It’s not something you see every day: A customer smiling at the person across the counter and then saying to that person, “You are a great American.”
But Ned Lemming, who hails from Harvard, was only getting started.
“This place is just fantastic,” Lemming said. “You don’t find many places like it anymore. Just don’t go changing it.”
Perhaps an unusual exchange between customer and owner, but then the Butler Lumber Co. in Maynard is an unusual business – part lumber company, part hardware store, part garden and lawn shop, part…well, just about everything.
And if Mike Sawvelle, the Butler Lumber Company’s new owner, doesn’t have what you want, it’s a good bet he can get it or, maybe, they just don’t make it. But rest assured, he has just about everything.
A start in sales
Sawvelle, 54, started working at Butler Lumber in 1987. He started in sales, but says in time he did a little bit of everything, with sales being his primary focus. Not surprising, given his easy smile, outgoing personality and penchant for telling a good story.
Over the years he also developed a knack for taking care of customers, understanding their needs, anticipating future needs and offering solid advice on how to get things done.
Jon Solinsky, an account manager with Boise Cascade, was in Butler Lumber on a recent Tuesday checking to see if Sawvelle needed any building materials.
“A few years back, before I sold him anything I would just come in to listen to his stories and recommendations,” said Solinsky. “He always has great stories.”
Now Solinsky does some selling (a wide range of wood products), while also listening to the stories.
“There are not many people around like Mike these days,” said Solinsky. “He is not only tremendously knowledgeable about the products he carries, but can also provide expert advice on how to use them.”
The “numbers” person at Butler Lumber is bookkeeper Pam French, who has been at the company for 12 years. Asked about how the business has been doing in recent years, she said sales at Butler Lumber have been increasing since 2003.
“Not crazy increases,” she added, “but steady growth every year since then.”
At a time when so many businesses are struggling, especially independent ones in small towns, Butler Lumber would be considered an anomaly by many. But not to French, who pointed to previous owners Ron and Helga Starr and their knack for running a business, and then to Sawvelle.
“Mike’s developed a great relationship with the community,” she said, “and a great knowledge of the business and the trade. And it’s pretty evident that he loves his customers.”
Similar in that regard to the Starrs, she said.
Another customer walked in and exchanged friendly banter with both Sawvelle and French. When French asked him how he was getting along after the recent death of his beloved bull mastiff, he admitted he was still having a tough time.
“See,” French said. “We’re not only concerned about our customers. We’re also concerned about their pets.”
Butler Lumber, named not for an owner but for its location on Butler Avenue, celebrated its 80th anniversary in 2018. It moved to its current location on Parker Street in 1946-47, and in 1973 Ray Cummiskey sold the business to the Starrs. In all there have been four owners including Sawvelle.
A step back
While Butler Lumber has just about everything a carpenter or modern-day home builder might need, walking through the store is a little like taking a step back in time, what with a number of old signs, advertising slogans going back more than 60 years and antique wood pieces with pullout drawers for storing nails, screws and a variety of other merchandise. Hanging on one wall is an old clock in a handsome wooden case bearing both Roman and Arabic numerals.
Over the years different slogans have been a part of Butler’s identity, among them, “For the common and unique, you can’t beat Butler,” and “We’re not big, we’re just better.”
And Sawvelle chuckles at one of the current slogans: “We got big pipes and the stones to back ‘em.”
But in the end it still comes down to the customers, and behind Sawvelle and French was a huge bouquet of flowers, a congratulatory gift from one of – you guessed it – their many customers.
“It’s really all about knowing your customers and providing quality products at a fair price,” said Sawvelle. “if you do that, I think you’ll do pretty well.”
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