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Much is the same, but there's one big change at Zuckerbraun's

Griswold - The wooden floor still creaks, uneven and old. Lucky rabbit's feet are still for sale, as are small change purses. Eveready flashlight batteries sit on a side shelf, past their usefulness but still only 10 cents.

Inside Zuckerbraun's Department Store, if they don't have it, you don't need it. Or, more appropriately, it doesn't exist.

It's the end of an era in Jewett City after the April 1 death of Jerome Zuckerbraun, 86, the owner of Zuckerbraun's at 80 North Main St.

It has outlived all the other old stores and supermarkets that once lined North Main Street, from Italian groceries to convenience stores.

"Some days are good, some are slow, but it's open," Doreen Smith, the store's lone employee, said.

The store is open but may close soon, Jerome's nephew Joel Zuckerbraun said Thursday.

If Zuckerbraun's closes, its legacy will be of a store its patrons could count on for more than eight decades. The musty old building even survived massive fires in structures on either side of it within the last 10 years, despite the fact that the slightest spark might have burned through Zuckerbraun's like a tinderbox.

The green-and-white-striped awning remains, as does the sign on the side of the building and a sign on the front façade declaring, "5, 10, 25, 50 cent store."

The interior has changed just a bit. Gone is the penny candy, which sat in a glass display case to the right of the entrance. The candy has been replaced with jewelry and wallets. Clothes, Yankee caps and lace curtains adorn some of the walls.

On the wall hang old permits, including one that expired in 1948 allowing Zuckerbraun's to sell "untaxed opium and cocoa leaves." The brittle, yellowing papers cover speakers that quietly play country rock tunes.

Smith, who has tended the store for 29 years, said she was the one who changed a few things around.

"If he would have seen that, he would have died," she said. "He didn't like change. I made it a little girly looking."

Smith said Jerome once employed up to six girls during the store's heyday, but she is the last remaining. She said she cleaned and added some items but has left the same trinkets and odd parts that Zuckerbraun's is known for. Jerome Zuckerbraun hadn't been to the store since getting sick a year and a half ago, but he continued to order certain supplies.

Jerome didn't leave a will, had no children, never married and "lived in the house he grew up in," Joel said.

With no one to order supplies and fully invest the time, the family will most likely sell the property, he said.

"It would be a big loss," said First Selectman Phil Anthony, who recalls the store fondly. "The business itself is an icon for the community."

'An institution of sorts'

It's hard to go anywhere in this borough, even in the greater town, and not hear people reminisce about Zuckerbraun's, a twinge of nostalgia in their voices.

Since Jerome's passing, memories have streamed in of the store that "sold absolutely everything" and hadn't changed in 82 years, Jerome's sister Florence Polens said.

"I've been actually amazed at comments that have come in on the Internet from people all over the country from people who remembered him from their childhood," she said. "The place has become an institution of sorts in Jewett City. There aren't too many stores like that anymore because the big box stores have sort of taken over."

Polens, 91, is the oldest of the three Zuckerbraun children (Jerome and Leonard, 83) who moved with their parents from Brooklyn, N.Y., to Jewett City in 1929, months before the stock market crashed. Their parents, Isaac and Henrietta, opened the store that year.

"I don't know if [Isaac] looked in a crystal ball or what, but we moved around February of 1929 and he set up a little store which an uncle of mine had previously run there before," Polens said. "So my dad bought the business from him and developed it over the years."

Isaac was innovative in some of the things he did to keep the store afloat, Polens said. One year when the textile mills were struggling and cutting back, Isaac filled the store display window with coal. People who shopped at the store kept their sales receipts and at the end of the year, Isaac drew a name to receive a ton of coal.

The family lived in an apartment above the store for 11 years, Polens said. "The store was only technically open six days a week, but if someone needed something on Sunday, they'd knock on the door and my dad would help them," she said.

Upstairs, where the Zuckerbrauns once lived, the apartments are vacant, old newspapers and toys strewn about. The paint, probably the first and only coat, hangs off the ceiling.

'Swept the floor with a broom'

People still remember going to the store for school supplies and uniforms. Millworkers and farmers alike came to buy work clothes and boots that were tough enough and the right price.

Polens said Jerome returned to Griswold to work at the store after he graduated college, spending more than 60 years working at the store, which sold everything from candy to knitting supplies, shoes, hardware, kitchenware and dry goods.

"It had illusions of grandeur calling itself a department store because it was really just a big general store," Polens said, chuckling at the memory. "Jerome never got rid of anything so things piled up there. He was able to fill whatever the current needs were and things that went way back."

In fact, Polens said, years ago, two people came in looking for clothing from the 1930s for the 1991 feature-film "Fried Green Tomatoes."

"Sure enough, he was able to find it for them," she said.

Jerome's sister-in-law, Irene, said the charm of the place was its old-school feel, inside and out.

"It really felt like walking into the store in 1929 when it was created," she said. "Jerome swept the floor with a broom and wouldn't deal with changes. That's why he had everything people needed, because he never threw away a thing."

Jerome's routine was so ingrained, Smith said, that when he went to the diner, the staff knew exactly what he was having, day in and out: A tuna sandwich and a chocolate milk shake.

With Jerome's death, the change he so avoided has become inevitable.

Soon, the Zuckerbrauns will no longer own the store and for the first time in 82 years, the building's fate will be in somebody else's hands, Irene said.

"They don't have stores like this anymore," Sharon Long, who shopped on Thursday, said. "This place has really lost a good family."

s.goldstein@theday.com


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