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.
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.”
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.