I know you don’t give a fig (couldn’t resist) about social media, but when you announced recently that you were retiring in October and permanently closing Russo’s, your family’s 100-year-old Watertown fruit and vegetable market, many of your longtime customers were startled and dismayed. Comments sounded something like, “How dare you walk away without finding someone to keep the business going?” That is, someone like you, Tony, whose first call is at 4 a.m. and the last task done only when there is no one else to call, even on the West Coast. It isn’t until hours after sunset that you hop in your car and head home. On Instagram I saw this: “Let’s turn Russo’s into a co-op,” and “Tony Russo = Produce G.O.A.T.”
Your customers all seem to have known you since they were either being pushed in a stroller or pushing one themselves. The store is filled with three-generation families shopping together, everyone trying to learn from Grandma how to choose a head of lettuce. You probably cringe when you watch this.
When we met in the late ‘70s, I had just moved back to Watertown (my father was stationed at Watertown Arsenal when I was born) and had switched my allegiance from DeVincent Farms in Waltham, which grew a lot of its own produce in season, to what was then a tiny A. Russo & Sons, never particularly easy to navigate, where the seasonal fruits and vegetables came from farmers and distributors with whom your family had decades-long relationships. The business was originally wholesale and you added retail, so if something happened to the wholesale end and it collapsed, you had the other part. Almost everything in your market costs less, often a lot less, than other stores nearby.
At first, the shop seemed to cater to the Italian community your grandparents came from, but as you expanded the footprint, it became the place to go for all kinds of Asian and Indian produce and hundreds of pantry items tucked under the displays. I never understood who decided what should go where. Fillets of wild-caught tuna are across the aisle from sardines and anchovies, you have to go to the back of the store for tomatoes, unless you want local tomatoes, in which case you go outside where the melons are stacked. The bakery case always looks like one you might see in the North End and the prepared foods (three kinds of lasagna, four of arancini) have a similar old-school aesthetic. I love to peer at the cooks in action while I wait in an endless line of deli customers who are very particular about how their prosciutto should be sliced.
All of this happens to a background of piped-in classical music. What market plays classical music? Doesn’t it slow shoppers down? I remember a few years ago when you brought in singers at Christmas and a 23-year-old Brazilian-born deli worker volunteered to test the sound equipment for the hired group. He stood in front of the display of poinsettias and stunned everyone in the store with his booming operatic voice. You invited him in the next day for an encore and after the publicity, Guilherme “Gilly” Assuncao eventually went on to attend Berklee College of Music.
Years ago, when we were chatting between the produce aisles — you always stopped to say hello to customers if you were on the floor — you told me that sometimes you came to work with a blinding headache because you lived on so little sleep. Yet, in all the years I’ve been shopping at your farm stand, I have only seen you very courteous and gracious to everyone. And I’ve noticed many fussy and grumpy customers. Bravo to you for how you handle them. Someone can be berating you for something they bought that wasn’t up to snuff, and Tony, quite frankly, you should give lessons to other customer service reps on how to offer a sincere apology. Even your own staff never learned to finesse that aspect of the business.
Here’s a partial list of things you carry that delight me: A large display of tinned fish (though you practically have to get on your knees to see it all); figs in season by the case; dates from a variety of growers; crisp Persian cukes year-round; probably the best green beans in the Boston area; very fresh nuts that don’t have a trace of rancid taste (other vendors, listen up, you can do this, too); mountains of pita and olives; local handmade ricotta; dozens of artisan foods made in the region; a small but well-curated selection of meats; milk from Jersey cows in the Berkshires; eggs from Bedford hens; your beautiful garden center, from which I buy herbs and annuals every spring; in December rows of Christmas trees on either side of the walkway from the parking lot, which puts all customers in a holiday mood.
You had joined your father because you thought you had to help him, and it worked because you’ve often said how much you admired your parents and grandparents. You told your two daughters that you wanted them to find their own horizons.
Christina, a freelance journalist who writes about animals, came to work with you in the floral department and garden center. Karen, also a journalist, quickly revamped your website for online pandemic ordering, and started Instagram videos called Tony’s Tips, which became a hit. She taped you in the market and garden area as you introduced viewers to new items or favorite ones, talking about how to select them, how they’re grown, and by whom. Both of your daughters decided not to take over the market. “There is no metric to measure his dedication to the company,” Christina wrote me in an e-mail about you. “I have always felt that as his daughter, the name ‘Russo’s’ belongs to him. And to no one else.”
Watertown is very different from the place you or I knew decades ago. Developers have probably been after you for years. Although you won’t discuss it, you sold four parcels of land, which included the market, for $36.5 million, according to Massachusetts Land Records. There is some talk in town that the land may become a biolab. I have no doubt you will help the 240 workers who have made the shop hum all these years find their next jobs.
Before news of the closing broke, you told Karen on the podcast she cohosts, “It’s None of Your Business! — The Family Business Podcast,” that what you really wanted to do when you retired is go live in Italy for a year or two to learn Italian, cross the Atlantic in a “nice, big sailboat” (you’d have to buy one), and put yourself in the seat of your own vintage Ferrari.
Online well-wishers say that you earned and need a rest. Tony, I don’t think you’ll slow down. You won’t go from 100 to zero anytime soon (but if you’re in a Ferrari, you may be able to go from zero to 100!). You’ve been at this for 70 years. Your energy and curiosity and general good will kept the market fresh and new, and all those generations of families returning.
Just one of thousands who are sorry to see you go,
Sheryl Julian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @sheryljulian.