WEST SPRINGFIELD – Strolling through the crowded streets and walkways of the Eastern States Exposition, visitors could be forgiven for wondering if they’d taken a detour to Agawam’s Main Street.
For some local stores, the Big E is big business. For 17 days a year, they move their inventory or set up a temporary second home, just across the river, to take advantage of the hundreds of thousands of potential buyers, many of whom have never spent a dollar in Agawam.
“There’s no [other] way we could show up in front of so many people,” said Laurie Walhovd, owner of Great2bHome Polish Pottery.
Walhovd and his staff had packed up the entire store, in Cooper’s Commons at 159 Main St., Agawam, and moved it to the Better Living Center, which for two and a half weeks each fall turns into a giant indoor mall. Nestled among street vendors selling sports memorabilia, kitchen knives and cozy sweaters were a few local stores like Great2bHome.
Great2bHome sells finely decorated plates, bowls and other items from traditional artisans in Boleslawiec, Poland. Some are standard models and others are “unikat” – signed individual pieces. Walhovd has been importing Polish pottery for 32 years and opened his own store 15 years ago. She has been in business long enough to have had the good fortune to buy back some items from the estates of her former clients. She said she was happy to do so, as even second-hand pieces are valued for their artistry and durability.
Although the Big E only operates for two weeks and three weekends, Great2bHome’s Agawam store is closed for more than three weeks. Walhovd said it takes time for staff to carefully pack all their inventory, bring it to the Big E and set it up — then do the same process in reverse after the fair is over. Although the last day of this year’s Big E was October 2, the Agawam store was scheduled to reopen on October 6.
The disruption is worth it though. She said she had a different clientele at the Big E and was exposed to people from across the region and even across the country, who would never discover her storefront at Agawam.
Foreigners make up a lot of the business at the Big E version of EB Restaurant, though locals also seek it out for comfort food like fried mac and cheese and fried shepherd’s pie at the fairground food court – and a familiar face behind the counter.
As the afternoon crowd thickened on Agawam Tribute Day on September 28, Ed Borgatti and his team were preparing for an expected dinner at the EB booth. Even with so many dining options around the fairgrounds, it seems to be a popular choice for Agawam residents.
“Agawam’s day is one of our busiest days,” Borgatti said.
The restaurant has been part of the Big E for 18 years, he said – half the time it’s been open on Walnut Street Extension in Agawam – and he said its sales keep growing. This year has been “a great year,” Borgatti said.
“Every year I make improvements, because it’s a very high volume,” he added. “I sort of refined it. We have great staff who come back every year. [And] the Big E is great to work with.
He said this year will be the last year he will keep the Walnut Street Extension restaurant open during the Big E. Like Great2bHome, he will close his Agawam store during the Big E next year, to focus his staff on the fairground business. booming.
EB’s operates food counters and beer counters facing both inside the food court and the main carnival entrance midway. Borgatti said the location is ideal for families looking for a snack or meal on the way to or from the roller coaster.
Another Agawam mainstay at the Big E is Taplin Yard, Pump and Power Equipment. Although supply restrictions affecting the entire equipment industry resulted in fewer fairground discounts this year, Taplin was still able to offer a full line of lawn mowers, snow blowers and other machines for sale.
Unlike an EB’s meal that can be eaten on site or a Good2bHome soup tureen that can be shipped across the country, Taplin’s business is geared more toward residents of Agawam and West Springfield, which are close enough to establish a personal relationship with the Taplin and return their machines to 197 Main St. for servicing.
While the number of people who come from the immediate area and are also looking for a mower is only a small fraction of Big E’s total attendance, the Taplin display is as much an advertisement as a surface of sale. Debbie Jagodowski said visitors to the fair will kick the tires and have a chat with a salesman, and remember Taplin’s name when their current machine eventually needs to be replaced.
“In six months someone will call us,” she said.
Taplin is keeping its Main Street store open during the fair, to handle walk-in sales and service.