I’ll be the first to admit that I love new things  -  new books, “New Morning” by Bob Dylan, new bed sheets, new Jersey Shore episodes, new attachments for my Kitchen-Aid, all news that is breaking.  

But what’s the new without the old?


As of 2011, Carroll Gardens can still boast one more old-timey business: Marietta. Nestled between the Chase Bank on the corner of Court and Carroll streets, and the Italian restaurant Fragole, Marietta just may be our oldest clothing shop. 

You wouldn’t be able to recreate a store like this if you tried. Film crews have been approaching Marietta for years because it dons that perfectly demoded look: antiquated blue and white cursive sign, behind-the-times display window of undergarments littered with words like “Special!” and “Value!” and inside, a muumuu rack fit for an Italian grandmother queen. 

The store is small. Most of the merchandise is packed in boxes, its contents and sizes written out in sharpie marker. 

Gloves: $1. Hat sale: $2.50. Panties: $5/pack of 3. 

Does the idea of Marietta servicing the Carroll Gardens of today make me giggle? A little bit. That said, if I could put the store up on a pedestal, I would. 

Behind these old doors, affable brothers Joe and Matty Chirico are running the show. 

Joe, 89, is quiet. Matty, 83, is not. Joe sweeps while Matty chats.


Marietta was Joe and Matty’s mother. A reputable clothing peddler who earned enough money to open up her own store at 371 Court St. (now Happy Pants Café) in the spring of 1940. Ten years later, when the rent was raised from $57 to $60 a month, Marietta and her husband, Dominic, made the decision to purchase the building across the street.

A smart move that both Joe and Matty will never forget. 

But the brothers are blunt.

“There was never big business. She stood, she existed, she had to struggle to keep going. It’s been the same for us. We’re lucky to have the building,” Matty admits.

Both Joe and Matty served at the tail end of the Second World War. Joe went into the Marines in 1941 and when he got out four years later, Matty went into the Coast Guard. He was home a year later, when the war was over, in time to join Joe in the search for steady work. No such luck.    

Matty remembers the details. 

“Our mother turned to us and said ‘You two wanna try running the store?’”

Matty’s grandson, Matt, 20, a college student who’s been working part-time at the store for the last five years, pipes in.

“You’re still trying!” 

Matty gets a kick out of that line. 

“My grandson! He always says that.”

I ask Matt if he’s going to take over the store, but he doesn’t know. He has an older brother who has already passed on the offer.

“If they want it, they can have it,” Matty says. “My older grandson is a fireman in Chinatown. He said to me once: ‘Grandpa, you’re still working? You’re 83. At 43, I can retire.’” 

Pause. A punchline awaits. I can tell. 

“‘If you live that long, I say to him!” 

There it is. 

“True story,” he adds.

A woman is in the store.  She pays for socks.  She leaves. 

“What do you wish you sold more of?” I ask.

“Oh, I don’t know, men’s jeans,” Matty says. “Did you know that people used to come in with five, six, seven kids and dress their entire family here? Now they come in with two, one, even no kids! And they go ‘just give me this for me, or my husband, or my friend.’  Kids, less and less. They’re fussy. They want to design their own clothes. We don’t do that.”

Joe hasn’t said much, but all of a sudden his hand comes down hard on the counter. Fly. Killed it.

Matty keeps going. 

“My wife died five years ago. We were married fifty-five years. I said ‘I got nothing to work for anymore, my kids are grown, I quit.’ I went home for two weeks. And then I came back. I wanted to be here. Be active. I said ‘I can’t quit.’”

Before I can respond, the subject changes.

“You know where we used to go as kids? The Red Hook pool. Is the pool still there?”

My answer is irrelevant.

“We used to go there! We’d hop the wall at night. You don’t pay and nobody bothers you. The cops were good in those days. They didn’t yell at you. ‘Whaddya guys doing here? Pool’s closed!’ they’d say. ‘Alright, we’re leaving, we’re leaving…’ we’d say. And then they’d leave, and we’d go back up the steps, over the wall. They knew we weren’t trouble.”

The subject changes again.

“You’re from the neighborhood,” he says. “You remember the trolley cars on Court Street?”

I laugh out loud. “Matty, I was born in ‘81.”

He smiles like it was a joke he’s been waiting to tell since I walked in.

“Oh, I forgot,” he said. “We used to hitch on them!”

“You were bad!” I mock.

