RICHMOND — She is a tiny woman with a wide smile and a memory sharp enough to keenly recall those pesky rumors about her old job in this former Massachusetts mining town on the New York border. But Nancy Benedict wants you to know that she was no snoop.
“Did I listen in?’’ she asked, repeating the question. “Not really intentionally. But you had to listen in to see if they were through talking.”
Benedict is 90 now, but back when she was young in post-war America, she was the overnight operator at the microscopic Richmond Telephone Company. She had a cot near the switchboard, plugging in customers sharing party lines and occasionally calling firefighters at home before dawn to alert them that a barn was burning.
These days, Benedict — who now works a few days a week at Bartlett’s Orchard Farm Market here — is perhaps her old phone company’s fiercest fan and the most loyal customer of the venerable 698 exchange.
It has retained its remarkable independence despite space-age telecommunication advancements in a field dominated by monolithic corporate giants, where customers routinely wander into the mind-bending world of robotic customer “service,” repeatedly pleading for the elusive “representative’’ who asks for passwords you’ve long since forgotten.
The industry antidote to all of that operates out of a small, white-clapboard building along Route 41 here, where the custodians of a 114-year-old tradition are on a first-name basis with the customers in a pamphlet-sized phone book. Turn the page 10 times and you’re done. The US Postal Service has the “U” listing all to itself. The “Ys” start at Yanofsky and, three names later, end with Yurfest.
Need help? It comes not from some soulless call center in India or Indianapolis. In this town of 1,400, a friendly guy named Bob will be right over.
“This is still the Richmond Telephone Company, knock on wood,’’ said Bob Pratt, who is the avuncular face of the company, a jack of all trades, who repairs, splices, and installs. “Customer service is always first and foremost. It’s very seldom that someone goes [an] hour out of order. We’ll be there in 10 minutes. Actually, in Richmond, you can be anywhere in 10 minutes.’’
Pratt, 61, has been with the company, in some capacity, for nearly 40 years. Long enough to recognize customers by their voice if not their number. His son, Lee, now works alongside him as a technician. And at the front desk is Erica DiGirolamo-Amuso, who processes orders and accepts payments and local gossip across the small counter.
“One customer always brings me a Klondike bar or a banana,’’ she said. “It’s cute. It’s little things like that that you wouldn’t get at a bigger city.’’
You can say that again.
Richmond Telephone Company was organized in 1903 when 22 local citizens each plunked down $70 for a share of stock and set up the fledgling company’s first switchboard at the railroad station. In 1961, the late J. Benedict Ackley bought the company from 13 stockholders. His daughter, Lorinda Ackley-Mazur, was the company’s president and a local fixture.
“Everyone knew Lorinda,’’ said Marilyn Kirby, who moved here 36 years ago. “It’s a small, small community.’’
Kirby remembers sitting on the sidelines with the company president, when their sons played Little League baseball together. And she recalled the panic she felt eight years ago when her beloved little phone company was acquired by CornerStone Telephone Company in Troy, N.Y.
There goes our mom-and-pop phone service, Kirby thought. “I was so nervous about that,’’ she said. And then something magical happened. Nothing.
Same dial tone. Same service. Same Bob Pratt.
She’s got his private numbers scratched on the back of her phone book, and when her computer went on the fritz over the Christmas holiday she reflexively reached for it, before being admonished by her husband. “I said, ‘It’s OK. Bob doesn’t care.’ ”
And he doesn’t. In fact, Pratt, who knocked around pumping gas and working at a trucking company before finding his true calling, prides himself on straight talk and lickety-split service.
“Your eyes can say a lot. You don’t have to say a word,’’ Pratt told me as we stood in Kirby’s den where the aforementioned computer was purring. “What Richmond Telephone gives you is that smiling face and the caring look and the genuine concern.”
When Kirby was being harassed by a scam artist who wouldn’t stop pestering her, warning she’d be arrested if she didn’t send him money pronto, Bob stepped in. He installed caller ID and instructed her to record the number of the threatening pest. That put an end to that.
“I told Bob he could stop the caller ID,’’ Kirby, 67, said. “But he didn’t.’’
“It’s software in the switch,’’ Pratt explained. “It doesn’t cost us anything to provide it.’’
The customers can put their payments in the mail to the mother company in Troy, but many choose to pay in person instead.
“They come in and talk to us,’’ Lee Pratt said. “We have a face-to-face relationship with our customers. . . . If there’s an issue with the bill, we can get it straightened out.’’
When one customer was being wooed by a competitor, naturally she had some questions that have become company lore.
“Can I walk in and talk to you?” Well, no. “Can I have same-day service?” No. “OK, thanks, but no thanks.”
Just inside the front door, there is an old switchboard, its wires now dangling, its switches dead. Across from it hangs a copy of Norman Rockwell’s 1948 painting, “The Lineman,’’ which depicts a strong and focused lineman in red-and-black checked flannel, straddling a telephone pole to make a repair.
Rockwell, whose museum is nearby, created it as an advertisement for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company. And its placement in the tiny lobby of Richmond Telephone is no accident.
“It looks like a Norman Rockwell telephone company,’’ said Sally Comstock, manager of customer service for Magna5, a Texas-based firm that now owns the company. “You can’t get more Norman Rockwell-esque. And that’s what they are to the folks in Richmond. There’s just a Mayberry feel to it all, and we don’t want to take that away from them.’’
Even in its latest incarnation, Richmond Telephone Company has legally retained its status as an independent operation and the tiniest telecom in the Commonwealth.
Unlimited long distance with features like call waiting, caller ID, and voicemail will run you $39.95 a month plus taxes and fees. Internet service? Add $30.
And even Nancy Benedict, who used to earn 50 cents an hour to work the old magneto switchboard that has since been shipped to a Springfield science museum, thinks that’s a bargain.
“I wouldn’t dream of having any other company as long as Richmond Telephone is there,’’ she said, taking a break from her morning shift at Bartlett’s.
Besides, she’s got a long driveway, and sometimes her line is taken down by a fallen tree. She knows Bob will be there in 10 minutes to get her dial tone back steady and true. Maybe he’ll bring some coffee, too.