No matter where you go in this world, no matter who you are traveling to go visit - if you need milk, if you need band-aids, if you need a box of nails - someone somewhere knows the store that carries it. In Australia, Canada, and the United States, we have called it the “general store” - a store in a somewhat rural area, where lots of things - your general things - are crammed together in no particular arrangement on shelves, on hooks, in baskets, in jars. In England, the same store is commonly referred to as the “village shop” or when you move closer to the city, the “corner shop.” Growing up in Brooklyn, we called them “bodegas” - the Spanish word for “small store” or “small warehouse.” The concept behind these stores is an old one, and although some do still exist, gentrification, urbanization and the Rite-Aids of our world have just about eliminated them.
In our neighborhood, one still stands. Its origins, interestingly enough, begin with meat.
I’m going to call Smith Union Market (on, you guessed it, the corner of Smith and Union) our very own “corner store.” You can’t miss it. That red and white lettered sign and storefront - iconic, in my opinion - has been doing business for 65 years now. (Some items in the store have been there for 65 years, too.) It wouldn’t win the prize for “most inviting,” especially compared to the shinier places that move in and attract the buzz, but there really is no denying that this corner’s got character. And that’s with or without the actual characters loitering outside day in, day out.
This is Vinny Taliercio’s corner.
It wasn’t always though.
Placido Scopelliti was Vinny’s mother’s father. He and his family lived on Cheever Place in Cobble Hill, but he was from Reggio Calabria in Southern Italy and he specialized in wholesale meats. Big into real estate at the time, he bought three corner buildings in Brooklyn. It was 1945 and all of them would begin operation as meat markets. There was a store on Rogers Avenue in East New York, Henry and Degraw in Cobble Hill, and Smith and Union in Carroll Gardens. He had seven butchers employed, delivering all over, as far away as Staten Island. Business boomed.
As the years went on, Placido’s daughter, Marie, met Vincent Taliercio, a young man from Bensonhurst whose Neapolitan family was in the business of wholesale produce. They eventually married, moving into an apartment above the Smith Union Market. Good business sense was in the blood now and Placido let Vincent run the store. When Vincent took over, he brought in milk, beer and soap, and slowly the diversification of the market’s products took hold.
Vinny didn’t plan on carrying out his father’s business. He had his BA in Accounting and Taxation from St. Francis on Remsen Street and was working for Standard and Poor’s when his father passed away in 1986. That’s when Vinny came to the store for good. Working alongside his mother (one of the butchers… a rarity back then) and his two brothers, Vinny says “that’s when we became a real family business.”
Due in part to his nocturnal nature, Vinny ran the night shift. “That’s how I do it today,” he says. “I open late, and I close late.” I smile because I know this. Years ago, before the 24-hour Korean delis opened, Vinny’s store was just about the only place you could count on for an after-midnight snack. My own father, with his terrible chocolate cravings, knew where to go for that package of Drake’s Yodels. “When my father ran the store, it was 6:30 AM to 10:30 PM and that’s when Smith Street was absolutely desolate,” Vinny continues. “Now, with the new neighborhood, I get a lot more foot traffic after 11 PM. I’m happy with the area now.” This foot traffic isn’t exactly coming in for the meat though. Vinny makes most of his money selling beer. His father had 2 distributors; Vinny has seven.
“Where’s the meat?” I ask him.
“I got the slicer,” he answers. “It’s in the back somewhere.”
That statement rings a bit sad to me, but I smile at him. “No more cold cuts?”
He shrugs. “It’s tough on me because I’m running this place myself. I wouldn’t want to keep people waiting…”
“Why not bring someone in to help?” I know Vinny’s mother and two brothers aren’t around anymore.
“Oh, I have nieces and nephews but they’re not interested. They have their own jobs. You know, retail is a lot of hours, and young people don’t intend to work 7 days a week, 14-hour days,” he explains. Vinny leans in a little bit at this point and says, “But if you like what you’re doing, I consider it not work.” My heart warms.
It is a muggy afternoon and Vinny’s got the door open. There is a kid, no older than five, who keeps running in and out. He is racing his matchbox car along the top of the freezer in front of the counter. People are buying Posts and cigarettes, bags of chips and six-packs. Vinny is ringing them up on a calculator. One of the loudest Italian women I’ve ever heard storms in telling Vinny “I told my parents what you told me about unemployment!” Down a narrow aisle, of which there are three, an old television is airing the Mets game. Three neighborhood guys are looking up at it, still as statues, with their backs to us all.
“You must know everyone around here,” I say. Silly me, I am imagining his friends to include all the people I’ve interviewed so far for the Diary. You know, the old-timers. Vinny and the Caputos. Vinny and the Raccuglias. Vinny and Leo Calodonato. Vinny and Lana Deyeva.
“Oh, yeah - I know them all,” he says. “And I’m friends with the new businesses, too.” He lists them, swiftly. “The Carroll Gardens Diner, Bar Great Harry, Fall Cafe, Bino, Gowanus Yacht, Bagels by the Park…” I’ve got qualms with the changing neighborhood as much as the next Carroll Gardens townie, but I do find it refreshing to hear that someone who’s been in the neighborhood as long as Vinny… isn’t so growly and bitter about it. “It’s a great place to be, huh?” I say to him. He puts both hands on the counter, leans in kind of close and says, “Always was.” Slower this time. “Always. Was.”
“One memory,” I demand. “Let’s hear it.” He laughs, shakes his head like he can’t do it, and says this: “My father - he was tough. Lenient and sociable though. I remember this one family down the block. This woman - she had five little children - and she was very poor. They had nothing. On Thanksgiving, my father gave her everything she needed, from A-Z, all gratis, free. And by doing that, in the latter years, she became a great customer.”
He stops to sell someone batteries.
“He worked five years here with cancer. That’s how strong he was. If there was a snowstorm or a strike, and there were no deliveries back then, he found a way to go out to Jersey or to Pennsylvania to bring back milk for his customers. First priority went to women with children. If you were single with no kids, you were lucky to get a container. With kids, you got it first. That’s how he was. And that’s how I run my business.”
He stops to sell someone a deck of cards.
“I know how to treat customers. Customers are always right even though some people don’t think that way. I try not to have any conflict. If I have to give it away, I give it away.”
He stops to sell someone an ice pop.
“Life goes on. You need your health to run this place. That’s all that matters.”
Jessica Sagert, a neighborhood customer and Brooklyn native, sees the allure to the store. “Yeah, he’s disorganized and the place is dirty, but I find it charming,” she says. “If I’m buying prepackaged goods, I don’t need to get that from a yuppie place. I’ll stick to buying mini cauliflower from Union Market and Coronas from Vinny. He’s been in the neighborhood longer than anyone and that’s something I want to get behind.”
We should all get behind Vinny. The next time someone stops you on the street to ask where they can get a can of peaches, a disposable camera, Hostess Cupcakes, and some duct tape? Send them to the corner of Smith and Union, please.
353 Union Street, Brooklyn NY
Photos by Max Flatow