Business Profile: Helen's, 39/41 Millbury St., Worcester, MA

The Rialto Building, Circa 1955
Helen's, 41 Millbury Street, is to the Far Right, Next to Wentworth's Bakery

(Digital Images.  Photographs Privately Held By Cynthia Shenette; Photographs and Text, Copyright (c) 2012 Cynthia Shenette) My grandmother's sister, Helen E. Bulak (1894-1985), was a well regarded member of Worcester's business community for 55 years.  She and her friend, Katherine (Pomianowska) Gralicki, each invested $100 (about $1,526 at today's currency rate) and opened Bulak and Pomianowska, a millinery shop on Millbury St. in Worcester in November of 1918.

Helen and Friends in Hats
Sitting, Left to Right:
Sophie (Kowalewski) Konopka,
Helen Bulak, Antonina (Bulak) Szerejko.
Standing: Unidentified  Friend
Helen learned hat making by taking millinery courses and the business end of things by taking a bookkeeping course at Becker's Business School. She and her partner made hats by hand from horsehair, panne velvet, lacy straw, soft tulles, and flowers.  One hat could consume an entire day's work with the most expensive hats--those decorated with an ostrich feather or bird of paradise plume--priced at the princely sum $50 (the equivalent of $763 in 2012)!

In the early 1920s business boomed and four girls were hired to help in the shop, but by 1927 manufactured hats were the rage.  Handmade hats had lost their popularity, and Katherine Pomianowska, now Katherine Gralicki, retired to stay home with her family. Helen changed the shop's name to the Rialto Dry Goods Company, and she began to focus on selling infants' clothing rather than hats.  By the 1940s Helen made the decision to include women's and girls' apparel, and the name of the shop was permanently changed to Helen's.

For decades Helen worked from 8:30 in the morning until 9 at night Monday through Thursday, from 8:30 to 10 p.m. on Fridays, and from 8:30 until 11 in the evening on Saturdays.  At various points in time my grandmother, Antonina (Bulak) Szerejko, helped out at the store, as did my mother, Christine (Szerejko) Shenette, as did my grandmother and aunt's adopted sister, Rose (Choronzak) Miller, and Rose's sister, Sophie (Choronzak) Shenkowski.  Helen closed the store for a vacation for the first time ever during the summer of 1968!

When Helen started business in the primarily ethnic Millbury St. area, Millbury St. was like Main St. for Worcester's eastern European immigrant community.  She catered to the ethnic population of the Vernon Hill neighborhood.  Helen spoke Polish, of course, but also understood and could communicate in enough of the other languages spoken in the neighborhood--Yiddish, Lithuanian, Russian--to be popular with her wide customer base.

Helen's was located in the Rialto Building, which still exists on Millbury St. The Rialto Building housed a movie theater, the Rialto Theater, in the center and businesses on either side.  I remember going to the store when I was very little.  There was a pool hall that was located in the building upstairs, and I could occasionally hear the crack of pool balls when I was in the back room of my aunt's shop!  Whenever I visited "Auntie's store" with my mom and my grandmother Aunt Helen let me take sales from customers and operate handle-crank cash register!  I also loved playing behind the counter and sliding the doors underneath the cases where merchandise was stored!

Helen retired after 55 years in business on October 30, 1973 at the age of 79.  A brief newspaper notice upon her retirement quotes Helen as saying, "I loved my work, and I loved my customers, and I'm going to miss it all." She also knew that Worcester was changing.  In another quote she reflected, "But times have changed, and the street has changed, and I know it's time for me to go."

Submitted for the 120th edition of the Carnival of Genealogy.

Other Posts You Might Like:

The Opal Ring
Photo Story: Auntie Helen's 1937 Trip to Poland
Send Up A Flare, Again! More Mystery People Identified!
Chopin Rising


Kristin said...

I love the photograph of the ladies in their hats! Interesting story of the evolution of the business.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Kristin - I love that photo, too! There is just something about a hat that lends sophistication to an outfit. Thank you for your comment!

Jasia said...

What an interesting and enterprising aunt you had! I really enjoyed your article, Cynthia. I continue to be amazed at the wonderful photo collection you have. The photos and your writing talent combine for another great contribution to the COG. Thanks for sharing!

Carol said...

This is another great post, and of course, the photo is Mahhhhhvelous!

The quotes from the news article at the end were great. Another great presentation!

Joan said...

How wonderful to have an Aunt like Helen. She sounds like she was a real "go-getter" and I was impressed with how many languages in which she could communicate with her customers. Amazing woman to be able to continue to keep changing with the times --- until it was time for her to go.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Thank you, ladies, for your comments!

Jasia - Thank you for all your work with the COG! I appreciate having the opportunity to write for the COG every month. You choose topics that I might not think about otherwise, and as a result, my research reveals bit of family history that I might not learn and/or write about without a little prompting from you!

Carol - I thought the quotes were great, too. They really sum up Aunt Helen's 55 years of experience in business in two short sentences!

Joan - She really was a go-getter at a time when women, if they worked outside the home at all, didn't work there for long. I also like your observation about her ability to keep changing with the times which is a relevant topic even today...

Jessica said...

What a delightful peek into the past. I just love the photo of the ladies in the hats and learning what those hats cost.

Cynthia Shenette said...

Jessica - Thanks for stopping by and for your nice comment!

Nancy said...

Imagine working 55 years in retail! Amazing. And the hours she kept. She must have been a dynamo to do it.

My husband's father was the manager of clothing store in a small town in Upstate NY. His hours were similar but he worked fewer years at it. Still, it took its toll.

Thanks for sharing. Love the photos.