Note: Ana J. Cortina, who lives in Palisades Park, wrote this essay as a tribute to her late father, Alfredo Juri, who owned Juri Jewelry. The business was first in Union City, then later in West New York.
For as long as I can remember, “the store” was a part of my family’s and my life. This is where my parents worked and built their new life as immigrants from Cuba, toiling hard to raise my brothers, Jose and Pablo, my sister Carmen, and I in a strange new land. We grew up here, playing and – more times that I care to recall – fighting in the back room where, had I not ducked in time to miss a bicycle pedal flying my way, I might not be writing this story today.
The Store, my father’s jewelry shop, was the place where Carmen, the only one of us born in the United States, spent her formative years in her playpen in the back as my parents worked. In the summers and after school, my brothers and I all helped look after her. Here also was the place where I sat shuffling papers on my father’s desk and when he asked what I was doing I answered that I was “playing secretary” to help him in the future. He in turn called me his “secretaria linda,” his smile and loving pat on the head all the assurance I needed that my “work” was already appreciated.
I remember watching the first moon landing on the black-and-white TV at the store’s original location in Union City. I was only eight, but knew even then this was a historic, momentous event that I would always recall. Later that year, in 1969, the family business as well as our place or residency was moved to West New York, the next town over. My father bought a three-story building on Bergenline Avenue, a vibrant business district, making our home above the store. The ethnicity consisted of German-Americans, Italians and a large Cuban immigrant population who, having been successful in the old country, re-established themselves here.
There was a colorful blend of bodegas, Italian delis and bakeries, clothing shops and many others. Cuban bakeries offered such goodies as “pastels de guayaba y queso” (guava and cheese pastries) or “panetella boracha” (syrup soaked mini-cakes). Just one block away from my father’s shop, La Havana bakery had their home. Here we would frequently stop by for an after-school treat before heading up the two long flights that led to our apartment. If you needed an “asabache” (black stone charm) or “ojitos de Santa Lucia” (St. Lucy’s eye charm) to ward off “mal de ojo” or the evil eye you could come to The Store to buy the “legitimo” or the legitimate black stone with 14k gold.
Meanwhile, the longtime clients would drop by The Store. My mother would offer some espresso coffee, forging lifelong friendships. These people, who saw us grow up in all our stages, formed a part of our lives and history. As children, we could not foresee how supportive and loving they would prove to be in the years to come.
For instance, my father was in the hospital recuperating from surgery at the time of my sister’s wedding; had it not been for our friend Mirella who stood watch with him, we could not have attended the ceremony in peace. Or the many times that Ramona, Hilda or Isabel would drop by and mind the store when errands or last minute emergencies popped up was surely appreciated. But then, it wasn’t hard to be nice to my father, being even-tempered, loving and serious-looking, at the same time. Everyone knew him as Juri, and he proved to be a friend and surrogate father to many.
The Store, in fact, became a haven of sorts for the Cuban old-timers, the people in the neighborhood, kooks and friends alike. My father would spend his time reminiscing about his heyday in Cuba as a salesman for fabrics and clothing. (He would eventually own his own factory of ladies undergarments in the 1950s). He knew most of Cuba like the back of his hand, having traveled all around the island. He could recall street names, storefronts and family addresses after not seeing his homeland for over 30-odd years.
Many people would stop by, not only for a battery change for their watch, but even more perhaps for a friendly word, some advice or in need of an objective listener.
Strangely enough, none of us opted for a career in the family business. Perhaps we took it for granted, became too accustomed to it, or we thought of it as our “father’s turf.” He did not instill in us any particular training or duty for his work. Contrarily, he would always man the ship, trying to make life easier for us.
The years passed. We moved to the suburbs, and The Store continued. We all studied our respective careers, got jobs, some married as time went by. Bergenline underwent many changes in the late ’90s, with a new wave of Latin-American immigrants searching for a better life with not much disposable income to spend on jewelry and other luxury items.
The stores that were long established were leaving the neighborhood. It was not possible to shop at Schlesingers, WNY’s own version of a department store, or to Lombardi’s for homemade raviolis, nor Lobel’s for school uniforms, because these locally legendary places no longer existed. It was sad to see the passing of an era, and yet through all this change, The Store remained.
Sales were weaker than before and many of the regular clients moved to Florida or the suburbs, shopping less and less in town. A few faithful customers remained and still came back for the service, treatment and friendship from my Dad.
My father passed away on Oct. 1, 1999.
This not only shook up our world, but, we soon realized, the lives of his many clients and friends. We didn’t quite realize the extent of his influence, and it was touching to see how his quiet manner and storytelling ways had affected so many.
Person after person cried upon hearing the news. I suspect they were also crying for themselves, having lost a vital aspect of their lives. They had found a comforting fixture in stopping by The Store, seeing my Dad and feeling that some good things don’t change.
After he was gone, my mother ran The Store with the help of my brother Pablo. It had been difficult and yet also consoling to come to The Store. But it wasn’t the same without him. After all, he was the heart and soul of the place.
On Feb. 28, 2001, The Store ended its reign of 35 years. My mother rented out the space to a perfumery. We said our good-byes, but it wasn’t easy. This place of business symbolized our childhood, growing years, our parents’ workshop, in short, our lives.
When we remember the Store, we can be grateful for the stability and sanctuary it offered, the many people we’ve met, and the legacy of love and service our parents left us.