By Sonya Vartabedian
---- — From the start, Electra “Ellie” Alessio was one of the more unlikely residents of Kingston.
After all, she was a true city girl.
The daughter of Greek immigrants, she was raised in the inner-city Boston neighborhood known as Dorchester and later on Massachusetts’ South Shore. Boston was her playground, first as a child roaming the city’s historic library in Copley Square and the Museum of Science and later in its clubs and coffeehouses as an undergraduate at Boston University.
It was in one of those clubs that she met her late husband, Constino “Buddy” Alessio, soon after earning her college diploma in 1970. Three months later, they married and within a year, he was given the chance to run a grocery store in New Hampshire. In 1971, they were crossing the border into Kingston.
Alessio might as well have been sent overseas. Kingston was foreign territory to the then 23-year-old. And she was a veritable Greek fish out of water. She spent a lot of that first year homesick and in tears.
Four decades later, it’s hard for most — Alessio included — to imagine she belonged anywhere else.
She has served Kingston in countless capacities — as its town moderator for more than 25 years, member and former chairwoman of the Zoning Board of Adjustment as well as co-chairwoman of the Kingston Community Profile Project. She was named its Citizen of the Year in 2008.
A proud lobbyist for the Equal Rights Amendment, she has been a staunch advocate for women, especially those in business. She is a charter member of both the Kingston Business and Professional Women’s organization and Plaistow Area Commerce Exchange and a dedicated member of the Exeter Area Chamber of Commerce. For six years, she served on the New Hampshire Commission on the Status of Women.
She has also been recognized as a champion for children, devoting 13 years to the Sanborn Regional School Committee, all while having no children of her own in the system.
But perhaps her biggest contribution has been as the creator and publisher of a weekly newspaper that has been a constant in the lives of residents of Kingston and as many as 17 surrounding communities for more than 30 years.
Next week, Alessio will pass on control of the Carriage Towne News — the newspaper she literally started from the ground up in 1983 — and will enter the next chapter in her life.
Knowing she is leaving Carriage Towne in the more than capable hands of her longtime, trusted staff, who will continue ushering it forward under the guidance of North of Boston Media Group and its parent company, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc., has eased her decision.
“I never thought of it as a job,” Alessio said. “This has been my baby.”
Alessio developed her solid work ethic as a child. Her parents owned a grocery store, where her father would work 14-hour days to support his four children.
He was also a classically minded man, who amassed a personal library that grew to contain upwards of 5,000 books. He believed in the importance of education, especially for women, and was adamant that his three daughters, in addition to his son, attend college, said Alessio’s sister, Corinne Lester, who moved to Kingston about a decade ago.
“He wanted us to not only be talented as women, but intelligent, giving us the double power to be effective in the world, “ Lester said.
Alessio was drawn to public relations, earning her degree in the field from BU. But her focus upon arriving in Kingston was working with her husband to realize the success of their IGA Foodliner store, located in Kingston Plaza in the town square.
Within two years, they were able to purchase the grocery business outright. And by the early 1980s, they began looking to expand the 3,000-square-foot operation. They bought land down the road and built Carriage Towne Plaza. The post office moved in first. Then in 1983, they opened the doors to their new 14,500-square-foot grocery store.
Alessio said a store that size could no longer rely solely on the support of Kingston residents to thrive. They needed to broaden their customer base and began looking into advertising. When they learned a full-page ad in the then local paper, The Kingstonian, would cost them $700 a week, she persuaded her husband to give her the money and let her see what she could do with it.
She figured if she had her own newspaper, she could use it to distribute the grocery store’s fliers. On March 4, 1983, the Carriage Towne News published its first edition. That first year, the tabloid-size paper that operated out of the grocery store averaged about 12 pages and was mailed — for free — to about 8,000 area residents and businesses.
Carriage Towne News quickly became more than a vehicle for advertising the weekly grocery store specials and grew into a valued asset for readers and advertisers alike. People began turning to the paper to learn what was happening in their communities, from the goings-on of their churches, civic clubs and schools to who to call if they needed a plumber, electrician or landscaper.
Larry Kennedy, who has been Carriage Towne’s photographer since the first issue rolled off the presses, said Alessio knew from the start she couldn’t compete with the daily newspapers — nor did she want to. She instead decided to get the community involved, giving them the canvas on which to share their news.
Businesses, in turn, realized the paper offered a way to reach a sizable audience to market their service or product, and a sort of partnership ensued.
“I thought it was important to partner with the advertisers, because if they did well, we did well,” said Alessio, who split with her founding partner, Marilyn Coon, after two years and took sole control of the paper.
