Zuckerbraun's store to close in wake of owner's death
By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Jewett City - posted Tue., Apr. 26, 2011
Bars of Fels-Naptha soap. A stainless steel percolator. Photo mounting corners for scrapbooks. Black rubber overboots. Hairnets. Hot-rod model cars and paints.
Zuckerbraun’s Department Store on Main Street in Jewett City has been a place where, for decades, merchandise that harkens back to another era could be found. But now, with the death of its longtime owner, it appears the local institution will soon be closing its doors for good.
“I’m so used to being here I hate to close,” said Doreen Smith, who has worked in the store for 29 years. “But time moves on, and changes happen.”
Smith kept the store open after health problems forced owner Jerome Zuckerbraun into assisted living in November 2009. He was hospitalized in March and died April 1 at the age of 86. A lifelong bachelor with no children, he left the fate of his store in the hands of his extended family, who Smith says plan to close the store at some unspecified future date.
Rit fabric dye. Sewing machine replacement needles. Folders for coin collections. “Lucky rabbits’ feet” in unnatural colors. Snap-on magnetic hair rollers.
Zuckerbraun had inherited the store from his parents, who moved to Jewett City in 1929 from New York. The family lived upstairs for some time before moving to Plainfield. Jerome Zuckerbraun could tell shoppers tales of the Great Hurricane of ’38, when, as a teenager, he was minding the store for his father and witnessed pedestrians being blown across the sidewalk by gale-force winds.
A throwback to the old-time general store that was once ubiquitous in small-town America, Zuckerbraun’s sold sundry items from hardware to cosmetics, clothing to toys. Surplus merchandise was never put on clearance – instead, it was squirreled away in the store’s basement, a dark, mysterious place Smith said she dreaded to go into.
“I used to tell him, ‘I’m going down the basement, Jerome. If I’m not back in five minutes, come down and look. There’s anacondas down there.’”
The basement fell victim to flooding in the past few rainy springs, and Smith said that much of the stockpiled merchandise mildewed and had to be thrown out. But Zuckerbraun could locate an item downstairs in minutes, using his own quirky “filing system.”
“This was all he had,” said Smith of the store. “He never went anywhere, he never did anything. This was just like a hobby to him. This was some place for him to go to see people.”
Men’s suspenders. Printed cotton aprons. Denim coveralls. Curtain hooks for pinch-pleated draperies. Working model rockets.
Since Zuckerbraun’s departure, Smith has tried to attract a new generation of customers with trendy, teen-oriented fashions. One side of the store, formerly dedicated to baby bonnets and ladies’ nightgowns, now displays racks of glitzy, sequin-adorned tees and caps. A niche in back that once housed shoeboxes is now home to rows of glamorous purses.
It’s an incongruous touch, and Smith admits her old boss would be horrified at how “girly” it looks.
But Smith is looking ahead past the store’s closure, intending to move her merchandise two doors away to a new storefront of her own, called JC Coed Fashion.
Zuckerbraun's closure will mark the end of an era, but for Smith it will also be the end of one man’s dream.
“Even though he didn’t make money here, this was Jerome’s passion,” she said. “He loved this place. Even when he was sick, he begged me, ‘Please don’t leave it.’”