The East Sider

The Host of Thayer Street

Jagdish Sachdev on luck, love, and the power of hospitality

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Jagdish Sachdev never planned to stay in the United States for more than a few years, but somehow has owned and run SPECTRUM-INDIA on Thayer Street for more than five decades. Outlasted only by nearby Andreas Restaurant and the Avon Cinema, the shop is one of the oldest businesses on the street, and certainly the oldest retailer. How did an architecture student from New Delhi end up spending 51 years (and counting) thriving at something he never set out to do?

“I think it’s some luck,” Sachdev says, smiling. His boisterous hospitality at the shop is legendary. Everyone, paying customer or not, receives a free gift: a couple of small, brightly colored bangles or, on their birthdays, a long, iridiscent peacock feather.

Sachdev knows his approach is unique: “Somebody said to me one time, ‘You don’t run a business, you run an ashram.’” Although he still spends 90 to 100 hours a week overseeing the business, chatting up visitors, and doing most of the buying, “I don’t call it work. I enjoy the people. I’m blessed to be happy no matter what situation I’m in.”

Close to six decades ago, Sachdev chose the University of Manitoba – “the least expensive school in all of North America,” which offered him a teaching assistantship and stipend – for his masters in architecture. His plane ticket from India was one-way, but he always planned to return home. The summer after his first year, he visited 23 US cities on a grant from the university.

“I fell in love with America,” he says. Eager to spend a few years here after graduation and knowing that work sponsors were hard to come by, he sent out 122 job applications in one weekend. Within a week, Providence’s director of city planning called and spoke with one of Sachdev’s professors for three hours. The job was his.

Sachdev arrived in Providence in 1962. In 1967, as a city planner in Warwick, he had paid off his student loans and was saving money to fly home to India when his brother, who lived there, contacted him about starting an export business. Sachdev opened a small shop part-time; the shop soon moved, expanded, and eventually grew into a huge retail and wholesale business with locations in the US and overseas, merchant catalogs, and huge warehouses.

Now, in the Internet era, the large Thayer Street shop and a small warehouse in Woonsocket are all that remain. “I still say I have more now than what I started with, and I’m as happy as can be,” Sachdev says. He credits much of his happiness to his “fantastic wife,” writer Elaine Decker, with whom he lives part-time in Connecticut, spending the rest of his week in Providence.

But he can’t resist sharing his “original plan” for a life in Rhode Island, based solely on street and town names: start on Hope and Power, then move on to Prospect Street, and Benefit Street, and finally retire on Benevolent. “Aren’t they great names? And all in Providence.”