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Barbara Sabatino

Port Jeff Army Navy on Main Street uptown will close at the end of August. Photo by Alex Petroski

Boarding the wrong train in 1939 might have put a damper on Joseph Sabatino’s day, but if he knew the series of events that would play out over the eight decades that followed, what he likely viewed as a
mistake would be more accurately depicted as destiny.

As his daughter Barbara Sabatino told it, her father was a pharmacist who saw a newspaper advertisement that a location of the Whelan’s Drug Store chain was for sale in Port Washington. She joked that her father must have confused his presidents, ending up on a train to Port Jefferson instead.

Barbara and Peter Sabatino, owners of Port Jeff Army Navy. Photo by Alex Petroski

It was his lucky day, because a storefront in the same building that currently houses Port Jeff Army Navy also
happened to have a Whelan’s location up for sale. He started his pharmacy at the site, eventually buying the building in 1958 with his brother Samuel. His children, Barbara and Peter, have owned the location since his death in 1977, operating as Port Jeff Army Navy since 1999, though the store underwent several transformations over its 80-year lifespan in the Sabatino family. Later this year, the location will embark on another transition, as Sabatino’s son and daughter plan to retire and close up shop. Barbara Sabatino, a Port Jeff Village resident, joked she and her brother, who lives in Port Jeff Station, are getting old and are ready for some relaxation and travel time.

“I always used to say, ‘We’re Madonna,’” she said. “You know how Madonna always used to reinvent herself? Well we’re just like Madonna, reinventing ourselves.”

Her father’s 1939 mistake had a lasting impact not only on his business, but also his personal life. Sabatino said her parents met when her mother Frances went on a trip to her family’s property in Coram, and before heading home on the train, as fate would have it, stopped for a soda at Whelan’s.

“If he didn’t come to Port Jefferson by accident, and if my grandfather didn’t own property out in Coram, [my parents] never would have met and we never would have been here,” Sabatino said. “This was a happy mistake.”

“You know how Madonna always used to reinvent herself? Well we’re just like Madonna, reinventing ourselves.”

— Barbara Sabatino

The Sabatino children were faced with a decision in 1999, though it was far from the first time, having transformed the pharmacy into a stationary store in prior years, and even adjusting the spelling of the name in decades past. Whelan’s Drug Store had to change to “Weylan’s” in the 1960s when the company decided to
require franchise owners to license the name for $100 a month, according to Sabatino. Her dad decided instead to flip the “h” in the sign over to a “y” and tweaked the order of the letters, allowing them to keep their vibrant neon signage and avoid the fee.

The opening of a couple of office supply stores nearby decimated the business, and Sabatino said she and her brother settled on becoming an Army Navy store because of a hole left in the market — Mac Snyder’s was a long-standing Army Navy store in downtown Port Jeff that closed a few years earlier. At their store, veterans and military aficionados could purchase ribbons and Army-Navy accessories, recover lost medals, buy uniforms and other items like firearms and camping gear.

“It was a natural draw with Peter being in the Navy for 11 years,” Barbara Sabatino said, adding that she used to shop at Mac Snyder’s and always found it a cool place to be. “Out of all of our incarnations, this was my favorite. It’s fun, and the customers are lovely.”

Both Sabatinos noted how special it was to be able to assist active and former military personnel in getting what they needed in the store, which also allowed them to interact with some of the country’s most upstanding and honorable citizens.

“After Barbara suggested the idea of an Army Navy store it brought back a lot of memories, and I said to her, ‘That’s a good idea, that’ll work,’” he said. “There’s a lot of people from Vietnam that are trying to replace all of the stuff they have, and we’re able to get the items in for them.”

Whelan’s Drug Store became Weylan’s drug store in the 60s when then-owner Joseph Sabatino decided to flip the ‘h’ in the name over rather than pay a licensing fee or remove the store’s iconic neon sign. Photo from Barbara Sabatino

At the public village board meeting in June — Barbara Sabatino is a regular fixture at these meetings — a village resident mentioned the pair’s impending retirement, currently slated for the end of August.

“If Barbara is happy, I’m happy,” Village Mayor Margot Garant said upon hearing the news, adding that she
wished her well.

Their impact on the community will be a lasting one. Sabatino said the store owners not only prospered in business during their time uptown, but also gave back to help those around them by helping neighborhood kids with homework, advocating successfully for a new park on Texaco Avenue in recent years and even supplying transportation to village events for uptown kids who wouldn’t have otherwise had a means to get there.

