them all in a single frame of reference, gave me the most powerful feeling that my father was sending me a message from “the other side.”
At that time, I was primarily in the restaurant business. It hadn’t been but a few years prior that I had opened up a candy store next to the restaurant on Delaware Avenue in Kenmore. Our chocolate business before then was primarily operated from the front of the restaurant. However, that day in Ellicottville, I had a vision of having a second location 60 miles away! Talking my (then) partner, my cousin Nicky into it was the easy part. Holly was going to be a much tougher sell. I was working crazy long hours- we had just completely remodeled the restaurant and had taken out a loan for $250,000 at high interest that we working hard to repay- and I had very little free time. Now, we were going to take on another location!
When I left the Gin Mill that day, I walked outside, turned right, and saw a vacant storefront next door. There was no sign for sale or rent on it, no number to call, either. Actually, there were a few vacant shops in 1985, but there were some viable businesses in town as well. Ellicottville didn’t have the tourist-y feel that it does today, but it was a solid small business community even then. After I returned home that day, I called a friend of mine, Darryl Huckabone who owned some property on Irish Hill, and asked if he knew of any storefronts for rent. Incredibly-actually, eerily- he owned the very store that I looked at next door to the Gin Mill! Talk about fate! Darryl offered to rent the shop to me for $400/month, and a deal was struck.
Holly and I drove down to Ellicottville several times immediately thereafter to get the ‘feel’ of what we getting into. Totally clueless, we talked with anyone initially who would lend an ear, including Betsy Peyser’s mother, Doris, and her friend who was manager of the Edelweiss, where we stayed at the time. The two of them were very encouraging and insisted that Ellicottville “was just about to pop!” How right they were! We were further heartened after meeting John Burrell, then the mayor and now the Supervisor of Ellicottville, whose family owned a prominent cutlery business in town. John was and always has been a very ardent booster of Ellicottville, and engaging him during one of our earliest visits, and feeding off his positive energy gave us the reassurance that I was doing the right thing.
Outfitting the new store was an adventure, as we scoured antique stores around Cattaraugus County for old glass display cases (some of which still remain in the store today), lighting fixtures, secondhand shelving, - anything we could get ours hands on, to make the store quaint but tasteful. To that end, we found an ally in Ralph Rose, a gentleman known to many in Ellicottville, who owned Discovery Antiques in Limestone, NY. He let us scour his barn innumerable times, looking for what we thought was just the right piece for our fledgling store, and would often call if he found something he thought we’d be interested in.
We actually did splurge on two large pieces of stained glass that we commissioned from a local resident, Kathy Harr. To frame the stained glass, we asked George Raicher, to build us some oak cabinetry, which to this day forms the backdrop for our retail store. Mr. Raecher had a little sawmill and fabrication shop in a building on Monroe Street, which many years later became part of the Ellicottville Brewing Company. I remember pushing Mr. Raecher, who didn’t respond well to pushing, to get the pieces done in time for our first Fall Festival, which we felt was essential for establishing “our presence” in our new community. Equally pressed to achieve that same deadline was our stained glass artist who, having built two stunning artistic pieces which still hang in our store, found cause to renegotiate the price, and engaged the services of the “notorious” Preston brothers as a negotiating tactic! Today, almost 40 years later, it’s just a funny memory for all of us!
The first couple of years that we were in Ellicottville, we would close after Mother’s Day in May, and not reopen until October, shortly before Fall Festival. Summers were very slow, and we chose not to keep payroll on. Our employees were very happy to have the summers off, regardless. Over the years, of course Ellicottville has grown into a four-season destination, and with it Watson’s has grown into a four-season store, with its summer business eclipsing that of any of the company’s other seven stores.
We remained in the location adjacent to the Gin Mill until the early 2000’s (you’d have to check with Whitney to see if she has the exact year) when we moved across W. Washington and added ice cream to our offerings. The store shrank, but our business grew!
For many years, Watson’s in Ellicottville has been operated to a large degree autonomously, as our headquarters have remained in the Town of Tonawanda. We would never have reached the level of success that we have had in that small town were it not for the steadfast, diligent, hardworking kindly,--forget it, there aren’t enough words to describe how grateful we are as a family and as a company to have the services of our manager Barb Toth, and her staff and family (some of whom are the same).
The residents and visitors to Ellicottville are of great importance to our business, of course, and we welcome seeing those smiling faces at special occasions and events that so often arise in town, but we have been even more blessed to have the support of the townspeople of Ellicottville over the years. They have been there during the good years and the lean ones, and have always had kind words of support for, and unwavering loyalty to, our business for almost 40 years! Thank you.