SCHENECTADY — A new chapter began Feb. 7, 1947.
Flames that night engulfed the Green Lantern, a Burnt Hills nightclub bought by Frank DePaula and John L. Marcella less than a year earlier. With under a third of the total damages covered by insurance, the Saratoga Road venue was toast.
Marcella’s son, John D. Marcella, now owns Marcella’s Appliance Center in Schenectady and Clifton Park. With sales projections of $30 million to $32 million, John D. Marcella considers the alcohol-spiked inferno a bittersweet prologue to a longer-lasting legacy.
“He [John L. Marcella] didn’t know what to do with his life,” John D., 90, recalled. “So he got the impulse of appliances.”
Benefiting from connections downstate, John L. locked down sellers willing to supply his garage-based All Brands dealership. The junior John worked alongside his father as a teen while attending Mont Pleasant High School and returned to the business after graduating from West Point Military Academy.
“You couldn’t even find it with a road map, but that was the start,” John D. said about returning to the Duane Avenue location. The business eventually expanded to Mont Pleasant and Latham.
Failing to get along with his then-involved brother-in-law, John D. ditched the family dealership in the late 1960s.
Starting fresh, he used the former Brandywine Diner as an “office” and sold appliances out of his Lydia Street home.
The city Zoning Board ordered residential operations to cease in response to traffic sparked by a discount VCR sale.
John D. Marcella has told that story before. Grandson Johnny, 38, was still excited to hear it again.
“What were they selling for in the market at the time?” asked Johnny, manager at the family’s Broadway showroom.
“They were $400,” his grandfather replied. “Mine was $269.”
Marcella was linked to markets as far away as Puerto Rico by the time he nabbed a retail space in Rotterdam Plaza in 1968.
Since then, the name has changed from John D. Marcella’s Appliance Inc. to John D. Marcella and Son Appliances, Inc. to Marcella’s Appliances Center for brevity. Once commodity-only, he now supplies an addition of luxury goods.
But the objective remains the same.
“Basically, my goal has always been to always go forward, never backward,” he said. “Always have a little bit more aggression in the business and try to be the dominant fixture in the business.”
Now devoted to preserving that goal, Johnny Marcella became committed to the family business after struggling to find a teaching job out of college. He grew up sweeping floors and cleaning toilets for his grandfather under the facetious title “head of maintenance.”
“He was a lousy worker,” John D. quipped.
Johnny, a store manager, expects to co-succeed his grandfather alongside office manager Lori Marcella, 63. The owner’s longtime life partner and wife since 2020 has worked at Marcella’s for 36 years.
“It’s bigger than Marcella’s for us because we still are a family,” Johnny said. “Marcella’s is just the name of a building.”
Marcella’s is now based out of an 18,000-square-foot flagship store close to Interstate 88 on Broadway. Fit to hold more than 300 appliances, John D. once called it his vision for a “supermarket of appliances.”
Inside the $2.6 million building is a distribution center, office space and an open-concept showroom skirted with large displays. Introducing vignettes, Johnny said, has helped customers envision products from General Electric, Maytag and Whirlpool in a household setting before making a purchase.
With a similar design model in mind, the family hopes to more than double the size of its six-year-old Clifton Park retail location this year, widening the satellite spot’s non-commodity selection.
The extension will likely require two additional employees, as originally estimated when Marcella’s began riding the wave of Saratoga County’s booming economy in 2016.
The company is also eyeing space in Rotterdam for storage. Approved by the Planning Board in January, Marcella’s aims to develop a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in Rotterdam to keep up with a COVID-19-prompted surge in consumer home improvement projects.
The overall home appliance market grew by 8% in 2021, according to a report from Growth from Knowledge, a provider of data and analytics to the consumer goods industry, last September.
Sales revenue at Marcella’s totaled $28 million last year, 115% higher than 2010. The employee count has nearly doubled in that time, from 36 to 66.
Reaching that point has been a long haul. Marcella’s shuttered one short-lived Colonie store while looking to consolidate resources more than a decade ago and lost a Crane Street clearance store two years ago in a blaze.
Three parcels of the Mont Pleasant holdings were ultimately donated to the Bridge Christian Church across the street. John D. Marcella opened the storefront in 1987.
Needed repairs were estimated at $250,000 before the fire. Rehabilitation efforts were stalled as a result of several financial blows — one of which had been caused by a nefarious employee.
“I think it made us a better business,” Lori said. “Because, yes, maybe we were too trusting. Maybe we didn’t keep as close of an eye as we could have or should have at that point.”
Carrie LaFond, a then-bookkeeper at Marcella’s, was charged in 2014 after stealing $466,000 and forging John D.’s signature over her three-year span at the company. LaFond got out early from her 2 1/2- to 7 1/2-year prison sentence.
Marcella’s laid off three employees as a result of the loss and never received the money back in full. Most of LaFond’s expenses remain unclear.
“There is no closure,” Lori said.
Although a concern in the wake of the scandal, Lori and Johnny believe the business’ reputation remains intact.
Earlier this year, Lori thought 100 people might attend a surprise party for John D.’s 90th birthday at Rivers Casino if 125 were invited. About 135 people showed up.
For Lori, the turnout seemed indicative of John D. Marcella’s standing in the community.
“There were people I couldn’t invite,” Lori said. “There were just too many people and nobody said no.”
Marcella last contemplated staying in Schenectady in 2009 after struggling to find a viable location. The Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority, seeking to retain an economic booster, equipped Marcella’s with a $250,000 facade grant and $400,000 loan to start up on Broadway.
“I had so many opportunities to leave here by manufacturers in more viable areas,” John D. said. “And I always presented the fact that this is our roots and this is where we’re gonna make it grow, and we did.”
John D. once worried that larger corporate competitors such as Lowes and Sears might make inroads. Now, he considers Marcella’s pricing, installation services and repair services as major advantages over the retail giants.
Marcella’s flagship operations were rated 4.2 stars from 194 Google reviewers, and the Clifton Park location garnered 3.8 from 263 Google reviewers.
Social media feedback is monitored. When negative reviews appear, company officials attempt to mitigate matters, occasionally to no avail.
“We want to find out what the real problem is,” John D. said. “But you get some people that no matter what you do, you can’t make them happy.”
Notwithstanding major chains and online dealers, consumers have fewer independent choices in the Albany metro area than in decades past. Many once-competitive small business rivals have shuttered since the early days, including Green’s Appliances, Droozeville Appliances and Suburban Appliances.
Still lurking is Earl B. Feiden Appliances, a comparably sized 96-year-old family operation with locations in Latham, Clifton Park and Kingston.
“I would just say the major difference between us and our closest competitors, names excluded, [is] they have a different philosophy than we do,” Johnny said. “And that’s why a lot of the people from some of our competitors come over to us to work.”
Employees during Marcella’s onboarding process are asked to represent John D. Marcella more than the business, and greet and service each customer.
A handful of sales staff have worked at Marcella’s for nearly 30 years. John D. described them as friends and nonbiological family first.
“He brings him to his house for parties,” Johnny said. “He sends them out to shows and takes them out to dinner.”
Marcella’s recently launched a life insurance fund in response to two unexpected deaths within the past decade.
“I don’t want it to go in the paper like we’re saints,” Johnny said. “We wanted to make sure that their families were taken care of, because, you know, they did a lot for us.”