My Father’s Father’s Coney Island Costume Jewelry Shop



Neighborhood: Coney Island

My Father’s Father’s Coney Island Costume Jewelry Shop
Photo by The Faded Past

“It was 1958,” my father says, “the year my dad opened Marcelle’s Jewelry Store on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island. You should have seen this place. I wish there were pictures now, but who would have taken pictures of some shoddy storefront on Mermaid Avenue? Displayed in one window were all the pieces of costume jewelry my dad had made himself. The good pieces weren’t on display. He never even kept them in the store. This was all junk, but bright-colored junk that was popular those days. In the other window he hung crosses.

“Now you’ve gotta realize that no one ever shopped on Mermaid Avenue. The store was one block away from the boardwalk, one block down from Nathan’s, but no one ever walked in that direction. Why would they? The only signs of life were the Italian pork store and my dad’s ridiculous little shop with a hundred shiny crosses in the window.

“One time toward the end of winter, my parents wanted to go on vacation, but my dad was concerned about leaving the st unattended. You know, because there were so many customers.

 ”I was twenty years old.  I wasn’t doing anything with my life. I’d finished a degree in merchandising and I quit working at my Uncle Al’s electronics place because I hated electronics and I hated merchandising. I didn’t do much then but ride the bus back and forth across Brooklyn all day. I was thinking a lot, though, which didn’t seem to get me anywhere, so I said sure, I’ll run the shop. Maybe run is not the right word; it was more of a crawl. So my parents said goodbye and then up and went.

“For two straight weeks, I was there from ten in the morning till six at night. I had a three-legged chair about the height of a barstool, and next to the chair I kept a pile of books I was reading. We didn’t keep the heat running in the store ’cause my dad didn’t want to waste money, so I sat there on my stool in one of my bomber jackets and read books all day. Once or twice some middle aged women would come in and I’d take down the trays of crosses from the display case and show them off but no one ever bought.

“Jackie the Dog-Faced Boy, from the freak show in Coney Island, he came over a few times a week and sat with me. Some of the others too. Really good people, especially Jackie. Up close he didn’t even have too much of a deformity. I barely noticed it, just that his cheeks and forehead were too wide and his nose sunk sort of inward, and he always looked cold. I didn’t care if people came in or not, but it was nice to talk to Jackie when he stopped by.

“Every day for lunch I went next door to the salumeria and ordered a roast pork sandwich that I ate at one of the folding tables. I never locked the door when I left the shop. There was nothing in the store worth burgling and there were never any customers, so there wasn’t any money in the cash register.

“Most days my friend Boksembaum, who worked for the New York Public Library, came by in the Bookmobile. Boks would lendme books, because I was going  through my stack pretty quickly. Usually he brought this guy with him, Victor San Miro. The day I met him, he asked me if I smoked grass and if I liked bop. This guy Victor, he was into the music scene, knew some real good jazz musicians. So every night after I closed the store at six, the three of us drove up in the bookmobile to Harlem to buy dope and go to the jazz clubs. I always waited till six o’clock ’cause I felt guilty leaving before then.

“On the fourteenth day my folks were away, when the weather was starting to get warm, this woman in her thirties came in. She was the kind of person who knew exactly what she wanted. I was very confused by this attitude, you see, because whatever it was she wanted, I didn’t think Marcelle’s would have been the place to find it. All we had were plastic crosses.

“‘Is Mr. Marcelle here?’ she asked. People thought my dad’s name was Marcelle and he never wanted to correct a potential customer.

“I put a marker in the book I was reading and walked over to the counter and said, ‘No, but can I help you with something?’

“She pointed to the display case. ‘I want that amulet,’ she said, and then she pointed to another bracelet, ‘but I want it with that chain.’ My dad was the one who knew how to work the silver pliers and it took me about fifteen minutes to switch the two. But finally, I snapped it on the woman’s wrist.  I was so pleased. I wanted my dad to be proud when he got back. I made a dollar.

“About an hour after that, Boks and  Victor, came by in the Bookmobile and at six, I locked up the store and we headed uptown to buy some grass. I didn’t realize till later that I’d left my bomber jacket in the store, on top of my stack of books.

“When I went to open the store in the morning, my dad was already there, rearranging the pendants in the window.

“‘Different chain,’ he said, looking at the bracelet I’d changed.

“They’d come back early in the morning and the first thing he wanted to do was check on the store. My mom, who thought my dad was crazy, was sleeping at home.

“‘A woman wanted the other one,’ I said.

“‘You use the pliers?’

“I nodded and my dad smiled. I emptied the register in front of him, even though he hadn’t asked how much we made while he was gone. He was very happy, he said, that we made a dollar, and asked if I had read any good books while he was gone? I pointed to the stack. My jacket was gone.

“‘Where’s my bomber?’ I asked.

“‘Ahhhh,’ my dad said, nodding his head very slowly. ‘I give it to Jackie this morning.’

“I was instantly furious. Two weeks of sitting on that damn chair with a stack of books and just one customer, and my dad gives away my favorite jacket.

“‘What did you do that for?’ I asked.

“My dad shrugged and closed the register. ‘He need it more than you.’

“I couldn’t come up with a reply, so I helped my dad pull up the metal gate in front of the
shop. Then he flipped the plaque on the door so it said OPEN. He pulled the stool over to the counter and he patted it twice with his hand.

“‘Here,’ he said. ‘You sit. We wait for a customer.” I sat and watched my dad fiddle with the pendants in the display case.

“‘Dad,’ I asked, ‘why do you keep this place?’

“I’d always wanted to ask him that but there’d never been a good time. I don’t think a single month had passed when he made the rent in sales, let alone a profit. But he could afford the hundred bucks a month it cost to rent, and I’m sure now, thinking back, that he was wholly honest when he finally answered me, because my dad was always honest, even if he didn’t make much sense.

“‘I always wanted to have my own store,’ he said. And that made sense to me.”

Mara Grayson is a fiction writer and poet originally from Sheepshead Bay. She now lives in Inwood and teaches English at The City College of New York.

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