“That’s not bad! You know what bad is? Dope addicts. Guys that mug people. No, that was fun! I’m telling you, we didn’t have money and the cops knew it. They knew kids didn’t have five cents to take a trolley car. They’d say ‘Be careful!’ They knew you didn’t have the money.”

Matty asks Joe if he remembers when candy stores sold penny candy. Joe is still sweeping, but stops to let out a little guffaw.

“A penny!” he says. “Now when you get a penny, you throw it out.”


A new thing for you to do this year: Stop in at Marietta. Engage the Chirico brothers. Listen to the stories. 

They’ll be glad to see you.


Matty and Joe Chirico

392 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow

Smith Union Market

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. 


Vinny Taliercio

353 Union Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow

Joe's S_perette

If you don’t go, you don’t know.

I’m embarrassed to say that it took me close to twenty-five years before walking into Joe’s Superette on Smith Street for the first time. Carroll Gardens had always been a neighborhood peppered with Italian groceries, and I guess I assumed that Joe’s was just another one of those shops where you could pick up your can of beans or a package of spaghetti on your way home. And it is - so feel free to do just that - but I’m going to venture to say that beans and spaghetti are not what’s keeping Owner Leo Coladonato in business.  

So there’s this thing called a rice ball. These are why you go to Joe’s.


In the tiny kitchen towards the back of his dusty store, Leo has been making his signature golf-sized rice balls every day since 1976. “As you can see,” he says, and pats his stomach, “I’ve been snacking on them since then as well.” You can’t blame him. They are the best, most under-publicized rice balls around and thanks to his regular customers (“Gimme a dozen prosciutto!” they bark), he manages to sell about a hundred a day to walk-ins while the bigger orders (think Superbowl platters) are delivered around the city. 

“When I started making them, everyone was doing the gigantic ones… so I did miniatures,” Leo says. Served hot from the fryer and wrapped in a french fry paper tray, you’ve got three kinds of gooey goodness to choose from: arancine (chopped meat and tomato sauce), suppli (rice and mozzarella croquette), and the infamous prosciutto and ricotta - a recipe inspired by the calzones his mother used to make as a kid. The calzones were an Italian specialty of Mola di Bari in Apulia where he was born. “It’s not really prosciutto,” he admits. “It’s boiled ham. But in Italian, ham is called prosciutto… so I say prosciutto.  It sounds nicer than ham ball.” For 65 cents a piece, I’ll let Leo call it whatever he wants. 

Behind the counter, scotch-taped photographs of customers and customers’ kids decorate his deli case window (as does a signed picture of Bensonhurst native, Steve Schirripa, the actor who played “Bobby Baccalierri” on The Sopranos). “I’ve been coming here my whole life,” one guy tells me after putting his order in. (“Mix ‘em up!” I hear him say). “I used to live in the neighborhood with my family… but it got too expensive and we had to leave. Now I’m in Staten Island. You can’t stop me from making the trip for these rice balls, though. No one makes ‘em better.” 

JOE’S S_PERETTE (look for the missing “U” on the sign because it’s not getting replaced anytime soon…) is open 7 days a week, excluding Christmas and New Years.


Leo Coladonato

349 Smith Street, Brooklyn NY

Photo by Max Flatow

Lana's Barber Shop

The antique sign at 523 Henry Street doesn’t credit her name but long-time customers will know this barber shop as Lana’s Barber Shop.

Once offered three-thousand dollars for the sign, natives can rest assured that it won’t be sold or replaced anytime soon. In a rapidly changing neighborhood such as this one, some things deserve to stay put.  


Meet Lana Deyeva, our loyal neighborhood barber.

In 1988, with a nominal amount of English packed in her bags, Lana left Ukraine and moved to Brooklyn. Having spent some time living in Italy, Carroll Gardens seemed the obvious choice when looking for work. Two memorable Italian barbers named Patsy and Philip were the men who hired Lana to cut hair in their barber shop, giving her the wonderful opportunity to mingle with the older generation of Italians.

“Customers loved Patsy and Philip,” Lana says with emphasis. “They were friends but complete opposites. Patsy looked liked he worked in an office - always with the crispy white shirt, gold pin, tie. He was someone that believed in dressing up no matter where you worked. He was low-spoken, never yelled, and he always gave you nice advice. Philip? He was the bubbly one. Chatty. He knew the dirty jokes.” Patsy and Philip eventually retired and sold to a man named Peter who decided to combine the barber shop with a reupholstering business. Peter took to the back of the shop while Lana worked the front. It was no wonder that Lana became the face of the barber shop. Three and a half years later, the business was hers.  

