Letter From Canarsie: Choosing to Stay

Mon, May 16, 2011

By Lillian Rizzo

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The Beneduces bought out Kenny's on Avenue L 15 years ago and turned it into Big John's. (Lillian Rizzo/The Brooklyn Ink)

Three weeks ago John Beneduce had a stroke and his son was faced with a choice: to sell the family business or not. In 1997 the elder Beneduce, who is now 59-years-old, had bought Kenny’s, a Woolworth’s-type store in Canarsie, and renamed it Big John’s Department Store. Although the sign out front changed, the store, on Avenue L and 93rd Street remained the same.

Beneduce, his wife and son, also named John, have lived in Canarsie all their lives. They lived on Rockaway Parkway and Avenue M and walked to work. The younger John Beneduce, 30-years-old, a personal trainer and professional fighter, had no intention of running the store. He’d work there two days a week just so his father could have a few days off. Otherwise, he had little interest in what inventory to order, where to stock goods, or his customers.

But now, with his father ill, he is left to run the store, alone. He is glued to the front counter. He had thought he would sell the place. He said he would. In fact, outside, next to the Big John’s sign is a bright blue For Sale poster.

But then one night after closing, he took a walk around the 6,000-square-feet and had a change of heart. He decided he would keep the store alive. But it would not be his father’s Big John’s. It would be different.

You could see the difference as soon as you walked in. “You notice there aren’t any chairs up here, right?” he asked. There are no chairs at all — just different products strewn about in the front of the aisles and a newspaper stand with the Canarsie Courier posted up and the New York Daily News and New York Post underneath. Although the chairs are absent, the store still looks relatively the same. The aisles are wide and on the right of the store there are lots of tools and household goods, to the left are some clothes, hair products and cosmetics. The ceilings are high and the store is big and spacious.

The chairs were for the elderly Italian and Jewish people who would come into Big John’s everyday to sit and chat with his father. They never bought anything; they just reminisced. But now if they want to sit and schmooze they have to go someplace else.

Like Big John’s, Canarsie is a different place than the neighborhood when Beneduce grew up. Its population, once largely Jewish and Italian, is now made up mostly of African Americans and immigrants from the Caribbean. Unlike many of their older neighbors, the Beneduces did not move to Staten Island, Long Island or New Jersey. They stayed, like the customers for whom he no longer provides seating. Unlike his older customers, Beneduce isn’t preoccupied with the past.

“I don’t do that, I only reminisce about when business was better,” he said. Between the economy woes of the past three years and the neighborhood’s changing demographics, Big John’s has taken a real hit. Beneduce says that many of Canarsie’s newer residents shop elsewhere.

“They don’t buy anything here and they send a lot of their money back to the islands where their families still are,” he said. He also noticed that many are gravitating toward the shops on Rockaway Parkway, near the L train station.

“Where do you normally shop?” Beneduce asked a customer at the counter. She had long black braids tied into a ponytail and was handing over three dollar bills for the hair product she bought. She admitted she went to Rockaway Parkway more often because the L train was there. Beneduce handed her the change and asked about the products she would like to see in the store.

Then again, just a few weeks ago Beneduce had no intention of getting to know his customers or asking their opinions about what new products to carry. His family owns this property as well as the store on the corner of 94th Street, adjacent to Big John’s. It used to be a pizzeria but was closed shortly after opening.

Then, he said, recalling the night he walked around the store, “I fell back in love with it.” He decided against selling. He would try to revive Big John’s. His decision mirrors the way he feels about Canarsie. Whenever he has doubts about the neighborhood he walks a few blocks and knows he doesn’t want to leave.

The corner of Avenue L near Big John's. (Lillian Rizzo/The Brooklyn Ink)

The corner of Avenue L near Big John's. (Lillian Rizzo/The Brooklyn Ink)

And though he has taken away the chairs at the front, he cannot keep the old timers away. One of them, a towering man in his mid-60s named Freddy, walked in the other day and loudly asked Beneduce how his father was and about the store. He gossiped for a bit about another store regular and nodded his head when Beneduce said he wouldn’t be the same as his father. Freddy lingered for a few minutes before heading out the door and across the street to Country Butcher, which used to be Meats Supreme. He hadn’t bought anything at Big John’s.

Soon after an older woman with dry blonde hair walked into Big John’s, wheezing and walking a small dog. Beneduce petted the dog and she scanned the store.

“I am so tired, I wish I could sit,” she said before pulling out a bag of 20 quarters, ready to exchange them for bills.

Beneduce told her he didn’t keep seats out in front anymore but would get her one if needed it.

She declined and asked for the cash, telling him she had 20 quarters and he could count and check.

He took the coins but told her he didn’t need to count them – he trusted her.

“Your father would have counted,” she said, and then asked about his father’s health. She left with her cash and told Beneduce she was going to walk all the way back home.

These are the routines that now shape Beneduce’s days: the same people stop in everyday, chat and don’t buy anything.  There are even days when his old friends who moved away come back to talk about old times.

“A lot of people come back and say they miss it here, but I’m not a big fan of that,” said Beneduce. “Don’t leave then if you still like it. Or don’t come back and say you miss it.”

Big John’s is not the only older establishment on Avenue L. Original’s Pizza is between 95th and 96th Streets and has been there since 1970. What used to be a small pizzeria with a lot of local competition is now one of the few places to grab a slice. A few blocks away, Sunshine Scizzors has been standing just as long. But now it’s only open two to three days a week now. “Whenever they are open you see all the white people come back to Avenue L,” said Beneduce.

He works with only two other people at Big John’s — Tito who’s worked there for about 15 years and Janet has been there since it was Kenny’s. They work the floor mostly and help the customers out but they also have friends who often stop in to talk.

Even though most of his childhood friends don’t live in Canarsie anymore– he can count the remaining few on one hand– Beneduce still sees himself in the neighborhood in the future.  About 10 years ago he met his wife, Tami, while working at the store. She walked in and spilled some coffee but helped clean it up.

“We were together seven years after that and then three years ago we got married,” he said. “There’s no other place like Canarsie in Brooklyn, it has that suburban feel that no other place has.”

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