From an Interview with Lois Cimmino Miceli about Life in Pelham
Remembering Louis Cimmino (1923 - 2014)
"Some of my memories from the very early 1960's, growing up on 6th street -- 123 6th street to be exact, right above my dad's butcher shop, the Pelham Meat Market.
I remember the line of customers would be very long; they would line up in the store, out the door and down the sidewalk. The customers were mainly women and they were always dressed so nicely. One lady, in particular, wore white gloves! Back in the day, parking was on both sides of 6th street and the spaces were quickly filled with customers waiting to do their shopping."
"It seems it wasn't only on Saturdays when ladies did their shopping. Many came daily to get fresh meat for dinner. As time went on, orders would come in via telephone. My dad would ask one of us children to go and deliver the orders. We would walk or ride our bicycle and carry a bag of meat to the customer. We were so excited to receive a 25 cent tip! It was enough to buy an ice cream from the Good Humor man. I remember customers always being so polite."
"My dad took the time to not only cut their meats, but to get to know them. We made so many wonderful friends back then. Many customers became like family, sharing birthday cakes in the butcher shop (my dad worked six days a week and would close the store on Sundays because of the 'Blue Laws' [which prohibited stores from being open on Sunday]). He was the sole proprietor, so he didn't have the luxury of 'sick days' or 'vacation days.' My dad couldn't close his shop because he wasn't feeling well. He would often say he couldn't close up because his customers needed him. I can honestly only remember one day he closed. He was so sick and couldn't get out of bed. His dedication to his shop and his customers was a lesson I grew up with."
“'Take pride in your work',” he would tell me as he created a crown roast. 'Be courteous to your customers,' he would often remind me (even as he occasionally whispered under his breath about a customer who never seemed happy with his service). 'You want a steak?' He would ask the customer how thick to cut it by laying his thumb over the meat and the customer would judge how thick to cut it by telling my dad what knuckle to use as a guide. Measuring with your fingers, knuckles -- a simple method that provided the best results."
Photo: Louis Cimmino at work in his butcher shop.
Courtesy of Lois Cimmino Miceli
"My dad had a meat grinder in the walk-in refrigerator. The customers would come in and let my dad know how much chop meat they wanted. Back then, there wasn't any of 'percentage of fat' like there is today. He would go into the walk-in refrigerator (leaving the customer in the store alone). Again, we trusted people more than many seem to do today. He would cut the beef from a large slab of meat and put it into the grinder. There was nothing better than freshly ground chop meat. I would eat it raw right out of the grinder! There weren't any ingredients we had to fear. The customer wanted chop meat for meatballs? Into the grinder my dad would put beef and then pork and veal."
"The walk-in box refrigerator had a very heavy wooden door with a large metal lever that we lifted to open the door. That walk-in was filled with chickens, beef, veal, lamb, eggs. My dad replenished his stock three times a week by going down to Hunts Point in the Bronx. He would leave our home at 4 am and be back in time to open his shop. I can still see him walking in and out of the distributors in Hunts Point (we were so excited when we had a day off from school so we could go with dad to the "market"). One day in particular stands out in my mind: my dad walked into a distributor, picked out the meat he wanted, walked out carrying huge slabs of beef and put it in his trunk. Now picture this -- a young man came running out to my dad and accused him of stealing the meat! The owner came running out and chided this young man! He said, 'you never question Mr. Cimmino! He has been coming here for over 30 years!' I'll never forget the pride I felt! I knew my dad to always be an honest man and now this young man would know it too."
"Located near the front window of my dad's shop was a brown 'desk' chair. To the general public and customers, this was just a nondescript, brown chair. To we children, it represented 'you are in trouble' chair. We didn't have time outs back then. We were punished! If we got into trouble, as many young children do, we were told to sit in that chair. It was so painful to sit there and watch the other kids outside playing. That was our punishment. I remember a customer, Mrs. Samborn, coming into the store with lollipops for us. We loved these special lollipops - the shapes of animals! I was 'punished' and sitting in the brown chair. Mrs. Samborn asked my dad if she could give me a lollipop. My dad explained that I was being punished and he would hold it for me until later. That brown chair -- instilled fear in me and yet to this day I can still 'feel myself sitting on it' and being upset that I disappointed my parents."
Photo at Right: Lois Cimmino in front of her dad's butcher shop on 6th Street. Courtesy of Lois Cimmino Miceli.
