Christina Cavallari, owner of Serio’s Market in Northampton, dies at 57

Daily Hampshire Gazette. June 2, 2014. By Laurie Loisel.

NORTHAMPTON — Christina A. Cavallari, owner of Serio’s Market, believed to be the longest continuously run, family-owned business in the city, died unexpectedly Friday night. She was 57.

Her husband, Gary Golec, with whom she ran the popular grocery store at 65 State St., said Cavallari had been feeling “run down” for a couple of weeks, and was hospitalized at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield on Wednesday, where she was being treated for anemia. He said he was with his wife Friday night, when she seemed on a path to recovery and doctors were talking about discharging her Sunday or Monday.

“I left her last night a little after 8 o’clock, told her I loved her, and got a call from the hospital around 10 that something was wrong,” Golec said in a telephone interview Saturday. “By the time I got there, she was already gone.”

He said the cause of death is unknown, and an autopsy is being performed. Golec said he spent much of Saturday with her family and that funeral arrangements had not been made.

Golec opened the market Saturday morning, saying he did not have time to make other arrangements.

“It’s sad but you still have a business to run and people are depending on you for the paycheck, and they’re part of the family too,” said Golec. “Chris would have wanted me to do that.”

Store manager Amanda Sanford, 22, said Golec was at work when she arrived Saturday morning, and she insisted that he go home.

Wiping away tears while standing at a cash register Saturday afternoon, she described Cavallari as a “perfect” boss. “I couldn’t have asked for a better boss, I couldn’t,” said Sanford, who has worked at Serio’s for seven years. “She helped me out a lot.”

Sanford said throughout the day customers came into the store to ask if what they’d heard — that Cavallari had died — was true. “It’s just crazy. It was sudden, it’s so sad,” she said. Customers, she said, are in “total and complete shock.”

That was echoed by two customers shopping in the store Saturday afternoon.

Paul Shoul, a Northampton photographer who described himself as a longtime regular Serio’s customer said he was in “complete and utter shock” when he learned the news.

“She was one of the people that for me make up the fabric of this town,” he said. “She’s very friendly. We’ve seen each other for what, 25-30 years and have never run out of stories to tell.”

James McDonald of Northampton, another regular at Serio’s, said he would chat with Cavallari every time he came into the store, often about the state of local produce, as when she recently told him the asparagus crops were coming in late this year. He said she took pride in stocking local produce as much as possible, and had strong relationships with local farmers, which is why she was so knowledgeable about the crops.

“She always had something interesting to say. She loved talking about different kinds of food and we also talked about predicting when the first asparagus or the first fiddleheads would come in,” said McDonald. “She really knew so much. She always knew what was going on.”

He recalled that she introduced him to a particular kind of spaghetti sauce that was known as “Sicilian gravy,” and there were many such times that she recommended products to him.

But Shoul added: “You come here for more than groceries.”

He said he always appreciated that Cavallari and Golec made their store welcoming for a wide variety of people. “Some of the wayward found a place here,” he said. “I think this is also a place where you come to find out what’s going on in a certain old Northampton.”

Store’s future

Golec said his wife’s death is a heavy blow for him and many other people.

“It’s a sad time for a lot of people. She touched a lot of people,” he said. “She was flat-out awesome — the most kind, understanding person I’ve ever met in my life.”

He said they would have been married 19 years in September, and both were Northampton natives. Recently, he said, they were busy planning their 40th high school reunion.

As for the future of the store, which employs between 20 and 23 people, he said it will be hard without his wife.

“We’re going to do our best,” he said. “She was the glue that held it together — she was the brains of the operation. I was on the floor. I had the easy job.”

Neighbors devastated

Meanwhile, owners of nearby businesses said they are devastated at Cavallari’s death. They said they shared a great camaraderie and strong sense of neighborliness in the struggle to run a small, independent business in a difficult economy.

Richard Cooper, owner of State Street Fruit Store, two shops down from Serio’s, called Cavallari “the epitome of the small business owner.”

“She was always right up front with customers and smiling,” said Cooper. “Man, what a loss.”

He said he and Cavallari and Golec had a friendly relationship that involved lending and borrowing. “If they ran out of bananas, they’d borrow them, or if we ran out of hot dog buns, we’d borrow them,” he said.

Hungry Ghost owner Cheryl Maffie said she and her partner Jonathan Stevens were devastated when they got the news when Golec came into their bakery Saturday morning.

She said Golec and Cavallari were generous with advice and support over the past 10 years since Hungry Ghost has been open across the street, including times when they’ve used the freezer at Serio’s.

“There’s more than a few times we’ve put our arms around each other,” she said. “You console each other when you have a retail business you know each others’ struggles, you know what a snowstorm means.”

She said she and Stevens did all their grocery shopping at Serio’s, often on Saturday afternoons when they knocked off work.

“Chris was always right at the door and she’d say, ‘I judge the time by when you come in and you guys are late today,’ ” said Maffie. Then Cavallari would listen as they explained what it was that made them late that day.

“I can’t imagine that place without her,” said Maffie. “It’s a great loss.”