NATICK — The start of it all was when the parents of Salvatore Ciccarelli decided to leave their native Sicily on the premise that there was a better life across the great Atlantic. They landed in Boston. Salvatore was 5. It was the turn of the 20th century.
Salvatore grew up hard-working, ambitious and with a kick to his step. Literally. He liked to dance. “He was good at it,” recalls his son, Bob Ciccarelli, 76. “He mentored a guy who wanted to learn how to dance. It was Ray Bolger.”
Salvatore and Bolger had stage dreams, maybe vaudeville. “They were going to be a team,” says Ciccarelli.
Then Salvatore met Matilda Leveroni. Tilly. “He was smitten,” says Ciccarelli. Tilly’s parents were from Italy too. She married Salvy and they moved to Natick in the mid-1930s. Salvy put aside any ideas about a life in show business. Bolger danced and acted his way to stardom, including as the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz.” In newspaper and magazine interviews, Bolger always credited Salvy for getting his career started.
“My dad was a hustler,” says Bob. “He was a hard worker. He sold shoes. He worked in a grocery store. In 1938 he bought a plot of land and did some farming in the back. He started a little farm stand. Then he built a store.”
And the customers came. Seventy-five years later, they’re still coming to Tilly and Salvy’s, a landmark of a mom-and-pop store if there ever was one.
The operation on Bacon Street has always been run by the Ciccarellis. Tilly and Salvy are deceased; Bob and his brother Fran, 80, took over the store from them. A third brother, Richard, died when he was 28, but his son, Rick, 51, is the boss now, having bought the business from Bob in 2009. Rick’s son, Ryan, 24, is prepping to take over the business when his father has had enough, maybe in 10 or 15 years. “My dad hopes it’s 10 years, I hope it’s 15,” Ryan says, grinning.
“It’s here when you want it,” Rick tells his son.
When the time comes, Ryan will be ready. A Natick High and Bentley University graduate, Ryan has been working at the store since he was 13.
Everyone, family and customers, will tell you that the heart and soul of the place was Tilly, who died in 1993 at age 87. She worked the checkout register and pretty much mothered the customers. She was curious about their lives, their kids, where they lived, where they vacationed, who was sick, who got a new job.
Tilly’s customers became her extended family. “She’d say to a customer, ‘What happened to Tommy?’ says Bob.
Sure, customers came for the fresh produce, for the plants in the spring and the Christmas trees in December, but Tilly was the drawing card.
“You didn’t have to make up stories about Tilly,” says Fran. “They were true.”
After her husband died in 1980, Tilly continued to live in their humble dwelling above the store. “She’d cook and bring food to the store and always wanted to give you something,” says Chris Sansossio, a Natick resident and a customer for 25 years. “She’d say ‘Taste it!’ She was the nicest lady.”
Tilly became a local legend, which is why the state named the Marion Street bridge after her. “She worked until the day she died,” says Bob.
While Salvy was the businessman and the brawn, Tilly gave the place the human touch. And three generations of Ciccarellis have kept that going. “It’s the people who work here, they’re so helpful and friendly, and it keeps getting better,” says Natick resident Joann Whitmore, who has shopped at Tilly’s for more than a quarter century.
Tilly and Salvy’s started out selling just fruits and vegetables, but in 1940 added Foster’s peanut butter because it was produced by a Natick resident. In 1951, the original store was razed and rebuilt considerably larger to accommodate its growing popularity. There was another expansion in 2000, and Rick recently got approval to sell beer and wine.
The store’s full name is Tilly and Salvy’s Bacon Street Farm. But when Rick answered the phone “Bacon Street Farm” callers thought they had the wrong number. Now Rick just says “Tilly’s.”
Rick started working at the store when he was in middle school, got a job as an electrician apprentice after graduating from Natick High, then got laid off. When Uncle Bob heard about it, Rick says, “he told me to put my tools away and get busy working in the store.” Rick couldn’t have known he’d buy the store from his uncle eventually. “Then he was on my payroll,” says Rick.
Back in the day, Fran did most of the hiring. It seems like every Natick teenager worked there at some point. The place was as local as it could get. Just the way Tilly wanted it.
“Ninety percent of the kids we’ve hired we’ve known when they were growing up. We know their parents,” Rick says.
Bob was always the entertainer, singing as he stocked the aisles — “Yes, We Have No Bananas” became his theme song — and enchanting little kids with his puppetry. “Tilly would say ‘You’re not singing today,’ says Bob, who not only kept singing but took requests from the customers. They were an appreciative audience, inspecting the vegetables while Bob warbled another tune.
“Work was fun. It was wonderful to get up and go to the store,” says Bob, who calls Rick “a hard worker but he can’t sing.”
Rick’s wife, Wendi, born in Framingham, has also put her time in at the store. They met at Natick’s Lilja Elementary School. “I still have his love notes from fourth grade,” she says. Besides Ryan, they have a daughter, Rebecca, 26.
For three-quarters of a century, Tilly and Salvy’s — same location, one family — has met the test of time head-on while other neighborhood stores have disappeared. “We’re lucky we’re still here. Most stores don’t last this long,” says Fran.
It’s no accident. It began with the way Tilly drew in the customers, by being real, kind, a good listener, and demanding that all of her family members to do it the same way.
“Tilly was a special lady,” says Bob. “She WAS Bacon Street Farm.” And that’s why everybody just says “goin’ to Tilly’s.’’