John Cortese, 92, has been working at Golden Gate Fancy Fruits & Vegetables in Brooklyn since he was 14 years old.
“You better tell me what you’re looking for, because I haven’t got anything set out yet,” John Cortese calls out from his perch by the cash register, his back against stacks of Barilla pasta and jars of tomato sauce. It’s around 9:45 a.m. —a hot, sunny day—and Golden Gate Fancy Fruits & Vegetables at the south end of Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn has just welcomed its first customer.
The woman, a regular, asks for a pineapple.
“You can have anything your heart desires,” Cortese says. He’s all business now: the seat abandoned, he’s by her side, sorting through the small selection of prickly fruits to find the best one. She asks if she could borrow a knife to cut it up. No, Cortese will do it himself.
At 92 years old, Cortese has been working in the shop since his father opened it in 1939. It’s unchanged since that year. Well, not exactly: A World War II veteran, Cortese lines the walls with his growing collection of photographs and memorabilia; his old army outfit from 1943, lined up at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, peeks out amid snapshots of a Brooklyn long since rebuilt. He’s also had to update the cash register. The old one, which he keeps in the basement, only tallied up to $3.99; as prices rose, Cortese wore down the gears on the lever, trying to force it higher.
But the narrow wood beams of the floor are the same. The tin ceiling is the original. “Merchants in Park Slope now would die for it,” Cortese says. A pot-bellied stove sits in the back corner; Cortese takes his calls on a rotary phone. The storefront sign in front is unchanged since the 1940s; the hand-painted telephone number listed there—ES-7-2581—is now defunct.
Cortese took over the business from his father in 1960. At one time, he imagined revamping the whole place: fresh boards, new produce stands. When his accountant told him it would be too expensive, Cortese just shrugged and decided to keep things the same.
“I never considered this work,” Cortese says, looking around the store, where most of the displays sit empty. Bags of fruit rest next to him on the shelf, but he’s not in a hurry to tend to them. “Even to this day, it’s just a hobby,” Cortese says.
But it’s one that Cortese cares for deeply. He’s opened the store around 7:30 a.m. each day since he took over; only in recent years, under doctor’s orders, has he given himself Sundays and Mondays off. When he arrives, he looks through the daily produce delivery, scrutinizing each piece before it hits the shelves.
“Sometimes, when a customer will come in, I won’t have what they’re looking for,” Cortese says. “I’ll tell them to come back the next day, and I’ll have it. Provided it meets my expectations.”
Cortese has a policy: “If I don’t like it, you don’t get it.” The week before, two women had come into his shop looking for asparagus. He wouldn’t sell it to them. The batch that had come back from the market had a strange smell, Cortese says. “They wanted to buy it,” Cortese says, “but I told them: ‘I wouldn’t do that to you.’” His sense of quality is infallible, honed from when he used to make regular trips to the local wholesalers and markets, scouring for the best products. He doesn’t go so often anymore; most of the wholesalers are gone, he says, and Cortese’s son will visit the Brooklyn Terminal Market in Canarsie for his father and bring back what he needs.
These days, it’s not much. “Almost all of my customers, the ones I’ve taken care of, are gone,” Cortese says. “In the past three years, I’ve lost the cream of the crop: they’ve passed away or moved away.” Business is quiet, but Cortese’s children still drive him to the shop each morning that he works, and take him back home after he closes up around 5 p.m. Since his wife died last year, the Golden Gate has become the reason for Cortese just to get out of the house. Mostly, he’s in there alone with his music; Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, and Tony Bennett spin on a turntable in the corner.
But when people wander in from the neighborhood—or travel down from other parts of the city, as news of Cortese’s shop has spread—they walk into one of the last remaining portals of a Brooklyn that’s all but gone. Cortese remembers when the Flatlands and Mill Basin neighborhoods around the shop “were like the country”; when women left their front doors open as they tended flower gardens so large you could smell them; when Flatbush Avenue was devoid of its cacophony of sirens and lined with small shops like Ebinger’s Bakery.
As I’m packing up to leave, Cortese tells me to wait, then shuffles through three boxes of stone fruit until he finds a crop that meets his standards. He picks out three peaches and hands them to me in a paper bag pulled from a stack under one of the shop’s hanging scales.
Outside, the street is filling up with people; they pass by on their way into the nail salons and pet shops on either side of Cortese’s shop. Flatbush Avenue is hot and choked with cars; it’s hard to imagine the idyllic scenes Cortese described. Those scenes exist for fewer and fewer people. “If I need someone to talk to about the past,” he says, “I have no one to turn to. They’re all turning to me.”
H/t Untapped Cities