Barely one city block separates Marra Drugs – affectionately known as Marra’s – from one of the largest pharmacy chains in the country. And yet on any given day, at any time of the day, there will be endless foot traffic in and out of this venerable Secaucus institution. “Well, you know, they were always here for you,” said resident Geraldine Bartletta who grew up in Secaucus. “If someone was sick and you needed something you could come and get it. Even if the store was closed, they’d open up to give you what you needed.”
The near legendary loyalty of Marra’s customers seems deeply rooted in the store’s past. Bartletta added that her adult children, who have moved away from Secaucus, still call and ask her to pick up items for them from Marra’s, even though they have access to nationally known pharmacy chains where they live.
Next weekend, on Sat., Oct. 4, the Town of Secaucus will pay tribute to Marra Drugs in celebration of its 85th anniversary, just as it did for the pharmacy’s 75th anniversary a decade ago.
People and pigs
“My father moved to Secaucus from Jersey City only 23 years after Secaucus was incorporated,” said Angelo Marra, the youngest son of Marra Drugs founder and patriarch Gerard Marra. “We’ve been here almost as long as the town.”
“You know, when my father started here, there was no hospital. The only hospital at that time was in Weehawken. So we used to get customers from all over, not just from Secaucus,” Marra explained. “People would come here if they had a splinter, or something in their eye, and my father would take care of them. We were like an emergency room.”
Most drug stores, he added, closed early, usually by 6 p.m. Marra’s was ahead of its time and closed at midnight.
“Of course, this being Secaucus, a lot of our customers in those days were farmers, pig farmers mainly,” Marra recalled. “These people didn’t have a lot of money. Sometimes my father would just give people the medicine they needed, and they could pay later.”
Marra recalled that his father had a ledger book that kept tabs on residents who owed money. When times got really tough during the Depression he said his father eventually threw the book out because he knew his customers wouldn’t be able to pay their bills.
Vets were also in short supply so Gerard Marra would occasionally treat sick and wounded animals that were his customers’ livelihood.
Mr. Snitch’s hangout
The store, which once had a soda fountain, was reportedly also a social gathering place for folks in town.
“We used to get all walks in here,” said Marra. “The politicians were here, professional people. The farmers were always around. If you wanted to know what was going on, you had to come here because this was the place where everybody would be. You could sit at the soda fountain and hear all the gossip.”
As evidence, Marra pulled out an old newspaper clipping and pointed to a column called Mr. Snitch.
“Mr. Snitch would write about people in town. He wouldn’t use their names. But if you read carefully enough, you’d know who he was talking about,” Marra said, adding that Mr. Snitch did a lot of his reporting at the soda fountain counter at Marra’s.
Although Secaucus has other popular watering holes now, Marra’s is still a place where people catch up with each other, even though the soda fountain is long gone.
In fact last Tuesday Bartletta stopped outside of Marra’s to chat with two former residents who were visiting the old neighborhood. “You see everybody here,” Bartletta commented.
Gerard Marra and his wife Ida had four children, Michael, Josephine, Gerard, and Angelo.
The three boys all attended St. John’s College of Pharmacy and eventually joined the family business. They essentially still run it, although they are gradually passing the business off to the third generation of Marras.
Gerard Marra Sr. was active in the Secaucus chapters of the American Legion, Kiwanis, the Elks, and Unico.
A veteran of WWI, he eventually served on the draft board.
“He drafted all three of us,” his son said, referring to the Marra brothers.
“We used to have Western Union [in the drug store]. And he was the one who would get military death notices,” Marra stated. “Then he’d have to go to the family and tell them…”
Aside from the business the local school district was perhaps his biggest passion. The family patriarch also served on the Secaucus Board of Education for over 40 years, a Marra tradition that continues to this day. Granddaughter Dora Marra, who is one of Angelo’s children, was elected to the Board of Ed earlier this year.
The next generation
Although Marra said business is good and he believes the CVS across the plaza doesn’t get as many customers as one might think, he still admits, “you’ve got to be worried about the younger ones.”
He means the ones too young to remember Mr. Snitch, the soda fountain, and a time when a midnight pharmacy was an oddity. He recognizes that Secaucus is changing and said he’ll soon turn over Marra Drugs to his son Darin and Michael’s children Joanne and Joseph. All three are pharmacists. Darin received his pharmacy degree at Northeastern in Massachusetts. Joanne and Joseph, who are twins, followed family tradition and received their degrees from St. John’s College of Pharmacy.
“Even though we have a little more competition now, I’m not too worried about the business surviving,” Marra said. “A store isn’t just about products, what you sell. It’s also about people. When I hire someone, the ad says you have to be a happy person. And I think that’s what keeps our customers coming back.”
The 85 anniversary celebration will take place on Sat., Oct. 4 from 1-5 p.m. at 1285 Paterson Plank Rd.
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