Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Arthur D'Angelo and his twin brother, Henry, were 12 years old in 1938 when they arrived in the United States from Italy and joined their father in Boston's North End. The first words they learned in English were the only words a newsie needed: "two" and "cents." Later they picked up "shoe" and "shine." Selling whatever, chasing customers wherever, in time they found their way across town to Fenway Park, home of the Red Sox. "What the hell's going on here?" Arthur remembers wondering. "I didn't know what baseball was all about. The only thing we saw, we saw crowds. We felt we could sell newspapers."
Also flowers and ice cream. Later pennants and pins, batting helmets and hats, T-shirts, hoodies, leisure wear--anything with a logo on it. Today '47, as it's called (commemorating the year the twins formally launched their business), is an enterprise with nearly 400 employees, a global supply chain, a complete set of licensing agreements covering all the major sports (Red Sox merchandise is a small percentage of overall sales), and an insanely busy flagship store on Yawkey Way next to the ballpark. Sean Ward, who's been a Red Sox season ticket holder since 2003, says he loves shopping there because there's nothing you can't find. "Where else are going to get a long-sleeve Saltalamacchia T-shirt," he says, referring to the former Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has the longest last name in Major League Baseball history.
On game days, 47 routinely rings up $250,000 in sales. Asked about annual revenues, Arthur's son Bobby D'Angelo replies: "Attendance for the 2017 MLB season is hovering near 67 million with a few games left in the regular season. Let's just say our annual sales are congruent with getting at least a few dollars out of each of those fans."
Bobby, 62, is the oldest in the second generation of owner-operators. He has three brothers--Mark, 58, David, 56, and Steven, 53--and they're very close. They golf together, barbecue together, vacation together, and work together all day in a long narrow room with four desks at '47's suburban Boston headquarters. Everybody draws the same pay. Nobody has a title. They manage by consensus ("unless one person is really passionate," says Mark). At the end of the day, they gather in a windowless man cave in the back of the store that they call the Vatican. There they relax, two to a love seat, facing opposite TVs on opposite walls, and watch the end of the game together.
"I want you to try to picture this," says Bobby, undertaking to explain how it all began. "Fenway Park had eight entrances and exits. That's where the people go in and that's where the people come out. But you can't work before the game because the police would stop you. So after the game you have to get there at the last minute, you'd set up, and you'd have a badge board. Because why? Because with the badge board you were mobile, you can make a quick getaway."
"You had to keep moving!" interjects Arthur, 90. (Henry, who was a heavy smoker, died in 1987.) Arthur's not much involved in the details anymore, but neither has he retired. You'll find him at the store most summer afternoons, perched cross-legged on a leather throne (it's a big baseball mitt), flashing a World Series ring, posing for pictures, signing autographs. Then he walks across the street to the ballpark and takes his regular front-row seat next to the Red Sox dugout, the same seat he's had for decades.
"Because in those days," says Bobby, returning to the story, "the concessionaire, Harry M. Stevens, they were paying the Red Sox the big pay. But the Red Sox didn't really care. All they cared about was beer, soda, hot dogs. In those days there wasn't even sausage. But then [Arthur] said, 'You know what? This is worthwhile.' So he rented a little store directly across from Fenway Park. That's how it started."
Out of the bush league
In 1967 the Red Sox won the American League pennant. They lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals--the Curse of the Bambino wouldn't lift for another 37 years--but no matter, the city was smitten. It was the Impossible Dream, the founding season of Red Sox Nation. Attendance soared, the D'Angelos's business took off, and the family began doing what rising immigrant families do: buying property. First a tiny storefront on Yawkey Way (it was Jersey Street then), then the radiator factory next door. They added warehouse buildings to the south and west, gradually accumulating almost three contiguous acres.
For years they ran the whole business from those buildings, retail and wholesale. When it got to be too much of a hassle moving tractor trailers in and out of the city on game days they shifted warehouse operations to the suburbs. Now they find themselves sitting on a slightly dowdy, seriously underutilized asset in one of Boston's hottest neighborhoods, surrounded by new high-rise developments. "We're not in the real estate business," Bobby says. "But we're going to be forced to be in the real estate business."
Change is coming, not least a succession challenge. The brothers have 11 kids between them. Henry's two sons, who aren't involved in managing the business but do own equal shares, have nine more. That's 20 heirs, ages 13 to 28. Some would love to work in the family business and might even have something to contribute. But so far, by mutual agreement, the brothers aren't letting anybody else in. Too fraught, they've decided. Too many things could go wrong. Too many ways to "create animosity between us, and animosity between the cousins," Mark says. Or as Steve frames the dilemma, "What's the value of having a really successful business and a disastrous family life?"
But Bobby's not thinking about any of that right now. It's a warm summer night. The Phillies are in town for a two-game set. The sidewalks are crowded, the store is packed. "This is life," he says, taking it all in. "And it's very cool. And it feels like home, you know? I'm just, like. in love with the place."