Maria (Matos) Severance did 11 years of hard time at Value House and later Service Merchandise, which acquired Value House. Her chum, Paula Mirisola, served 25 years. They spent a decade together behind the jewelry counter. Sometimes they get together and tell stories . . .
Around closing time at Value House, a man ducked into the women’s restroom and stayed there until the store went dark and quiet. Then he dragged his favorite color TV over to the front door, turned the single latch that represented store security back then, and hoisted it all the way home on foot. This is when TVs weighed quite a bit, so this was a Herculean feat indeed. The man’s brawn went unrewarded, however. While he was hiding in the women’s restroom, a dusting of snow had fallen outside. The next morning, when the store manager arrived to find the front door unlocked and a big TV missing, the police simply followed the footprints to the man’s house nearby and made the arrest.
Other old-school robbers got away with the goods, however. When Mirisola was working the jewelry counter, a man who was looking at cheapo $99 bridal sets inexplicably asked her to remove an expensive two-karat marquise from the case so he could get a good look at it. Mirisola was no rookie. She smelled trouble. She went into the back and warned the manager that she had a fishy customer. Didn’t matter. When she went back to the case and put the ring on her finger for the man, even though she jammed it on herself super-tight and kept her finger curled, he grabbed her hand, yanked the ring off her finger, looked her in the eye and said, “I’ll take it.” Then he sprinted out the door.
One day a guy showed up with a ski mask and a baseball bat and started smashing the jewelry cases. The store manager came rushing out, but before he could say a word, the man pulled a gun and asked, “You got something to say?” The manager decided he had nothing to say. Out went the jewelry and away went the robber.
Another gunman went on a series of robbery sprees over several months, often hitting several stores in tandem and terrifying everyone. “Every night at closing time, when we were shutting down the jewelry cases, we had our hearts in our mouths,” recalls Mirisola. Well, the man finally met his end when he hit a mom-and-pop jewelry store in Rhode Island. The proprietors had a gun hidden under the counter. A point-blank shot ended his career and removed his face to boot.
Think this sounds rough? Ordinary Value House customers were no picnic either.
The customer was always wrong
- People bought sleeping bags and returned them after a single night of camping. Mirisola, working the return counter, would ask them, “Was this used?” Of course not! Never used! That was always the answer. Yet she’d reach into the bags and pull out leaves. And socks.
- Waffle irons were returned with half-cooked waffles stuck in them. Worse, they would be inadvertently re-sold as wedding presents, so newlyweds would pry open their new waffle irons to find them jammed with old waffle dough.
- People would walk up to the jewelry counter, take pendants from their necklaces and say, “I want my f____ing money back.”
Sounds like the store needed to enforce its return policies a bit better, right? Ah, but saying “No” to the wrong customers had dangerous consequences.
A wild-eyed woman marched to the customer service desk and pulled a toaster from under her raincoat. It had crumbs falling out of it. The store manager refused to refund her. Luckily, he was brave enough to make eye contact instead of looking shyly away. The woman suddenly picked it up, reared back and flung it at him. He ducked. It slammed the wall right behind his head.
Back at the jewelry counter, another woman came in to pick up a ring she had dropped off to be re-sized. Unfortunately, she didn’t have her claim ticket, so Severance had to withhold the ring per store policy. Manager Steve Kennon came out and held his ground also. The woman leaned forward and growled at him, “I’ll be back tomorrow and I’m going to drive my car right into those pearly whites of yours.” The woman’s husband called the store later and warned, “She’ll do it!” When she showed up the next day with her claim ticket, she muscled an elderly woman aside to get to Mirisola at the jewelry counter. “I told her, ‘Excuse me, she was here first.’ I made her wait as long as I could, almost an hour.” Where was Kennon? At home. He had conveniently called in sick that day.
Coworkers were always wrong
Morning meetings sometimes didn’t end well. One day the store opened for business with zero employees in the jewelry department. Why? Everyone was in the back room arguing. Not just arguing. Fighting. And not just fighting. Crying. Severance sucked it up and went onto the floor and did her best to run the department by herself until her colleagues were able to act like big girls and face the public. Mirisola was one of the criers in the back room, but she can’t recall what the crisis was about.
No training? No problem.
Severance had a brief stint in sporting goods, without a clue. “I was selling things and I had no idea what they were. Customers would come in and ask for clay pigeons. I said, ‘Excuse me?’ Everyone was laughing. They said, ‘Back to the perfume counter for you.'”
She had a brief stint as a cashier at the main checkout area also, when the store was short-handed. This was a “catalog showroom” format, so customers didn’t take any merchandise to the registers. Rather, the cashiers filled out tickets and warehouse pickers then retrieved the items. This was before computerized communication, so cashiers put the order tickets into a cylinder that whooshed away into a vacuum tube that led to the warehouse. Well, a pattern quickly emerged. Severance’s customers weren’t getting any merchandise. They were standing around in an ever-larger crowd while everyone else was leaving with their stuff.
Nobody had told Severance about putting the tickets in a cylinder, so her tickets were whooshing away into the vacuum tube but failing to arrive in the warehouse. Yet they never came back down the tube either. They had entered a mysterious zone. Some say they’re still in there . . .
A disheveled woman with ratty hair, looking homeless, stunned Mirisola when she bought $11,000 worth of jewelry. But she was far from finished. Sometimes this haggard little figure, who called herself Rose and identified herself as Liberace’s aunt, spent $60,000 annually on jewelry throughout the Service Merchandise chain. When Rose learned Mirisola lived on a rural piece of land with horses, she asked for some horse manure for her Wellesley property, presumably for fertilizer. Mirisola lugged a couple of bags’ worth into her own truck and met Rosie at the store parking lot for the transfer. Rose’s car was a rotten old Chevy with the rear seats removed and a lawn chair back there instead. And on the lawn chair was her husband. He lounged there while Rose went on her shopping excursions. So on this particular day, he luxuriated next to a couple bags of horse manure while she made her rounds and added to her bling collection.
Challenging your fellow employees
Mirisola made sure to provide a stimulating environment for her friend Severance when the pair worked the jewelry counter together. VERY stimulating. Mirisola would wait until Severance had a particularly demanding customer looking at a particularly expensive piece. Then she would crawl along the counter, out of sight, with a long, cold, ring-sizing rod in her hand. She’d run that thing up Severance’s skirt, making her jump and twitch as if she needed urgent medical attention. “I’ve got someone looking at a very expensive ring and I’m jumping off the floor. I remember this one lady asking me, ‘Are you all right?’ I told her I had a cramp or something.”
Later in their careers, the pair joined forces to have some fun with a young male colleague who was in medical school. They called him Doogie Howser, after the TV show about a child doctor. They set up fake accounts and had Service Merchandise catalogs mailed to his house constantly, all addressed to Doogie Howser.
Fast-forward many years later. Mirisola is the receptionist at the medical records office of Lahey Clinic. A man comes in looking for information about his wife. Mirisola recognizes the address. This is the father of Doogie Howser! She asks him if he remembers getting tons of catalogs addressed to that name. At first, nothing. Then his eyes light up. “Yes! And they were a pain in the neck!”
Doogie is now a practicing doctor in Springfield. Severance still lives on Winn Street. Mirisola sill lives on Shawsheen Road in Billerica with several cats and dogs. Nothing remains of the Value House building. It became the Building 19 1/2 rug annex and is now demolished. Service Merchandise folded in 2002. Roche Bros. took the spot.
Severance and Mirisola say if Service Merchandise were still in businesses, they’d probably still be working there today. That’s a disquieting thought.