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The Good Old Days in Darien / Ed Chrostowski

Published 1:01 am, Thursday, March 4, 2010
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There were only about 11,000 people in Darien in 1950, but that was enough to keep all of the retailers in the center of town busy, even those that were in direct competition with each other.

As a matter of fact, there were at least four pharmacies within a couple of blocks of each other and they all thrived. And nobody ever stopped long enough to count all the gas stations along the Post Road between the Norwalk and Stamford borders.

What the drug stores sold was pretty much the same in all four establishments, except that some also had soda fountains. Regular patrons often based their choices of where to shop on friendships and personalities. There was enough variety there to accommodate all tastes.

Those were the days when pharmacists usually were called "doc" because they could just look at a customer's skin rash or listen to a cough and find the perfect potion on well-stocked shelves to cure it. Often they would grind their own nostrums in some kind of mysterious blend of powders.

Wielding the pestle and mortar in one such establishment near the Center Street corner were Ed and Everett Daddona, brothers who ran the Village Pharmacy. You could go to lunch at John and Kresko's Central Diner and then saunter over to "Doc" Daddona's place just a few short strides away for a quick bromo.

Right across the street, next to the movie theatre, Bob Grieb wore a white smock as he presided over the pharmaceuticals at the store that still bears his name. Grieb left the business in mid-decade to become a drug inspector and eventually headed that state agency.

Around the corner on Tokeneke Road, Albert Belisle served up the pills and potions at the Bell Pharmacy and just a block away, at the Mansfield Avenue corner, mustached Joe Lombardi could whip up a cough syrup or a hot fudge sundae with equal dexterity.

Farther afield, the squeaky voice of Charlie Ertelt could be heard imploring the kids to stop spinning around on the soda foundation stools at Gilbert's Pharmacy in Noroton Heights. And there was Ray Humiston running the Rowayton Pharmacy. Although Rowayton is in Norwalk, it always has fancied itself part of Darien and Humiston was a very active member of the Lions Club and a civic leader here.

Pharmacies were in competition perhaps, but they also were the friendliest of rivals. In the days before the chain store giants, they agreed among themselves to take turns staying open on Sunday so local folks never had to worry about being able to tend to medicinal needs. And they often backed up each other's supplies.

Food markets abounded also. There was the First National and Farmer's Market on the Post Road and the Darien Provision Company and Royal Scarlet on Tokeneke Road. Just a block away, Herb Williamson ran an A&P next to the old town hall at the Mansfield corner. Nick Christiano ran a market also and handled the food concession at Pear Tree Point during the summer.

Christiano, a good-looking dude with wavy gray hair, was also an astute judge of horse flesh or at least he thought he was. There was a memorable night when a local group was having a run of bad luck at the Yonkers Raceway. Nick tried to console us by observing that "if you bet right this time, the battle's over." It just so happened that a trotter named "Battle's Over" was running in the next race. Betters thought they had an inside tip from Christiano and bet their bankrolls. They went home sadder, but wiser and broke too.

Back in the pre-thruway days, when the Boston Post Road was the main traffic artery all the way from Main to Florida, gas stations here were almost as plentiful in town as diners and restaurants ranging from a place called Little Brown Jug near the Norwalk line, Bill Payton's Nutmeg, the Palumbo brothers' Twin Terrace at the Hecker Avenue corner to Bill Cocolis' Half-Way House (now Giovanni's Water's Edge) at the Stamford line.

Gas stations (we called them service stations then because the attendant checked your oil and washed your windshield in addition to filling your tank) ran the gamut along the Post Road from Joe Ward's place near the eastern end to Bill Strasser's in Noroton. In between were stations run by Bill Handley and Pete Sweeney at the Sedgwick Avenue corner and Roy Fitzgerald's big lay-out, where he also based the school buses, on the other side of the firehouse. In between by Dante Chicatell, Phil D'Acunto, George Brencher at the corner of Mechanic Street and Jim Scarpa next to the eastbound side of the railroad station.

Of course, as with the food stores, Noroton Heights gas needs were well served by Lou Canto and the Augustus brothers. Joe Palmer, Bill Albrecht and Dominick Conte ran separate food stores.

Nor was there any need to go far for hardware. Fred Hepp had all you needed and there was the Darien Lumber Company on the Post Road. Al Wilson and Ed Norvell had the Tool Box on Tokeneke Road and Joe and Irene Winter tended to hardware needs in Noroton Heights. The Knoble brothers on Locust Avenue had those hard to find items and would spend an hour instructing a customer on the proper use of a 10-cent washer.

Darien never went thirsty either. Coming to mind are the "package stores" Nick Florentine, Gristede's and Sam Heft maintained on Tokeneke Road while Lou Paulnack and his partner, Fred Galati, tended to the taps at the Liquor Locker on West Avenue.

There were dry-cleaners (Morris Neuger comes to mind), a Chinese laundry on West Avenue, Michel Mansour's shoe store, clothing boutiques, antiques peddlers and stationary stores like Conrad Rossner's place and Gennaro Frate's Darien News Store, all right in the center of town.

Barbers like Jim Monti, doctors like Zeph Lane, Allan Ross and Ed Felder, dentists like Tom Barker and Willard Delavan and Steve Zangrillo's great sports clothes shop were among the Post Road mainstays. Barker and Delavan are remembered as football fanatics. Barker scouted upcoming opponents for Coach Johnny Maher's Darien High School teams while Delavan probably hadn't missed a New York Giants home game in a decade or more.

No, long before the advent of malls, there was never a dearth of places to buy what you needed right here at home in Darien. And the many apartments above the stores housed a ready supply of customers. All of it was within a few compact blocks.

Ed Chrostowski was editor of The Darien Review during the 1950s. He can be reached at skicrow@att.net.