It can’t be denied that Lana has a soft spot for the old Italians who once came and sat down in her chair. Unfortunately that generation is just about gone. “I’ll never forget this one man,” she begins. “He said to me ‘I’ll always come to you, so don’t worry - If I’m not here, it means I’m not alive.’” Lana leans back in her chair and smiles. “I don’t always get a lunch hour, you know? One day this man noticed that I hadn’t taken a break. He asked me ‘Did you eat anything? I’ve been sitting here, waiting in line, watching you take customers, but you haven’t eaten a thing.’ Fifteen minutes later, he comes back with this huge, huge sandwich! That’s Italian people for you. That kind of generosity is in their blood.” 

It was at the barber shop where Lana really got a handle on the English language. Holding down a full-time job, on top of caring for a young son, it proved hard for her to take classes.  “My customers were bighearted people who practiced with me.  No one laughed!”  She is beaming.  “You know if I started working today, I’d be doomed.  Back then though, in this neighborhood, people didn’t care.  If they liked you, they always gave you a chance to survive because nobody ever forgot how it used to be.  Now it’s a different mentality and I don’t think people are as willing to experiment.”  Lana does have her share of younger customers though and she loves them just the same despite how many she has seen leave the neighborhood.  “The boys now - they get girlfriends, they get married, and then they move away.  I say a lot of ‘Goodbyes.’”  

Today the barber shop is certainly busy but nowhere near as busy as it used to be.

Years ago, at seven-thirty on a Saturday morning, you had men lined up at the gate waiting for the door to open at 8 AM. “Now, the neighborhood is sleeping at eight o’clock,” Lana says, quite matter-of-factly. “Maybe I have my first customer close to ten o’clock, then a huge break, maybe another customer…” Actually, on the day I went to chat with Lana, she told me to come back in thirty minutes (she was finishing up with a customer). “It’s slow today,” she said. When I returned, she had one guy in the chair and four more waiting to see her. I guess you never know how many people will walk through your door on a given day. And that’s the beauty of the barber shop, no? That, and affordability! Fourteen dollars will get you a haircut and ten dollars will get you a shave. 

So what’re you waiting for? Go and sit in this lovely woman’s chair. She’s been making the cut for over twenty years, you know.

Lana Deyeva

523 Henry Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow

Raccuglia and Son Funeral Home

If Caputo bread bags are one of the more recognizable items in Carroll Gardens, then Vincent Raccuglia is one of the more recognizable faces. He’s that handsome, older Italian gentleman who dons slacks and a fedora, tipping it to say “Hello, neighbor” when someone familiar rounds the corner.

The corner is Court and Sackett, and Vincent has been running it for years. When I blow in from the cold one morning, I ask him how he’s doing. Vincent kisses my hand and doesn’t hesitate. “Nice. Just like the way you look.”

I flashback to his father, Philip Raccuglia, in the late 80s, early 90s, sitting outside the funeral home, watching cars from a folding chair, wearing the same fedora, smoking his cigar, and biting down on it to give me a wink.

Charmers, those Raccuglia men. Like the flaws in your sidewalk, some things just remind you of home.  

This home - the Raccuglia and Son Funeral Home - opened its doors in March of 1974. I always thought it was a family business that began with Philip but in actuality it was Vincent who started it all. A relative newcomer, unlike the faction of neighborhood funeral homes that had seen nearly two generations already passed down, Vincent’s concentrated curiosity in this particular line of work came from within. Philip Raccuglia was actually a longshoreman whose Red Hook pier happened to close up around the time Vincent began needing renovations done on the building.  


“My father - he oversaw the top of this block,” Vincent says. “And you remember that!”

He likes that. I like that he likes that.  

“If someone drove up and had to go to the medical center or something… it was ‘Leave the car here! We’ll watch your car.’ That was my father. His friends - his fellow longshoremen - they, too, were now out of work. They would see my father sitting off the corner and they’d say ‘Hey Philly! Whaddya doing?’ And my father would say, “Oh, my son…”  and before you knew it - one guy was demolishing, one guy was plastering, one guy was painting. I had the longshoremen - skilled men - doing everything you see here for free. They did it for free, Sylvie!”  

I think there may have been some rice balls from the foccaceria thrown in but even so. “It’s a beautiful thing,” I say.

“I was blessed,” he nods gravely, seemingly still caught in disbelief. “I’m telling you, baby, you can’t make this up.” 

Before Vincent was met with the opportunity to acquire 323 Court Street, he spent the 60s learning everything he could about the business.  