From the outset, the emphasis was — and has remained — on community news. Carriage Towne never employed a traditional reporter, per se, and for the most part, it steered away from editorializing, except during election season when it became a vehicle for candidates to promote their campaigns and for referendums to be debated. It has relied on the community to provide the news.
“The focus of the editorial has been to highlight the accomplishments of local people, their churches, their children, their neighbors, their fraternal organizations,” she said. “If we wanted people to read the ads, we had to offer them what they would be interested in. It’s always been about what people were gravitated toward and what the public was talking about.”
Alessio is convinced the direct-mail delivery system — a fairly new concept at the time — was a large part of Carriage Towne News’ success. Every week, the paper landed for free in mailboxes all across southern New Hampshire and it grew to become the largest circulated weekly in the state, with a reach of 42,000 at its height.
But those who have worked with Alessio say the Carriage Towne’s success rests squarely with the woman at its helm. She has amassed a cadre of loyal advertisers, like Newton Greenhouse, which has bought into every issue over the 31 years, and a dedicated staff of employees, the majority of whom have been with her for almost two to more than three decades.
“Ellie is an amazing businesswoman. She’s smart, she’s feisty, and she’s passionate about her Carriage Towne News,” Karen Andreas, regional publisher for North of Boston Media Group, said. “She understands true community journalism at its core, and knows what local readers and advertisers want from their newspaper. That’s why she has been so successful.”
Alessio and her husband sold Carriage Towne Plaza in 1985, then their grocery store two years later. They bought the Church Street property just off the town plain where the paper is now based. Her husband, who had been diagnosed with leukemia, went to work at the paper and also served as selectman for a couple years before succumbing to the disease in 1991. Carriage Towne and her adopted community gave Alessio the strength to go on.
“The thing was, she was determined,” Kennedy said. “Electra knows what she wants and says what she wants. You always knew exactly where you stood with her and we all respected that. ... But she would actually give you the shirt off her back. She was there for many, many people in their hour of need.”
Alessio doesn’t hide her no-nonsense approach when it comes to business or the fact that she set high expectations for her and her staff, but not at the expense of having respect and empathy for those who worked for and with her. “I think I have the reputation of being fair,” she said. “You never have to wonder where I stand on an issue. I tell you what I think is right. “
In 2001, Alessio got an offer she couldn’t refuse. After being courted by the then Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co., which wanted to expand its coverage area into southern New Hampshire, she agreed to sell Carriage Towne.
The documents were signed on Sept. 11, 2001, just as terrorists were attacking the World Trade Center. There was one condition — that she remain on as publisher, which she has through the transition from The Eagle-Tribune to the paper’s now parent company, CNHI, Inc., almost a decade ago.
For three decades — through the paper’s ownership changes to its evolution from a tabloid to a broadsheet — Alessio has remained true to her original mission of making Carriage Towne News the unifying thread than runs through the communities of Southern New Hampshire. She believes it epitomizes why people move to New Hampshire.
“It embodies that small-town comfort of being in a small community — and feeling like you belong,” she said.
Indeed, it has given Alessio that sense of belonging. She said she still loves the paper and will always advocate for it. But almost exactly one year ago, Alessio suffered a serious health scare while working at the Carriage Towne News office. The quick actions of her coworkers, especially advertising representative Donna Roberts, saved her life. And now, equipped with a pacemaker, she is ready to embark on a new challenge.
“I’ve been given a gift,” said Alessio, who turns 66 on Saturday. “I’m not going to waste it.”
Alessio will retire June 1. She will continue to lease the Carriage Towne News office to North of Boston Media Group, which with Andreas as publisher intends to continue the newspaper as it has been, focusing on all things local. Elisha Blaisdell has been named editor and Roberts will continue to lead the advertising effort.
“It’s a seasoned staff. They’re not rookies. They know the Carriage Towne way and have respect for small businesses ... they know how Carriage Towne thinks and feels,” Alessio said. “The paper is in a good spot.”
As for Alessio, she intends to focus on her health and to travel, with Australia and then Russia tops on her bucket list. A trip to Hong Kong with the Exeter Area Chamber is already on the calendar for 2016.
She will likely take a larger role with the New Hampshire Women’s Fund, which helps enable women to start their own businesses.
And don’t be surprised to see her on the campaign trail for state office. In fact, you can probably count on it.
Alessio said she always thought she’d have three careers. Her father lived to be 95. Her mother is 89. By Alessio’s own estimation, she has another 30 years ahead of her.
“Most people have to work for a living. It’s nice not to have to work at what you do. What sustained me is doing something I love to do,” she said. “I’ve had a great life. I’m just not done.”