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Suburban Diary

A thank-you to Sparks for lighting up Malden

Store manager Rita Tecce worked at Sparks for 36 years.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff /file 2013

Store manager Rita Tecce worked at Sparks for 36 years.

I just made my last shopping trip to Sparks.

“THANK YOU. SPARKS DEPARTMENT STORE, MALDEN, MA,” printed in large capital letters, was at the top of the receipt. Why had I never really noticed that before?

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I never really check my receipts. Maybe because this was my last receipt from Sparks, it caught my eye. But doesn’t every company print “thank you” on their receipt?

Turns out, no. When I got home, I checked receipts from my other recent purchases. No “thank you” on Target’s receipt. Just a request — fill out a now-shorter survey about their service — and maybe win a sweepstakes! L.L. Bean, the superstar of superb customer service, had a discreet “thank you” printed at the bottom of its receipt, below a request for me to fill out its survey. As for CVS, who has time to find a message of gratitude, buried deep somewhere in the streaming yards of attached coupons?

For 11 years now, every August, I’ve shopped at Sparks for my two girls’ uniforms; they attend Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, one in high school (white tops, blue bottoms), the younger in elementary (maroon tops, khaki bottoms). Though it never boasted, Sparks was the biggest supplier of school uniforms in the Northeast.

Yet uniform sales were not enough to keep it going. When we read of Sparks’ closing in this paper (“As beloved retailer shuts, Malden seeks a spark,“ Globe North, Jan. 12), my eldest, a sophomore said, “I want to get one or two more skorts [a skirt with shorts underneath]. They have the best ones.”

Her sister, in sixth grade, wanted to go one last time, too. Despite inheriting bags of maroon and khaki-colored hand-me downs — jumpers, jackets, tights, tops, pants, skorts, even hair elastics — she’s tracking taller than her sister. Signs announced everything was marked down to 40 percent off, so off we went. Being winter and cold, it felt odd.

Even odder was the stark appearance that greeted us once inside the doors. In my early years of uniform shopping, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of Sparks. Picture two, even three, large bowling alleys or soccer fields. Upstairs was scrubs, Communion gowns for girls and suits for boys, lingerie, socks, housecoats, costume jewelry, all at bargain prices and good quality.

Downstairs had room for at least one, if not two, more bowling alleys, one absolutely filled with countless racks, shelves, and walls, colored with uniforms essentials — socks, tops, sweaters, jackets, shoes, bottoms, belts — in navy blue, navy plaid skirts, pale yellow, forest green, bright red, khaki, maroon and white. A few had a school emblem sewn on. The other side of downstairs was filled with clothes for babies through adult sizes.

Shopping at Sparks was taking a trip back in time. Guiding you were the wonderful sales ladies like Rita Tecce, a manager, who told me she’s worked at Sparks for 36 years. Another woman 18 years. They and everyone else treated you like family. Always asking sincerely — not because of any big corporate survey — how you were doing, did you need any help finding something among the shelves? Somehow they could always find what you were looking for.

Albert and Myrna Sparks would help out their daughter, Amy Sparks, a third-generation owner, during uniform season, August through September. At Sparks, staff was like family — and sometimes, actual family — and maybe for that reason, customers were treated like family.

Through Albert Sparks, I got a small look into the window of Malden’s past when I wrote a story for the paper (“As a city grows, memories linger,“ April 2011) about Malden’s change from suburban to more citified.

He and Myrna were flattered to be contacted. With pride, they told me about the city they knew of in the ’60s and ’70s; of their neighboring businesses on a once-booming Pleasant Street: Jordan Marsh (now a CVS); movie theaters, like the Strand and Granada, even bowling at Granada Lanes. The foot traffic was so heavy in those times, Albert told me, that the entrance to Pleasant Street was blocked off so people could meander, safely and leisurely, up and down the street.

Amy told me how “the restaurants are bringing people back.” Boston-quality restaurants became their new neighbors, like All Seasons Table, and next to their back entrance, the Exchange Street Bistro and Lounge.

After that article was published, I walked by one day and saw a copy of it taped to their front windows. Another trip later, I saw a second article taped next to mine: An essay printed in the New York Times on the importance of hometown stores, not chains.

So for one last time, I visited Sparks with each daughter, and sat in the old rocker in front of the dressing room, wooden cubicles with a dark green curtain for privacy, this time with patience, knowing it was the last time. I thought about my early days of uniform shopping, when my kindergarten-aged daughters needed my help, and the importance of shopping local, not just chains.

Rest in peace, Sparks. And thank YOU for years of letting so many of us be part of your family.

Kathy Shiels Tully can be reached at kathyshielstully@gmail.com.
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