“Actually, I don’t like to say ‘business,’” he corrects us both. “Back then, it was an evolution of family service. You didn’t know an undertaker who just opened up a funeral home across the street from the dry cleaners store,” he says, dryly. “But it was in the early part of the 60s that I found something that meant a great deal to me - this profession and this life that it becomes,” Vincent says.  

Choosing his words carefully, he continues. “In 1963, I got blessed. Got knocked out for a while. When I woke up, things were different in the neighborhood.” I have one eyebrow raised, waiting for him to elaborate. He knows I’m waiting, but still he says, “I got blessed. Things were different.” 

Vincent then did what he could to gain the knowledge. He went to mortuary school, served an apprenticeship with Riverside Memorial Chapel (originally operated by a family - the Rosenthals), and took jobs at all the various funeral homes in our beloved Carroll Gardens/Cobble Hill neighborhood such as Scotto’s and Guido’s and Cusimano’s. He was dedicated to all of his jobs and stayed after hours just to keep learning. It wasn’t rare for Vincent to relieve somebody who had worked a long day. They could nap while he answered phones. He was a pallbearer, a driver, a funeral director, a cosmetician, an embalmer - jobs that were very relative to serving the people. But what Vincent had - and what he insists the Raccuglia family always had (“My mother’s a saint! My sister’s a nun!”) - was the human factor. Vincent points to his heart and says, “That comes from here.”

Vincent’s son, Philip, lives above the funeral home with his children and family. He is a licensed funeral director, undertaker, and mortician but most important, he possesses that human factor.  “Go to any church in the neighborhood and they’ll tell you who was dressed in a little suit, walking down aisles and collecting, already building human relations,” Vincent beams.

A man from outside the parlor walks in. Vincent introduces him to me.    

“This gentleman here? He’s a neighbor on the block. When there’s a funeral, he shows up at 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock in the morning. He comes to assist us. Very loyal. We have to get things done early around here. You can’t say ‘Vincent or Philip don’t feel too good, they got the sniffles, they’ll do it tomorrow’ - no, you can’t do that because there’s no margin for error. And then people know that when you show them the human factor, that some things can go to the right or to the left in the presentation and conduct of a funeral.” 

The walls are adorned - absolutely festooned - with bronze and copper plaques, framed photographs and letters - all expressing appreciation and gratitude for the Raccuglia’s tender manner with grieving families.

“Quite often, when I serve a family, I don’t let them go home when they’ve got a break between wake and burial.  I say, ‘You stay here and my sister and my mother - we’ll make something for you.’ And we bring them rice balls and panelles from the focacceria.” 

For Vincent (and myself!), this is what makes Carroll Gardens so special. Our area has certainly changed over the years, but we’re still a neighborhood that has evolved into that heritage of people who look out for each other.

And in the end, that’s what counts.

Here’s to tipping our hats and saying “Hello, neighbor.”

Vincent Raccuglia

323 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow

Caputo's Bake Shop

Caputo’s Bake Shop occupies the first and second floor of a white-brick building at 329 Court Street between Sackett and Union.  If you live in Carroll Gardens, you know this bakery quite well.  In fact, the Caputos may even know you.  Their long, striped yellow bread bags with the bold blue capped CAPUTO’S font may be the most recognizable logo in the neighborhood.  And if someone sent you on a scavenger hunt to find it, you wouldn’t be limited to the bakery alone.  Caputo’s not only boasts of a successful retail business, but of a thriving wholesale business as well.  They distribute their breads, of which there are over 100 different varieties, to stores all over Brooklyn.  They are, without a doubt, the men with the bread.  

Meet John and James Caputo - father and son. 


Established in 1904 by John’s father and grandfather, the bakery was originally opened for business on the southeast corner of Union and Hicks before it and adjacent buildings were demolished to make room for the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  John’s father was the baker and he did everything by hand in an old-fashioned slow mixer.  They sold three breads: plain, seeded, and scalita (a dry Sicilian bread that goes best with soups, I learned).  Home deliveries were big then and so frequent trips were made by horse and wagon around the neighborhood, running up stoops with bread baskets.  “Families ate a lot of bread - five to ten loaves a day!” John says.

The clientele was noticeably different as it was a working-class Italian-American neighborhood.  “If you wanted to work behind the counter and be a salesgirl, you had to speak fluent Italian,” John recalls.  “Our backhands? All Italian.”  Those scalita loaves went fast.  “Today we only sell a couple of scalitas, but we used to make hundreds of them.  Meat was expensive and so the staple was bread.  You filled up on bread.  My father used to say ‘You can’t have a piece of meat without a piece of bread’,” John reminisces.  James laughs and adds, “Our family still can’t eat without the bread.”  

