For Cambridge’s Family-Owned Businesses, It’s All Relative

madhouse motorsJ. Shia and her father Michael Shia of Madhouse Motors swap stories at the original “Madhouse” in Central Square. Photo by Gretchen Devine.

There’s a lot to love about running a family business. You’re working with people you know are reliable, people you can trust to do their job well. You get to spend time together you otherwise wouldn’t, and you can (theoretically) be forthcoming with your ideas and opinions.

“No matter how much you bicker—usually—you can keep your job,” laughs Central Square Florist’s Jackie Levine.

When your coworkers are your cousins, kids and uncles, business isn’t just business—a fact that 22-year-old Levine understands well. She’s the fourth generation to work at her family’s flower shop, which opened its doors in 1929, and she knows how hard her parents and grandparents worked to keep the store afloat. Running an independent business is stressful enough as it is, but combining work and family can compound the level of difficulty, no matter how closely related the staff is.

“It’s definitely not easy,” adds Levine. One challenge? Keeping shop talk at the shop. Business chatter often spills over into after hours conversations—though Levine adds that this probably wouldn’t happen if she didn’t enjoy talking about her job.

Bringing work home used to be a necessity for J. Shia, who owns the motorcycle shop Madhouse Motors. Shia grew up in a biker family, and her siblings would pass the days working on bikes in their yard, fixing motorcycles for fun. As the family became a neighborhood name for their mechanical abilities, people started stopping by their Central Square home—the “Madhouse”—looking for fixer-uppers. “The name literally reflects the crazy house,” Shia says. “The shop started on its own.” In 2010, Madhouse Motors moved out of the family garage and into its very own storefront in Somerville.

Though the business itself has moved out of the house, the people of the house have not left the business. Shia runs the shop alongside her business partner, Sayre Anthony, but her father, Michael Shia, is still a fixture at the space, and her older brother Sam advocates for the shop on a grassroots level. It’s Michael who taught J. everything she knows about building and fixing bikes. He still owns the original Madhouse in Central Square, which J. says is an almost magical place. “It’s sort of a like a community watering hole, filled with bikes and kids and dogs and—most importantly—great conversation,” she says. The older Shias are a huge factor in keeping Madhouse Motors firing on all cylinders. “They’re the wise men of the family,” Shia explains. When she needs advice about ordering rare or specialty parts, she knows exactly who to ask.

madhouse motors

Photo by Mary Schwalm

The way a family business operates, or even the way customers feel when they visit, can have a lot to do with family itself. “I’ve learned a lot about how to treat people through my upbringing,” says Sal Bonacci, owner of Bonny’s Garden Center. Bonacci’s father and uncles worked together as landscapers in 1947 and eventually decided to open a garden center. Bonacci and his brother Joe have been running the business full-time since 1980, and he says he wouldn’t have it any other way. (His uncle, Gene, is 92, but he continued landscaping up until about two years ago.)

“We do things differently. I’ve met a lot of people who go beyond a business relationship,” Bonacci says. He and his brother have cultivated a familial atmosphere at Bonny’s throughout the years—so much so that the shop has an almost unheard of 5-star rating on Yelp, notoriously a place where disgruntled shoppers go to bicker and complain. Bonacci’s mother never actually worked in the shop, but when she passed away in 2014, he and his family received an outpouring support from their customers.

Like Levine, Bonacci says that working with family can be a blessing and a curse. “The greatest challenge is being around someone so much,” he agrees. “You have to be cut out and prepared for that. It’s one thing to isagree with a coworker, but you don t have to see them when y u go hom .”

Shia says that the Madhouse team tries to encourage a separation between work and personal time. “Talk about business issues at the time of business, and family with the family,” she recommends. “There’s a time and place for [those] conversations—it can be unhealthy to mix the two.”

Potential for conflict aside, having that connection can help strengthen family relationships. “My customers become close friends, the apprentices become like brothers and we all mesh together under this one chaotic roof with the rest of the family,” Shia says. “I love working with my family—be it the Shia family or Madhouse team. It’s all the same to me at this point.

“If it was just business all day, we would ’t be doing what we are doing,” Bonacci agrees. “If I didn’t like what I was doing, I would have quit a long time ago.”

This story originally appeared in our March/April print edition, which is available for free at more than200 drop spots throughout Cambridge (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription

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