Putting down a Gift Horse

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June 11, 2002 // UPDATED 1:24 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Not just another convenience store to customers, whose petition drive aims to change a landlord's closure plans

The Gift Horse shop on the Towle Building's skyway level is first recognizable for the large wooden rocking horse outside its entrance. However, those who have ventured into the convenience store at 330 2nd Ave. S. know it by owner Barb Senescall, who they call a friend, confidante and Downtown psychologist.

However, on June 29, those customers will have to turn elsewhere for a chat or a soda, because that's when Senescall loses her lease.

After 14 years, Senescall can't reach a lease agreement with her landlord, REIT Management and Research. The loss of the Gift Horse might simply be a business casualty, but Senescall's customers -- who are organizing petition drives to save her shop -- call it a tragedy.

"Her customers are losing a friend and someone they relied on," said customer-turned-friend, Julie Conrad. "I don't know what it is about her, but people really like her. She becomes part of their family. I don't understand (Senescall losing her lease). It's like kicking a puppy."

When talking about the Gift Horse owner, Senescall's customers paint a picture of a woman who consistently makes their days better. David Troy works next door to the Towle Building. He said that he started visiting the Gift Horse because it was convenient and had competitive prices. He continues to shop there for his visits with Senescall.

"She has a little stool behind her shelf that you can pull out and sit down there," Troy said. "When I'm sitting there it's funny, because you'd think she's a psychiatrist. People come in and talk about this problem and that problem. She takes it in and maybe gives a piece of advice and they go. Then someone else comes in. Everyone has something to say when they come in."

Troy recalled a recent day when he saw Senescall help a blind customer. He recounted how the blind woman came in with a letter that she needed Senescall to read. The letter was a bill from the electric company. The blind woman gave Senescall her checkbook and asked her to write out the check, stamp the envelope and send it.

"Barb did that. It's not too often you're going to find someone in a business Downtown that you can trust with your checkbook, let alone be blind and trust them with your checkbook," Troy said. "There's just things that no one else would take time to pay attention to that Barb does."

As hard as losing the store is for customers, they know it will be harder for Senescall. "I'm worried about her," said Conrad. "I think the store is her lifeline."

Senescall doesn't dispute that. "(Leaving) breaks my heart, actually. I'm going to go from talking to 250 people a day to my husband and our dog. The interaction with people -- losing that is going to bring a terrible sadness for me," she said. "These people are my family and it'll be like I'm losing part of my family. It just makes me feel lost."

The losses are more than emotional. She had planned to sell her business when she was ready to retire. However, without a lease, she has no business to sell. "Here I am 14 years later with nothing to show. It's just like I'd worked at a Burger King for the last 14 years," she said.

And to make matters worse, on the same day that Senescall will be forced to close her doors, her husband will lose his job at 3M. He was recently offered a buyout, which he decided to take. When Senescall thought she still had a store, her husband's job loss wasn't so devastating.

They planned for her husband to pursue his woodworking hobby and sell his handicrafts at the Gift Horse. Now, Senescall said, "We're both in shock realizing we won't have jobs."

When asked what she plans to do after she shuts down her shop at the end of the month, Senescall replied: "Cry. Cry a lot."

Petitions and pressure

Senescall's customers are so upset at losing her that they've sent letters asking REIT to reconsider her lease. Troy has started a petition for which he's received hundreds of signatures from Gift Horse customers. In the petition, Troy advises potential petitioners: "By signing below, you are indicating that you believe the Management Company needs to fully, fairly and justly re-evaluate the leasing options of the Gift Horse."

REIT area manager Susan Clouser said that it goes against company policy for her to comment on the specifics of the case. She did say, "There are valid reasons. We could not reach agreements on operational issues."

Clouser did not go into details about the specific operational issues. Senescall thinks that these issues may stem from occasionally closing her store while she suffered from pancreas and heart problems.

Senescall also speculated that REIT may want a different type of shop in the Gift Horse space, but Clouser denied that. "I think a sundry shop is an extremely important business for our building," Clouser said.

Customer Troy went so far as to visit the REIT offices to learn why Senescall's lease would not be renewed. He also called their corporate offices in Boston. According to Troy, his efforts only produced threatening letters from the REIT lawyers.

"So they had their attorney send me a letter saying they could sue me for having the petition. I was to send copies of any petitions and signatures I had received to their attorney. That was their intimidation," he said.

The May 24 letter from REIT attorney Joseph S. Lawder, states, "... Please consider this a warning to refrain from making any defamatory statements or interfering with my client's business relations.

"My client reserves its right to take any legal action necessary to prevent illegal activity and redress any damages. If you are circulating a petition or have distributed written information of any kind relating to this matter, please consider this notice to preserve that material and provide me a copy of it and all information being disseminated regarding my client..."

Still, Senescall has big-time legal fans. "Barb is one of those people who makes being Downtown really pleasant," said customer and U.S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum. "She's fun and everybody likes her. She will be missed."

Rosenbaum said that the Gift Horse is a neighborhood gathering spot. "It's kind of a common place. You see everybody there over time," Rosenbaum said. "She makes it a community."

Now, that community fumes about what they see as an unfair, inexplicable fate for a woman who has given so much.

Conrad met Senescall as a customer at the Gift Horse; now Conrad, her husband and children vacation at Senescall's lake cabin. Senescall was even a witness at Conrad's marriage. "That's just the kind of lady she is. She'd do anything for anyone," Conrad said.