Bigger is not always better. Supermarkets and "big-box” stores like Home Depot and Costco put a lot of Mom and Pop operations out of business. How ridiculous is it to buy a carton containing 96 rolls of toilet paper from Costco? Not even the worst Mexican Restaurant on the planet stocks that much toilet paper! The stores going under are the kinds of places that make a neighborhood…the corner grocery store, the shoemaker, the hardware store, the stationery store, and the bread store.
When Italians move into a new neighborhood, even before they find out the location of the nearest hospital, school or police station, they check out the bread store. Back in the fifties, every neighborhood had a thriving bread store; ours was Bilello’s on Rockaway Avenue. The smell of crusty, fresh-baked Italian bread would literally start your mouth watering as you came through the door.
Hot from the oven and cooling on the shelves were rows of loaves for making heroes, round loaves, dense and chewy, seeded breadsticks, focaccia bread, semolina, lard bread, sausage bread, the list goes on and on. When some people today think of Italian bread, they think of the pitiful, rubbery loaves they find on the shelf at Waldbaum’s. Do yourself a favor…if you live anywhere near an Italian neighborhood, go find a real bread store like Cammareri's on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn. On a cold, winter night, bring home a fresh-baked loaf, and enjoy it with some steaming lentil soup and a glass of red wine…I promise you’ll never eat supermarket bread again.
The old hardware stores had creaky wood floors, bins of nails that you bought by the pound, and a proprietor who wore a plaid shirt and knew everything there was to know about hardware. He could not only sell you what you needed, but tell you how to do the job. Home Depot hired people like that when they first started, but when they began expanding, the quality of help greatly declined. Now, glassy-eyed kids roam the aisles in their orange aprons, praying nobody will ask them the difference between a socket wrench and a crescent wrench.
When kids today hear the story of Pinnochio, they must wonder what Gepetto did for a living. When shoes wear out these days, they get thrown away rather than repaired. With stores like Payless selling shoes on sale for fifteen bucks, it just doesn't pay to fix them. The shoemaker's store smelled wonderfully of leather and shoe polish. It had a set of grinding and buffing wheels to help shape or polish shoes, and a machine for stitching. Customers waiting for their shoes to be repaired sat in a small booth enclosed from waist-level down so their feet would not be exposed to public view. Today, as I eat breakfast at the Hampton Inn, I am forced to look at the disgusting bare feet of some trailer-park ho tramping through the lobby into the dining room. Ugh.
In the days before everyone knew their cholesterol count, there was (insert celestial music here) the pork store, now referred to as a “salumeria” to justify the higher prices. The crowded aisles were filled with a dizzying array of cheeses, salamis, homemade pastas, barrels full of olives, chestnuts, pickles, and artery-clogging cold cuts like prosciutto, cappocolo, mortadella and soppressata that didn’t come in plastic bubble wrap. The guys who worked there were notorious for flirting with female customers, and might even take their thumb off the scale in exchange for a pretty smile.
We had milk delivered to our doors in bottles, a truck that drove around the neighborhood sharpening scissors, and doctors who routinely made house calls. When we first moved to Staten Island, there was a bakery called Holtermann’s (still in business) that would give you a piece of cardboard with a large “H” printed on it. If you wanted cake on any day their truck was in your neighborhood, you simply put the cardboard sign in the window and the driver would stop at your door. In the Bible, the Jews of Egypt painted their doorways with lamb’s blood to save their first-born from the Pharoh's wrath; in Staten Island, the Italians put the Holtermann’s H in their windows when they wanted pound cake.
These merchants were our neighbors; they knew our families and could always be counted on for a little help if a regular customer fell on tough times. My wife’s grandfather lost his job and had a hard time providing for his family. The owner of the neighborhood bread store delivered two loaves of bread to Grandpa's door daily for two years, with no request for payment and no questions asked. On some days, that bread was all the family had to eat. The point is, Grandpa was not just a customer, but a neighbor and a friend. The bread man knew he would get his money when Grandpa went back to work, and of course he did.
Try working that little deal out with Waldbaum’s.
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