Sabatino shared a card a longtime customer sent to her and her brother when they heard the news.

“At first I was very upset to hear that you were closing because we’re not only losing the best store around, but also the friendliest and most helpful people out there,” the card said. “Port Jeff Army Navy’s goods, services and friendship will absolutely be missed. I am happy that you are retiring. You deserve to rest and be happy and enjoy your family and friends.”

This post was updated June 13.

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The abandoned train cars on the railroad line along the west side of Main Street are covered in graffiti. Photo by Alex Petroski

In the midst of a massive beautification process in upper Port Jefferson, village officials and residents have voiced displeasure over two abandoned train cars sitting on the railroad line on the west side of Main Street between Linden Place and Wilson Street. The cars are no longer in use on the Port Jefferson Long Island Rail Road line and have sat near the train station since January, according to Mayor Margot Garant.

In an email, Garant called the abandoned cars a nuisance, a “complete and total eyesore,” and an “invitation to deface public property.” The cars are covered in graffiti, including some profanity, and Garant said she and the village board are concerned the area might be an attractive spot for homeless people or “individuals possibly involved with drug use.”

Port Jefferson resident and business owner Barbara Sabatino voiced concerns about the cars during a village board meeting April 3.

“There’s a lot of vulgarities on there, and when I walk back to my car I’m looking at the sign for Mr. Gitto’s property that says he’s taking applications for the apartments, and they’re looking directly at these cars that have a lot of ‘F’ words on them,” she said. The Gitto Group, a real estate development company, constructed The Hills at Port Jefferson, which are two apartment buildings in upper Port that opened in 2016 and overlook the train tracks.

Another resident, Marge McCuen, spoke out during the meeting about the cars.

“You’re getting the grant money to make all of these improvements, and then they come and dump that garbage here — it’s a disgrace,” she said.

In January, the village received a $250,000 grant from Suffolk County’s Jumpstart program to improve parking at the railroad station and other cleanup efforts. They also received $500,000 from New York State through Empire State Development, the state’s economic development arm, as part of the Restore New York Communities Initiative, which was created to support municipalities in rehabilitating blighted commercial properties. That money will be used to beautify businesses near the train tracks. In addition, Garant said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has dedicated about $1.8 million in funds to contribute to the train station’s main parking lot.

Garant said representatives from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have told her the plan is to take the cars to a “scrap yard” in Yaphank.

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The McDonald’s in Port Jefferson has closed. Photo by Reid Biondo

A longtime fixture in downtown Port Jefferson closed last week, leaving a business next to Village Hall empty.

The McDonald’s fast food restaurant on West Broadway had been controversial when it first moved in more than a decade ago, but what has been perceived as its abrupt closure has left some scratching their heads. Visitors were met with a sign directing them to a different franchise location in Port Jefferson Station.

“I was totally shocked,” Barbara Sabatino said about when she found out the harborfront restaurant had closed.

The owners and operators of the business, franchisees Peter and Katie Hunt, said in an email statement through a McDonald’s spokesperson on Monday, “It’s been a pleasure to serve this neighborhood and we appreciate the support of the local business community, elected officials and community partners. We are very happy to report that all of our employees have accepted jobs at nearby McDonald’s locations. We remain committed to serving Port Jefferson, and we look forward to continuing our work in this community.”

Sabatino, who runs the Port Jeff Army Navy in upper Port and serves on the village planning board, was a member of the now-defunct civic association at the time McDonald’s was trying to locate in lower Port more than 15 years ago.

“They really had a difficult time,” she said. “[Some people] felt that a McDonald’s did not fit their view of Port Jefferson.”

There were also people on the other side of the argument, she added, who had an attitude of “what’s the big deal?”

While village officials said they were concerned about how the restaurant would look, Sabatino said, the owner was “cooperative” on the architecture and finishing touches, giving it that “seafaring town look, with the dormers on the top and the little trim.”

And the business owner noted that the restaurant has been a good neighbor, cleaning up trash and keeping the property looking nice.

The controversy over it coming in was enough to spur the village board of trustees to take precautions for the future.

According to the village code, officials amended Port Jefferson’s zoning laws in June 2000 to prohibit “formula fast food establishments” in both the C-1 and C-2 central commercial districts, which are located along the main drag in the downtown and uptown areas, respectively.

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