Mario Lepore opened a chocolate store at the corner of Garden and 6th streets 30 years ago because he wanted to share his talents as a homemade chocolatier with the people of Hoboken. Now after all those years in the same building, he hopes to take his business to another neighborhood in the city.
He just doesn’t know where yet. Lepore’s is being priced out.
After turning down an offer to buy the building at a price he couldn’t afford, Lepore is looking for another location.
Lepore’s chocolate-making days date back to his college years, when he worked summers throughout Europe in chocolate stores. The longtime establishment has been a staple of the community, as have the people who run it, but now has become a symbol of the gradual passing of the old Hoboken.
“People who moved out of town still call up and order. They all say the same thing: ‘Thank God you’re still there.’” – Mario Lepore, owner of Lepore’s Homemade Chocolate.
A Sinatra spot
The colorful, unique store is decorated with Sinatra merchandise, and there’s a reason why.
“Frank Sinatra used to come in here when he played his shows in New York,” Lepore said.
Lepore’s business partner, Ed Shirak Jr., later wrote a book about Sinatra called “Our Way.”
The men also helped establish a Sinatra museum in Hoboken, which later closed down because it became too difficult to maintain. Letters from Sinatra, thanking Shirak and the chocolate store, sit on a small table in front of a Sinatra-decorated, west-facing window. Lepore’s appears on a Sinatra tour map in town, bringing fans of both chocolate and Sinatra to the below-street-level store.
The small 500-square-foot basement has become a haven for Hudson School children and residents of the tight knit community, according to Lepore.
The scaffolding was an omen
According to Lepore, construction began on the building in August with scaffolding up against their window. His lease ended on Oct. 1, and Lepore has asked for and received an extension to move all belongings out of the location.
When Lepore first opened the small store in 1980, the rent was $250 a month, and over the years it has attracted stars such as Sinatra, Darryl Strawberry, and Liza Minnelli. The rent now costs Lepore $1,225 per month.
Lepore said that former Mayor Dave Roberts has agreed to help the longtime Hoboken chocolate store find a new home. Mayor Dawn Zimmer has also pledged to help the landmark relocate while staying within the boundaries of the Mile Square City.
“Kids, parents, businessmen, even the politicians, just the whole community…everybody’s been trying to help out,” Lepore said.
During an interview, a resident came in not just to buy chocolates, but also to lend support for Lepore and check in on where the store will be located in the future.
Lepore said the store still receives calls from old-time Hoboken residents.
“People who moved out of town still call up and order,” Lepore said. “They all say the same thing: ‘Thank God you’re still there.’”
Even though the store will be changing locations, Lepore is confident the store will stay in the city.
Lepore pays his rent to 537 Garden St., LLC. The company does not have a public telephone number listing.
A local real estate company has listed the store space for a price of $279,000, and has a “pending” sale. Lepore said he first offered $130,000 and then $180,000 for the property.
“He was offered the store,” said Onofrio Chillemi, a real estate agent assigned to the property. Lepore said the price was too high.
“Yes, he’s been there for 30 years. He’s a good guy, a good tenant. But when people fall upon tough times, they have to make financial decisions,” Chillemi said.
‘Really nice to everybody’
Lepore said there isn’t a profound secret to staying in business for so long and becoming a local famous store and landmark.
“We’re always really nice to everybody,” Lepore said. “We try to always donate to organizations in town.”
Lepore’s shares chocolate with the Barbara Sinatra foundation, the Novel Night fundraiser for the library, and many others.
The store recently had scaffolding up against the building, and the Lepore’s Homemade
Chocolate Store blue awning sign had been removed. Lepore also said the store was shut down for two days during construction because of a leak in the roof, which destroyed chocolate and caused water streaks to run down Sinatra’s face on a now-damaged poster photograph.
Lepore describes the last few weeks as “anxiety-stricken.”
Though they are moving out, many hope that a Hoboken landmark will still survive.
Ray Smith can be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com.