Charles Department Store: a storied legacy

Story by Laura Cacace

Kelly Raneri has been greeting customers at Charles Department Store in Katonah since she was 12 years old. She leads me past the shoe department and kitchen appliances up the stairs to the second floor and into the clothing department, smiling when she says, “People love the creaky floors.” The floors may be creaky, the ceiling may be made of tin, but Charles Department Store feels like home — a warm welcome after a long day.

That’s due to the multigenerational ownership of the Raneri family, continuing the legacy of Charles Raneri, who first opened the doors of the store, then Charles Dry Goods, in 1924. An Italian immigrant, Charles got his start peddling goods along the railroad, taking orders from customers in his community, then traveling to Manhattan to fill the orders and bring them back. He saw the demand and met the needs of his customers — his neighbors, friends and family. Ninety-one years later, Charles’ grandchildren, Jim and David, have continued the family tradition of fostering and maintaining personal relationships with each customer who walks through the door.

“People still love the relationships that they’ve built by coming in here over the generations,” David says. “Lots of families have shopped here. I know the grandparents, parents, kids and grandkids. It creates a feeling of comfort, like being at home — you’re very comfortable coming in here.”

The store is practically a second home to the Raneri family, and working there is genuinely a rite of passage. In the 1940s, Charles’ son, Phillip, joined his father in the business, using his background in radio engineering and electronics to bring a whole new aspect of service to their customers for the next 50 years.

“My father was a forward thinker,” David says. “He also had the ability to build and display things. My grandfather hated assembling things, but my father had the gifted hands. Still does, at 90 years old.” With Phillip’s lead, the store began to offer repair services, allowing customers to have their TVs or small appliances fixed — just another way to cater to their customers’ needs.

David and Jim joined their father in the store in the late 1970s, becoming the third generation of Raneris to welcome the community into their little home on Katonah Avenue. As the family expanded, so did the store, gaining another floor with shoe and clothing departments, adding to the already extensive supply of goods, appliances and services. But David remembers having to earn the customers’ trust.

“Customers don’t come to me,” David recalls saying to his father. “They all go to you.” His dad’s reply was simple: “Wait. They’ll come. Once you prove yourself.” And with time, that’s exactly what happened.

For the family, it’s that trust, those moments of connection with customers that make it all worthwhile.

“I was at the dentist office recently… and someone said, ‘My mother loved shopping in your store. Now she’s moved to North Carolina, but as a kid, I’d come with her,’” David recalls. With an ever-present eye toward the future, the family is looking to re-establish those relationships, even if they are long distance.

“It’s a big goal of ours,” Kelly, David’s daughter, says of online shopping. The store website details the array of products it has, but does not yet offer online ordering. Given the popularity of online shopping, a family-owned store like Charles Department Store wants to be up-to-date in the way it markets itself and its products. Even so, the Raneris do not want to lose that personal connection, that trust they have worked so hard to earn over the years.

“It’s a great way to capture the audience that’s moved away, which has been hundreds of customers that we’ve gotten to know over the years, who would still love to be able to support Charles,” David says. “We just haven’t been able to dedicate the time to reconnect to them.”

That’s where Kelly, a fourth-generation Raneri, looks to leave her mark. “I’ve been working on computerizing the inventory. My contribution will have to be the technology side,” she says, eager to continue her family’s legacy. It’s clear that Kelly is following her great-grandfather’s lead in seeing the demand and rising to meet it.

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