In the early 1960s, right around the time the old International Longshoremen’s Association building was being built (now torn down in order to make room for upscale housing), the business moved to 332 Court Street (across the street from its present location).  With bakery establishments on the rise, Caputo’s saw competition from nine other stores.  “There was such a demand for bread that it was okay to have so many open though,” John explains.  “Some did better than others but everyone, at least, made a living.”  

Today, however, Caputo’s is one of the two standing traditional Italian bread bakeries in the neighborhood (the other being Mazzola’s on the corner of Henry and Union).  A day-to-day business with preparation beginning around four or five o’clock in the afternoon, there are doughs that need to be started one day and finished out the next and then there are some that are baked out in one day and put under refrigeration. Some doughs take three days to prepare.  However, it’s during the holiday season when the Caputo men really need and require the most help from their staff.  “Even then, it’s not enough,” the both of them agree.

In 106 years, the business has been passed down amongst five generations of Caputos and we can only hope it doesn’t end with James.  Years ago, when James was working in finance, John actually considered working his way out of the bakery so that he could retire.  James didn’t like the sound of that.  “I decided it was a bad idea,” he jokes.  “We were a family business and my Dad had put in forty, fifty years here.  I couldn’t let him go that easily.”

This father and son duo have a fairly straightforward business motto that has been around a long, long time: KEEP THE PEOPLE HAPPY.  They’re a neighborhood bakery that caters to its inhabitants - always has, always will.  “One of the reasons why we changed our mix of breads was to accommodate all of the young, new people who were moving in,” John explains.  “Fifteen years ago, bread was still a popular thing… but they came wanting the new breads - the kaiser rolls, the brioche, the olive.”  He lets out a little smile and says, “They thought they were gourmets.” [Side note: the olive bread is my favorite bread there.]  “But that’s why we’re still here,” John says.  “We bake what the people want.  If we depended only on the basic items we sold forty and fifty years ago, people would pass right by.”  And pass right by, they do not.  Not when you have baguettes and ciabattas, olive breads and onion loaves, rusticas and semolinas stacked warm and pretty in the window.

It seems that the bread attract the parents and the cookies beneath the counter attract the children.  “I see it, everyday,” James says.  “A child will not allow his mother to pass the shop without stopping for a cookie.”  

James and John Caputo

329 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow

Sokol Bros. Furniture Co.

I’d been sitting on the same green couch my entire life — a heavy, square sofa bed from Jennifer Convertibles my parents bought in the 80s. I’d studied for tests on it; I’d kissed boys on it; I’d eaten many a meal on it. Suffice it to say, the couch stopped being comfortable. The pillows lost their poof, the cushions were caving and no matter how hard I tried to artfully drape an old dorm tapestry across the stains, new ones always appeared. 

My boyfriend’s grandma, a woman who’s been living in Carroll Gardens for 84 years, told me to take a walk to visit with her friend, Michael Sokol.


"He owns the furniture store on Columbia Street," she said. "What a nice man he is."  

A furniture store down on Columbia? As someone who not only lives in the neighborhood now, but grew up here as well, I wondered how I’d come to miss this.

Either way, I’m thankful to still be discovering old neighborhood gems.


Sokol Bros. Furniture Co. is housed in a monstrous, 26,000 square-foot building located at 251 Columbia Street between President and Carroll Streets. With a sprawling red sign that probably used to light up real nice and neon, the place is hard to miss.

Drafty like an old barn or an unfinished basement, neighborhood folks have been weaving through the three long rooms that make up Sokol’s for 60 years. Couches, tables, chairs, mirrors, desks, beds, rugs, armoires — it’s a pretty solid selection. There are no salespeople. No one is tending a register. There is one man and one man only who is greeting you when you walk through the door.  

Grandma was right. That Michael Sokol is a very nice man. He is by no means a flashy man, but neither is his store. Instead, he is one of the nicest storekeepers in the neighborhood. He dresses comfortably in blue jeans and sweaters, sneakers and old sweatshirts.

At a table that may or may not be for sale, we sat down one chilly night to chat. 

Michael’s father and uncle, Isidore and Morris, were t he original Sokol brothers. In 1922, the Jewish teenagers moved to Brooklyn’s Borough Park from Poland and began to make their living as peddlers in Red Hook (or what we now call the Columbia Street Waterfront District).   

