Inside Golden Gate Fancy Fruits and Vegetables
“You’ve just stepped into 1939,” says John Cortese, the 92-year-old proprietor of Golden Gate Fancy Fruits and Vegetables, on Flatbush Avenue in Marine Park, Brooklyn. Indeed, the old-school grocery is far more authentic than any Hollywood set designer can create and it’s located way off the beaten path. It’s a true neighborhood establishment, in operation at this same spot since 1939, when John’s grandfather opened it. John would do the deliveries after school and recalls getting surrounded by stray dogs who would surround the produce upon hearing the squeaking of his cart.
John is also a World War II veteran who served in the invasion of Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge as part of the 551st Field Artillery Battalion. No detail escapes his memory, from the names of towns he passed through in France and Belgium to the model number of the metal detector he used in the war. Part of his job as a sapper was to identify landmines, a task he says he was chosen to do but was given only two hours of training, one month before D-Day. He was expecting a classroom, but instead the soldiers were trained on a live minefield.
He talks of the pre-war era as the “good old days,” and recounts the prices back then. Newspapers were two cents, a hot dog (onions, ketchup, and all) was five cents, as was a subway or trolley ride. Though prices have changed, the inside of the grocery remains virtually the same as it did when it opened.
The wood floor, with its narrow boards is original, as is the tin ceiling. Cans of Goya beans and Redpack crushed tomatoes sit on painted wooden shelves. Produce is displayed beautifully on angled stands and atop wooden crates that line both sides of the store. Two scales still hang from the ceiling, just in case of a power outage, says Cortese’s son, John. Original Sunkist advertisements, old-school product labels that John saved, and a plethora of vintage photographs decorate the store.
In the back room are some true gems: a pot belly heater, a wooden cold storage room, a Triplex gas stove, all still working. Even the exterior sign, with its faded hand painted lettering, dates to the mid-century. Take note of the old telephone number, ES-7-2581, a format used from the ‘40s to the ‘60s. The sign is not the original – an old tax photograph from the ‘40s displayed inside the shop shows one with Art Deco flourishes.
Though you might assume everything is kept for the nostalgia, John assures us it’s not. He wanted to do redo the storefront decades ago, but his accountant told him that as a result, they’d need to get new floors, new stands, new everything. So they just kept it the same.
And as for the name? John isn’t even sure himself. The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1938, a year before the shop did, and John surmises it might be in its honor. These days, John keeps the shop going to stay busy. “I’ve been around a long time,” says John, before handing us a bag of delicious peaches and cracking a joke. He opens at seven in the morning and has breakfast in the back room with a locksmith friend from nearby. He plays music from earlier decades on his vintage radio, and though his dancing days might be over, he just might sing a tune for you. His son pitches in at the store sometimes, as does his grandson – three generation of Brooklynites named John Cortese.
There’s a lot of love here – between family, friends and the community – even the care placed by John on the produce quality and the merchandising. The result: there is simply no other place left in New York City quite like Golden Gate Fancy Fruits and Vegetables.
Fun fact: We met John Cortese’s grandson, also John, on our Remnants of Penn Station tour with his family, a group of true urban enthusiasts. Next, check out the latest exhibit of vintage photos at the “Lost in New York” exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. Get in touch with the author @untappedmich.