“There is never a dull moment at Barrington Pack & Ship. Depending on the season, you can find Joe Milan (and sometimes his wife or daughter) connecting our small town to the rest of the world. Whether it’s wrapping holiday gifts, musical instruments, skis or electronics, or packing essentials for cottage owners and campers, Joe does it with professionalism and pride, with a touch of good humor and a pithy joke!” —Rebecca Schreiber, local business owner.
Joe Milan, a Boston native and longtime Berkshire resident, has held many different jobs throughout his career—including teaching physical education at Searles High School, coaching the Williams College men’s and women’s hockey teams, and being a sports writer. However, his last eight-year tenure as owner/operator of Barrington Pack & Ship brought him into contact with people and businesses in ways he had not anticipated. “Community connection is the biggest part of this business,” he says. “Most companies I know don’t have that anymore.”
People often came thinking they just needed to send or drop off a package – and most left with something much more valuable. Take, for example, Rebecca Schreiber of Paper Confections Design, who wanted to ship her products but also had various personal questions answered. “My son is getting married,” she told Milan on one of her early visits, and out came decades of inside information about venues, caterers, flowers, etc. Or the two 80-year-olds who stopped by last week, one of whom stayed in the car for broken toe. Milan insisted on carrying their packages to the car and continued to deliver shoe recommendations to his injured friend. “You have to get these sandals,” he told her.
“My most important responsibility, of course, was the safe shipment of things – original paintings, delicate antiques, fragile handmade dishes – and knowing how to prioritize so that everything got where it needed to be on time,” he says. “You don’t just throw things in a box.” However, doing business with different people played an equally important role — some were worried (the most difficult customers) and many were in a hurry.
Milan graduated from UMass-Amherst in 1979, where he served as captain of the Minutemen’s hockey team. Prior to his time at Williams, he coached ice hockey at Amherst College and Oliver Ames High School (in Easton, Mass;). Prior to that, he managed the Lake City Stars (in Plattsburgh, NY). He was also involved with the Berkshire Rattlers Youth program for many years. Those coaching years undoubtedly helped to cultivate personal behavior. (Being a good storyteller also helps.)
Meeting the needs of the community
Milan’s packing and shipping days began 15 years ago when he started working at the old Arnoff Pack & Ship store in Great Barrington. “A friend of mine was a manager,” he explains, “and I worked with him for a while in the old Salisbury Bank building on Main Street.” When that place closed, the city — and especially its retail business — lost a key local resource. (While Staples and post offices do shipping, they typically don’t pack.) Luckily, Milan looked for—and found—new space to lease at 67 State Road (Routes 7 and 23). “I already knew the business and many of the clients,” he notes.
“As a small business owner, I was a regular visitor to Barrington Pack & Ship,” says Schreiber. “I’ve counted on Joe to pack and ship my products for almost a decade. What should have been one of the hardest parts of my day turned out to be the most enjoyable. He always greeted me with ‘So, what do we have here today?’ He then mentally assessed my packaging needs, choosing the right box and materials to ship my products – from heavy marble to clunky cushions and eco-friendly paper designs.”
Like most business owners, Milan faced additional challenges during COVID, which ultimately turned out to be a time of growth. “People were still buying things and they could just send them,” he explains, adding that it was his biggest year in terms of volume. But people also struggled. “They came in lost and hurt, so dealing with the public was more of a struggle at that time.” In contrast, last holiday season “was busy, but not crazy,” as people tightened their belts and FedEx and UPS raised prices.
Finding like-minded successors
Why retire now? No sudden event made Milan change his daily routine; his wife retired a few years ago and several golf buddies did the same. “It felt like the right time to hand things over to someone younger,” he says. “Free up time for more music festivals.”
But who would that younger person be? “That was a looming question,” he admits. “A few people looked at it, and a few came close, but then the fear of owning their own business overwhelmed them. I was losing hope,” he confides. Then his golf partner said, “I’ve got someone who wants to buy it!”
Enter Alex Ervin, son of said golf partner and (what are the odds?) a former student of Milan’s from his Searles days.
“We started talking in September. He came to spend a few days with me, followed by two weeks in October and a full-time, hands-on study in November,” reports Milan. “He started working alone in early December, which, with the chaos of the holiday season, was a trial by fire.”
Taking advantage of the turnkey opportunity.
Ervin, who grew up in the Berkshires, lived in Maine and North Carolina before working as a property manager and head bartender in Aspen, Colorado for the past six years.
To get a sense of how deep and wide his Berkshire roots are, he starts naming relatives: his late grandmother (Athena Garivaltis) was the supervisor emeritus of the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood; his mother (Sandy Garivaltis) was the business manager at Ski Butternut for 20 years; and his father (known as “Hank at the Bank” due to his long history of making small business loans at the Pittsfield Co-op) works for the Salisbury Bank.
An avowed “people’s man,” Ervin states, “One of my primary responsibilities, and indeed in any service-oriented business, is to ensure a positive experience for my clients. Listening to them and working with them, all I can hope is that they leave with a sense of gratitude.”
What attracted him most to Barrington Pack & Ship was the challenge of doing something new and completely different. “I feel fortunate to have a business that is already established and look forward to seeing how I can grow it over time,” he shares.
“He’s perfect for the job,” smiles Milan, pointing to his good interaction with customers and impressive work ethic. Unlike Milan, who never aspired to expand his business, Ervin is eager to explore new opportunities. “I’ve done the initial cleaning and reorganization,” he notes, “and will continue to work on the maintenance and setup details. The name remains the same, but I’m sure I’ll do some rebranding. And maybe add an international shipping company to our current partners (DHL, FedEx and UPS).”
“The nice thing about this job is that you have to use a lot of creativity,” says Ervin, who majored in history at Green Mountain College in Vermont. Creativity—and a healthy dose of problem-solving, too. “I learned from Joe and he’s the best,” he says gratefully. “He taught me the skills I would need to manage the demands of the job and the expectations of clients. In a one-person shop, you build your customer base by caring about each person, investing in relationships and your community.” Citing their great drivers, both Ervin and Milan emphasize the importance of helping them load the truck so they can hit the road quickly.
“I realized almost immediately that this job is also about keeping the rhythm,” continues Ervin (noting that most days he sends 25 to 30 packages, but on Mondays that number can be closer to 50). “It’s a key skill that transfers well from my real estate management and bar experience. It’s all about creating consistency. When you have such a rhythm, you can adapt to new challenges and circumstances and fit them into your routine. The more efficient your routine is, the more time you have to invest in those relationships.”
Although Milan has often longed for a vacation over the past decade, he admits that retirement is still a bit scary at times. “I’ll find things to do,” he smiles, listing some overdue home improvement projects, golfing with the Chicken Wing Open group on Fridays and continuing to pursue his passions for photography, music festivals and family. “And I’ll miss seeing the customers who have now become friends.”
His advice for Ervin? “Make sure you maintain a work-life balance,” he advises, with this visual cue — a sign he often hangs on the store’s door on Fridays that reads “Open Monday through Thursday. I suggest you do the same.”
“I have to find a balance to be able to do this long term,” admits Ervin, posting his new sign with store hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.