01 June 2011

Joe's Superette Sign Deconstructed

Before it disappears forever—as it most certainly will—let's take a close look at the sign for the recently closed Carroll Gardens deli Joe's Superette. For it is an irreplaceable piece of New York memorabilia.

First: "Joe's." Joe was the man who founded the deli, back in the 1950s. No one I have met knows Joe's last name. I'm assuming he was of Italian descent. Before opening up his own place, he worked as Pete's Grocery, which was down the block. He retired in 1985 and sold the store to Leo Coladonato, who ran it until his death earlier this month.

Next: "Superette." This is a term that has largely fallen out of favor. But back in the day, what we know called a Convenience Store or Mini-Mart was called a Superette. It's a contraction of "Supermarket" and the suffix "ette," meaning a smaller version of a supermarket. It came into usage in the 1930s, the same decade that saw the spread of supermarkets, self-service mega-stores that offered a wide variety of foodstuffs (and scared the bejesus out of tiny butchers, bakers and grocers). One has to imagine that Joe was being a little grand about his tiny shop when he called it a superette.

According to a cousin of mine who is schooled in fonts, the interesting white lettering falls into a general category know as "Tuscan." Which makes sense.

The missing "U": As I've mentioned before, I always called the store "Joe's Perette," because there was no "U" in "Superette." I have no idea when the "U" fell off the sign. But I moved into the neighborhood in 1994, and it was gone then. No effort was ever made to replace it.

On either end of the sign are a couple pale-blue circles of extra information. On the right circle, we learn you can get fruits and vegetables at Joe's, and that Joe's was a latticini, the Italian work for a dairy store, typically one that produced fresh cheese. This gives a clue as to what Joe's once was. As long as I knew the shop, it was known for prosciutto balls and sandwiches. I never saw cheese made there, and I never saw a single piece of fresh produce. A reader says Joe used to go to the produce market in lower Manhattan every day to pick out the fruit.

So, obviously, the focus of the store changed over the year. Leo was responsible for ushering in the age of the prosciutto ball, according to a 2004 New York Times article. However, a reader (see below) says, "Leo did not introduce them , Joe created them amd when he sold the store to Leo, he passed it on."

Below the circle is a yellow sign advertising "Free Delivery." This denotes that Joe's was a classic neighborhood store that would deliver bags of groceries to families in the neighboring area. I think it's a safe bet to say that locals could keep a tab running at Joe's, a bill they could pay on payday, or at the end of the month. A reader tells us that the food was "delivered using a cart made of wood with three iron wheels."

"In addition, around Christmas time Joe sold fresh Christmas trees outside the store and always had a little 'Christmas Cheer' to share with his customers and vendors."

The yellow sign also lists Joe's phone number "UL.5-6463." That is, 855-6463. This remained Joe's phone number until the end. In the old days, businesses and homes had alphanumeric telephone numbers. As can still be seen in old movies (and heard in old songs), people picked up the phone and said "Get me Beechwood 45789." The "UL" exchange, covering a large part of Brooklyn, stood for "Ulster."

The blue circle on the left hand side, meanwhile, advertises both "Service" and "Self Service." What can this mean? My guess is it means that, at Joe's, you could get help behind the counter with your cheese and meat orders, while also being able to shop for yourself from the shelves of goods and groceries, perhaps piling your purchases into a shopping basket.

I'm surmising that, even as last as the 1950s, the concept of "self-service" was new-fangled and liberating. So, again, we see Joe trying to compete with the supermarkets. Wikipedia tells us, "In 1917, the US Patent Office awarded Clarence Saunders a patent for a 'self-serving store.' Saunders invited his customers to collect the goods they wanted to buy from the store and present them to a cashier, rather than having the store employee consult a list presented by the customer, and collect the goods. Saunders licensed the business method to independent grocery stores; these operated under the name Piggly Wiggly." Joe, the owner of a "Superette," may very well have admired the Piggly Wiggly, a chain of "Supermarkets."

The questions remains, why did Joe or Leo never replace the old sign? Sentimentalists? I like to think so. And a reader confirms: "Oh and yes he never replaced the sign because it was the original sign and did have sentimental value." It shuld be considered a landmark. But neither Joe nor Leo owned the building. Landlords are practical, not sentimental. So down the sign will come.


bart said...

You are correct on some things and not others. Joe didi make his own cheese. He hand made all his muzzerellas and rice balls and proscuitto balls. Leo did not introduce them , Joe created them amd when he sold the store to Leo, he passed it on. There were fresh fruits and vegetables everyday in the store which Joe hand picked at the vegetable market when it was opened in downtown Manhattan, now teh site of the WTC. The store became void of teh fruits vegetaqbles, and all the other typrs of grceries and dry goods that Joe sold when Leo took the store over. Yes, groceries were delivered to the neighor families when they placed an order over teh phone to teh store. No matter teh weather delivereies were made and most tmes these were too large to put into bags but they were put into cardboard boxes and delivered using a cart made of wood with three iron wheels which were pushed by the "deliver boy" who worked for Joe. In addition, around Christmas time Joe sold fresh Christmas trees outside the store and always had a little "Christmas Cheer" to share with his customers and vendors. O and yes he never replaced the sign because it was the original sign and did have sentimental value. It shuld be considered a landmark.

Brooks of Sheffield said...

Thanks, Bart! I'm amending the article to reflect your new information. I would have loved to have been around to be a Christmas tree from Joe.

bart said...

Just another item. Joe did own teh building even after selling the business to Leo but eventually did sell it.

bart said...

I wanted to correct the timing of when the store was opened. It was first opened by Joe in 1961 and after approximately 10 years he bought the entire building. He subsequently sold the property after selling the business to Leo.

Anonymous said...

So I can never eat those balls again? Help me!