A Brooklyn Store Offers Astounding Variety, With Patter

By December 11, 2013 34 comments Permalink


NOT all of Brooklyn glows with gentrification. Deep in the borough’s southwest pocket is Bath Beach, a few dozen blocks sandwiched between Bensonhurst and the Belt Parkway. Shuttered storefronts and signs in competing languages testify to economic hardship and ethnic flux. But amid the comings and goings is a monument to fortitude: Nick’s Discount Store.

The double-wide storefront offers an astounding assortment of goods. Stacked on shelves and lining the narrow aisles are groceries, greeting cards, gift bags, toys, remedies and holiday decorations. There are lawn ornaments, skin lotions, school supplies, pet supplies, coin wrappers, yarn, diapers, picture frames — pretty much everything. There’s a full deli up front, and a counter where the store’s owner, Dominick Cavalieri, known as Big Nick, holds forth.

Mr. Cavalieri, 49, is tall and angular, with a shaved head, thin-framed glasses and a large silver cross around his neck. His gesturing hands encourage conviviality, and he is always ready to hear anyone’s business and share opinions on any subject.

“What’s doing, kid?” he asked a young man in a Giants jersey one recent morning; the customer was bemoaning his team’s record.

“Ahh,” Mr. Cavalieri said, waving those hands. “They got smacked around. So what?”

A rival fan weighed in, predicting a playoff berth for the Jets.

“Get out of here,” Mr. Cavalieri laughed. “They’re terrible, too.”

Mr. Cavalieri broke from the chatter to give a woman wearing a hijab change for the bus, and a warm smile.

Then he pressed a lard roll, filled with salami and provolone, on a young boy, the grandson of a regular, who had said he was hungry. “They’re good, right?” Mr. Cavalieri asked.

Another customer asked for a certain kind of Christmas light. “I got that,” Nick said.

“I got that” is something Nick says often, whatever the request — even if it’s not directed at him. A woman was trying to wave Nick away as she spoke into her cellphone about vacuum seal storage bags. Finally, Mr. Cavalieri was able to win her attention.

“What, Nick?” she asked with impatience. “What?”

“I got that!” Mr. Cavalieri cried, shaking his hands as if they were on fire.

Mr. Cavalieri was born in an era when Bath Beach was largely Italian-American. As a teenager, he delivered liquor for a store on the same block of Bath Avenue where, 17 years ago, he opened his store. His constant patter with customers can make the cluttered space seem even tighter, especially once the confidences start flying.

“You know,” Mr. Cavalieri said with a shrug, “I know people’s problems, and they know mine. It’s not a problem.”

“It’s a problem for me,” Pauly Tagliatele, 26, joked from behind the deli counter. As a teenager, Mr. Tagliatele lasted only one day as an employee at the store, but he came back three years ago to a job as varied as the store’s offerings, doing whatever is necessary to keep customers happy.

These days, having customers to keep happy is the challenge, though. A discount store has to move a lot of merchandise, and making regulars out of new neighbors of Arab and Asian descent has been a challenge. Mr. Cavalieri meets newcomers on the sidewalk, holds barbecues in the summer and distributes candy on Halloween. A beefy friend of his works out front in a Santa costume during the holiday season.

“The first generation is the hardest,” Mr. Cavalieri said. “But you work hard to make people feel welcome. Like part of the neighborhood.”

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