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Couple creates a hub of Polish community

posted Aug 20, 2012, 7:37 AM by Jv Hampton-VanSant

Berkshire Eagle, The (Pittsfield, MA)

July 12, 2012 Section: Berkshires Week Article ID: 071212S06_art_0.xml Page: S06

Couple creates a hub of Polish community

Roberta McCulloch-Dews

Special to Berkshires Week

GREAT BARRINGTON - A nonstop flow of traffic sweeps through State Road in Great Barrington, a busy corridor lined with restaurants, specialty stores and boutiques. The hectic pace is usual for this active stretch of road clotted with travelers from all parts of the county and Connecticut, too.

But inside the unassuming storefront at 67 State Road No. 2, better known as Maria's European's Delights, the tempo is markedly slower. Without the hustle and bustle, patrons are free to peruse the aisles, stocked mainly with central and eastern European products with a spattering of Turkish items, and to have conversations with the owners, and sometimes with each other.

"It's like coming in and talking to a friend," said Kris Sekowski, who opened the business with his wife Maria nearly five years ago, after he was laid off. "It becomes like a family. Old customers call us by name; we're more like a friendly, neighborhood store."

Most of the shoppers who come through have an accent, so when they speak Kris said he can tell right away where they hail from.

"I know who's from where, because everyone is talking. I recognize people by accents. I know already who's of which country," said Kris, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1979 at 24 and still retains a robust Polish accent. "Anybody that walks in always has a story to tell."

This kind of environment is a throwback to the local momand- pop stores of years ago, and also reminiscent of the ones Kris and Maria enjoyed in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, N.Y., a longstanding eastern European enclave.

"(Ours) is the only store of its kind in Berkshire County," said Kris, "but we used to live in Brooklyn and there's a store like this on every corner."

The city's Polish specialty shops drew many people, like Maria's parents, who had a weekend home in Housatonic, back home to Brooklyn N.Y., to purchase familiar foods. The trips were more frequent leading up to cherished holidays like Easter and Christmas for items like uszka or stuffed mushrooms, Maria said.

" When we came in 87, Housatonic had a lot of Polish," she remembered. "All these people have passed on. There were these Polish picnics … Women used to meet and make pirogues, stuffed cabbage and get ready for the picnics. My parents had bought a house over here and we used to come every weekend. Back then we used to go to Brooklyn to do our shopping."

While it would have seemed natural for the Berkshires to have a similar specialty market back then, Maria said she couldn't recall anyone venturing out to open this kind of store.

"Years ago, people didn't take (those) risks. Now people just do it," she said.

Though the Polish community that Maria once knew isn't as large as it once was, the store serves as a link to keep everyone connected. "Not so many people know there are so many ethnicities," Kris said. "We are a center point." With customers boasting a spectrum of eastern European roots, Kris said they focus on stocking their shelves with highly desired staples like vinegar-based foods, marinades, cabbage, mushrooms, potatoes, cheese, meats, and jams. They keep the prices low - here you can get a good-sized bottle of natural mineral water for $1 - by picking up the products themselves.

"You have to know your product: That's no. 1," Kris said.

The couple works with several distributors to ensure a steady variety. The array of foods resonates with customers, he said, thinking of one particular German lady who always comes in with a premade list. One

young customer was happy to see a European brand of milk chocolate in the display above the front counter.

"I was surprised when a kid came in and was so excited to see Kinder. In Europe, they're very popular and pretty tasty," he said. Over time, the products have developed their own calling card, allowing Kris and Maria to forgo ongoing advertising.

"We advertised in the beginning," said Kris, adding that they still do some advertising for certain special occasions.

" Some people pass by and may come in, but a lot of our customers are by word- ofmouth. That's how people find out about us."

And when they do step inside, Kris will offer brief explanations, for those who would like it, on the product offerings, as most are not in English.

But there also those times when customers know exactly what they want.

An actress who starred in "Mamma Mia," and shall remain nameless, came in towards the store's closing, found what she wanted and left, said Kris, who recognized her but kept it at that. "I respect the privacy of my clients," he said. " They just want to come to a small store and not be bothered."


(c) 2012 The Berkshire Eagle. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup