Author Topic: The ACE Cut-Rate variety store at 105 Main St  (Read 2487 times)

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The ACE Cut-Rate variety store at 105 Main St
« on: December 20, 2012, 01:30:06 PM »
This was in the Signature section of today's Record. Click to enlarge photos where available:


Thursday, December 20, 2012    Last updated: Thursday December 20, 2012, 10:31 AM
The Record

Like scenes out of sepia photographs, a story from a vanished Bergen County emerges when Louis LaPoff talks about his life.

There are the farmers from Hillsdale, Paramus and Secaucus filling the LaPoff family variety store, ACE Cut-Rate, at 105 Main St. in Hackensack, when they ventured to town every Friday and Saturday night during the 1930s.

There are the shoe shiners who did business up and down Main Street as the region rebounded from the Depression, stopping in for White-Ace Shoe Polish, a brand the LaPoff family stocked just for them.

There is the radio in the store constantly tuned to "Make Believe Ballroom," New York City disc jockey Martin Block's iconic broadcast, until Hackensack became a magnet for Latino immigrants in the 1960s and LaPoff changed the channel to what he described as "Spanish" dance tunes.

People often talk about the golden days of the Bergen County seat, the time before shopping malls when Hackensack drew crowds from throughout the region to its stores, theaters and restaurants.

As the city and dozens like it seek to cash in on what city planners describe as a renewed interest in urban living, LaPoff, who is 95, is one of the few people who remember the original Bergen County downtown.

Even the way LaPoff describes his store is an indication of a bygone era, a time when people visited variety stores for all the little things they couldn't find anywhere else.

"We had everything," he said, "from shoelaces to refrigerators."

A passage from a pamphlet printed in 1939 as part of a Works Progress Administration program to employ writers describes Hackensack as an industrial city enjoying a new era of prosperity because of its fortuitous position at the crossroads of several highways built during the previous decade.

"The crush on Main Street makes unmistakable the suddenness of the city's recent change," it read. "The narrow, north-south street is jammed with traffic from all over Bergen County, and its sidewalks are closely packed with blocks of modern, neonized and black-glass store fronts which have already crowded out most of the leisurely older shops."

LaPoff traces the city's decline to two developments: the opening of the first shopping malls in nearby Paramus, starting in the 1950s, and the city's decision, in the mid-1970s, to address stop-and-go traffic on Main Street by making it a one-way street.

"We lost business, at least 20 percent," LaPoff said of the traffic shift. "There were fewer people on the street."

City officials are considering ideas like returning two-way traffic to Main Street as part of a sweeping downtown rehabilitation plan, introduced with much fanfare last summer. The plan, outlined in a 63-page document, attempts to re-create the bustling business district LaPoff remembers, with businesses on the first floor of multistory residential buildings, sidewalk cafes and aesthetic requirements for storefronts.

The city also plans to streamline its approval process to reduce upfront expenses for developers in hopes of bringing Main Street into line with successfully revitalized commercial strips in communities like Englewood and Ridgewood.

It could work, LaPoff said. "If you have more traffic, you'll get more business," he said.

After decades spent ordering merchandise for the store, LaPoff sorts his recollections in endless lists of items he once stocked. Clotheslines that opened like umbrellas. Nickel candy at a discount: three for 10 cents. Lottery tickets sold from a self-service machine.

Demographic shifts were marked by changes in merchandise. The corks and wooden spigots Italian immigrants bought for winemaking gave way to the General Electric products favored by the Latin Americans who eventually made up more than 30 percent of the town's population.

Many of LaPoff's favorite items surround him now in his Fair Lawn home. Exotic animals cast in ceramic. Clocks with glass fronts that reveal the intricate brass mechanism inside.

LaPoff greets guests from a recliner, his tan leather shoes unscuffed, his collared shirt neatly pressed.

He apologizes for not getting up. He has spinal stenosis, a painful condition in which the spinal column narrows and puts pressure on the nerves. But he counts himself lucky. He credits his longevity to a lifetime of abstaining from smoking and drinking, a habit of taking vitamins every night, and good doctors. But survival is also bittersweet.

A marble coffee table is covered with framed photographs of his father and five brothers, all of whom owned stores in Bergen and Passaic's downtown business districts. All sharp dressers, he said. All long gone. LaPoff outlived the last of his brothers by so many years he no longer remembers exactly when each of them died, but they populate his dreams.

"A brother's a brother," he said. "I love them all. I miss them very much."

Most of his contemporaries are also gone: former municipal judge Joseph C. Zisa, a good friend; former police chief John Aletta, a onetime stock boy; a shoe shiner named Jazz and his wife, Gladys. No one is around to contribute to his recollections, he said.

"There's nobody really," LaPoff said. "All deceased."

The Hackensack that LaPoff remembers is also gone. In 1933, the year LaPoff's father and brother Sam opened the store below a pool hall, the city had three renowned motion picture houses and a boarding house where F. Scott Fitzgerald once stopped in for a whisky while he was a student at the Newman School, a prep school in town in the early 20th century a visit he memorialized 15 years later in a 1929 autobiographical essay in The New Yorker.

The downturn came in stages. The trolley cars, which LaPoff took to work every day while he was in high school, stopped running in 1938. A rumored plan to open a Macy's in town fell through, snuffing hopes of a continued boom for business, LaPoff said. New high-rise apartment buildings on Prospect Street, on a hill to the west of downtown, didn't bring the promised surge in customers.

"I said to my brother, 'We're going to do good business with them,' " LaPoff recalled. "That was a dream. Most of them were mall shoppers. We did very little business with them."

One by one, big stores started to close: W.T. Grant, Kresge, Packard's. The city's Woolworth's store, with its sandstone and pink tiles, was among the last in the chain to close when it went out of business in 1997. One of the last anchors, Lowits clothing store, was shuttered in 2001.

LaPoff didn't last that long. Exhausted from running the store by himself after his father and brother died, he went out of business in 1980, at his wife's insistence. Five years later, a three-story office building was constructed on the property, a boxy, brick building with long glass windows. The empty first floor is on the market for $1,600 a month, one of dozens of vacant properties on Main Street today, in spite of decades of city initiatives to restore the district.

City officials say this time is different. LaPoff tempers his expectations. "I personally can't see it," he said. But he also knows the changes the passage of time can bring.

He gestured to a Christmas card on a table, a picture of a wide-eyed 2-year-old girl, one of his seven great-grandchildren, above a printed slogan that he read aloud: "It's a wonderful life," he said.


« Last Edit: December 20, 2012, 09:24:15 PM by Editor »

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