Photo Above: Louis Cimmino in his shop in the mid-1970s. Courtesy of Lois Cimmino Miceli
"The scales my dad weighed the meat on were large white scales. He had two of them. My dad would lay a piece of wax paper on the scale and then put the order on it. The customer was able to see the weight since the scale had a glass window. The 'scale man' would come by regularly to check the scales for accuracy."
"We also had the 'fat man' come by weekly to pick up the 'fat' or scraps of meat. These were used in products such as soap. I wish you could have seen the cash register! It was bronze and huge! The total you could ring up was $9.99. That's all the register keys could do. You had to position your fingers on each key and push down at the same time. There wasn't any 'calculator paper.' The total would 'pop up' in the little window on the register. All of the meat, after being cut, was meticulously wrapped in brown paper and then hand tied, with a “butcher's knot." My dad never used a calculator. He would always take his pencil, sharpened with a butcher knife, and add up the items on the brown paper bag that he packed the order in. That was your 'receipt.' All of this was done while the customer patiently waited. It seems people weren't in such a hurry back then. They took the time to choose the cut and how they wanted it wrapped."
"In these times before there was welfare or food stamps, communities took care of their own and my dad helped. He knew who couldn’t afford food and when they came to him for meat, he always gave it to them. He would tell them it was on credit, and they would sign the book, but this seemed to be a way to save their dignity and pride and he didn’t really expect to get paid back or to force them to pay. When he passed away in 2014, I found that book. Not everyone repaid him and I never ever heard my dad say one bad thing about any of them."
"Behind one of the showcases in my dad's shop there was a small sink. I can remember how many, many times we had fallen outside and gotten cut. My dad would stop what he was doing, lift me onto the ledge of the sink, wash and clean my cuts and put on some iodine. I didn't have to run upstairs to our apartment because my dad's shop was both a working space and a home space. Talking about cuts! How many times my dad cut himself with the butcher knives! One time, I remember, he was slicing meats and the knife slipped and went across his abdomen. He was never one to close up the shop to run to the doctor or hospital. Because of these incidents, I learned how to butterfly cuts, so he didn't need stitches. He passed away with the tip of one of fingers still missing. He had cut it off during another episode."
"As years went on, more and more customers would place large orders for their freezers. Once again, my dad would hand cut all of the meats, pound the cutlets with his cleaver, and wrap each item. These orders would be delivered the same day. Imagine how hectic it was around the holidays! Turkeys everywhere! Crown roasts were a thing of beauty and made with pride. They were a specialty that took years to cultivate in shaping the crown without 'breaking' the meat. I will never forget the phone -- the big black rotary dial phone. His number was 914-738-1778, but back then no one in town said 738 or PE[lham]-8. When asked for your phone number we would simply repeat the last 4 digits -- everyone had the same first 3 numbers!"
"Let me share my memories of the sawdust in the store! It covered the 'working area.' Every night after closing at 6:15, we would rake the sawdust and pick out any pieces of meat that may have fallen. It would be raked into neat lines. The front of the store was swept clean nightly. As we did this, my dad would take a metal brush and scrub down the butcher blocks. After years and years of cutting meat on these blocks, they would wear away and hills and valleys would form in the wood. My dad scrubbed these blocks until they were spotless, every night! The showcases would be washed down, store swept, sawdust raked and then it was finally time to go home. Every day my dad wore his white apron to protect his clothes. Every week my mom would soak those aprons in crystalline to keep them white. You see, my dad's business may have been his but in order to have a successful family-run business, it took everyone to play a role."
"My dad's butcher shop provided me the opportunity to watch a man work hard and at the same time enjoy what he was doing. I was privileged to meet so many new people and learn the importance of listening. We had bonding time working together in his shop. I was fortunate enough to be able to play outside every day and know that all I had to do was look up and see my dad through his store window. I was safe."
"My parents shared 72 years together, working side by side to make a go of a small local butcher shop. Their love never faded. Their dedication to each other was evident to everyone who knew them. Boy, how I miss them and I miss those fun times, filled with so much laugher. Who knew we were working so hard! My dad always made every day a teaching lesson and one to be cherished. Family, friends: there's nothing better. Respect, honor, pride, tradition: these traits should never be forgotten. These are memories and times I treasure. I miss my dad every day but I was very lucky to have had him in my life for 91 years."
Historian's note: When Mr. Cimino retired in 1987, the building was sold. The first floor retail space that was the butcher shop was converted to apartments so that today there is little evidence of the once thriving business and the proud family that ran it and lived upstairs.