Sunday, February 3, 2013

Walk Me to the Store

I love living on Staten Island. It offers the quiet of suburban life with all the conveniences of living in a big city. It is, however, very different from growing up in Brooklyn in the Fifties. One aspect of this difference is the lack of neighborhood stores. Don't get me wrong; Staten Island has just about any kind of store you might want, but it means using  your car to get there. We have a large mall and a series of smaller malls with clusters of stores. We also have many supermarkets, movie complexes and all the "big box" stores except Wal-Mart. The older areas of the Island tend to have more local businesses within walking distance, and that's what I remember so well about shopping in Brooklyn.

Even back then we had popular shopping zones that people had to travel to like Downtown Brooklyn, and Jamaica and Pitkin Avenues, but the stores I think most fondly of are the ones we walked to nearly every day. Many of these were located on larger streets like Rockaway Avenue, Atlantic Avenue, Broadway, Fulton Street, Stone Avenue and Eastern Parkway. Like the old TV bar "Cheers", these were places where "everybody knows your name". They were mostly storefronts owned by individual proprietors; some stores had been there for generations. I have written in the past about Benny the Barber, Spinners Market, Louie's Candy Store, Ariola Pastry and Herbert's Photography Studios. Some others are worthy of mention.

The first is a dry cleaning store run by a distinguished African-American gentleman named Mr. Banks. He was a dead ringer for ex-NYC mayor David Dinkins. The store was on Rockaway Avenue sandwiched between Bilello's Bakery and Mike's Meat Market. I remember a big sign advertising "One Hour Martinizing" (whatever that is) and an interior that looked like every other dry cleaning store. Mr. Banks, a tape measure draped around his neck, would be stationed behind the small, cluttered  counter with a perpetual smile on his face and a great sense of pride as he operated the overhead merry-go-round apparatus hung with cleaned clothes ready to be picked up. At some point he passed away and the store was never quite the same.

Then there was Schmeerman's Bakery on Broadway under the elevated train line. Oddly enough, my family didn't buy cake here but at Roma Bakery on Fulton street. My exposure to this wonderful place was as a result of walking my next door neighbor Phil there to buy cake for his Mom. She was a Schmeerman's addict who loved their crumb cake, jelly doughnuts, apple turnovers and all the other good things we enjoyed until health freaks stole them from us. The smell of baking cakes and powdered sugar would hit you as soon as you opened the screen door. There was usually a line but people were civilized enough to wait their turn without needing a number. The German ladies in their hairnets waited on you, and expertly tied up with string  those white cardboard boxes full of wondrous things.

On Eastern Parkway near Atlantic Avenue was Carlucci's Restaurant (Parties Accommodated). This place derived a lot of its business from the funeral home across the street. Mourning hours were 2-4 pm and 7-9 pm, so families would pop in between 4 and 7 for a bite to eat, and also for a family meal after the deceased had been buried. (Italians can grieve and eat at the same time.) Carlucci's also got a lot of Communion and Confirmation parties from Our Lady of Loretto church on nearby Sackman Street. The owner was straight out of central casting, complete with oily moustache and pencil behind his ear. The tables were covered in the standard red and white checked tablecloths, and of course the front window showcased the iconic statue of the Italian Pizza Guy.

These stores were part of the landscape of my youth. As they swept the sidewalks in front of their stores, the owners would cheerfully wave to you as you walked by, or maybe threaten to "tell your parents if they ever saw you again with that cigarette hanging from your mouth". If there can be such a thing as a small town feel in the middle of sprawling Brooklyn, it was East New York in the mid-Fifties. I loved every minute growing up there.


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2 comments:

The Whiner said...

Mr. Banks sounds like the George Jefferson of his time. And I loved those large string "bulbs" or whatever you called them that hung from the ceiling. Watching those ladies wrap up one of those boxes with red and white string was always fascinating to me!

Jim Pantaleno said...

I think he WAS George Jefferson now that you mention it. :)