"My father and uncle — they were in the installment business. They sold furniture, appliances, washing machines, TV sets, refrigerators, clothes, sheets, pillowcases…"  His list goes on. 

"And that’s how they grew. For years, they had two smaller stores — one at 203 Columbia and one, I think, across the street from where I am now," Michael remembers fuzzily. 

Around 1950, the Sokol men consolidated their two stores and set up shop in the (much) bigger space at 251 Columbia. Sokol Bros. Furniture Co. was born.

Back then, Columbia Street was as busy as a thoroughfare gets.

"You had store after store running from Atlantic all the way down to Hamilton. The streets were full of people — they were here morning, noon and night. There was a movie theater, tons of army navy stores, men’s clothing shops, restaurants…"

Michael stops and struggles to remember some of the stores’ names, but then pulls them out.

"Phil and Paul’s, Columbia Menswear, Shapiro Brothers, John’s Bargain Store, Ziegler’s… all family-owned stores." 

He points out that Court Street stores like Mastellone’s, Caputo’s and Monteleone’s used to be down there as well.  

When the men retired in 1976, Michael took over the store.  

"Did they want me to take it over? No. I’m sure my father would have liked for me to be a doctor!" he said, laughing heartily. "I was just always here, and I liked the store a lot. It was home to me." 

In fact, Michael considers this area to be his true home even though he’s been living in Sheepshead Bay for most of his adult life. He lives there now with his wife, Nancy Fusco, an Italian woman he’s known since his childhood days in the store. Nancy grew up down the block from Sokol’s, in an apartment above the post office. 

While business for the store certainly slowed down in the 70s, by the 80s, the neighborhood had begun to watch a number of owners sell out and leave.

"Columbia Street was desolate in the 80s," Michael says. "A lot of the buildings were burned down and aside from me and the grocery store next door, there was nothing here."   

Michael was able to stay in business despite seeing Columbia Street lose its hustle and bustle.

"Actually, I kind of think it’s the big chains that go out of business more often than the independent stores," he said. "In the furniture industry, those chains just don’t seem to last. Look, a chain always needs to make a certain price point. Let’s say they need to sell something for $500. If someone comes to me, I’m going to sell it for $450 and deliver it, too." 

So Michael pushes on, doing what he always did, but now all by himself.

"I used to have two salespeople here," he said. "But to be honest, I just don’t need the help."

The store now carries a medium line of home furnishings at reasonable prices. 

"We used to carry a much better line, more high-end," Michael admits. "Furniture that was geared more towards the big families. They loved their dining room sets.  But people don’t go for that look anymore. They come in to buy a small table or some chairs."

I ask him if people ever bargain with him, and he laughs. 

"Everyone says ‘I want a discount’. They can bargain a little bit, but everything is already on sale! I basically start out cheap." He pauses. "Look, most of my customers have been somewhere else — I know this." He’s chuckling at himself, but then buttons up. "I mean, come on, I know what they know. I’m here sixty years. I gotta pay some kind of bill."

Truth be told, the busiest day in the store is Monday because everyone hits the chains on the weekends. Sokol’s is their last resort when it should have been their first stop. 

Michael disappears to the back of the store. He remembers a scrapbook his father used to keep. When he comes back, the biggest binder I’ve ever seen is plopped down on the table. In it are all of the old advertisements that his father and uncle used to put out in the Daily News. Ads that take up entire pages. Hundreds and hundreds of them. It’s clear the stock has changed. 

"Geez, this is from Hickory. Do you know Hickory Furniture? Look them up. Only better stores carried lines like Hickory." 

Michael says this guilelessly as he carefully flips pages. I don’t think he’s sat down with this binder in a long time.  

I watch his nostalgia wheels begin to spin.  

"You know, my uncle only had one leg," he says without looking up. "Yeah, I always heard different stories, but the most reasonable one had to do with lumber crushing it." He looks up. "I heard that from a cousin, and not my uncle. My father said he fell out of an apple tree."


There is mail waiting for me when I return home that night. It’s a card from Michael thanking me for purchasing the couch a couple of weeks earlier. It’s little gestures like this that remind me of the kind of neighborhood we live in. Loyal. Appreciative. Personal.

Go cross that ditch and visit with Michael Sokol. He’s been there forever.

(And, for the record, I love my new couch.)

Michael Sokol

251 Columbia Street, Brooklyn NY

Photos by Max Flatow