By Lee Alan Dugatkin
The door into Jo-Jo Toys swung out toward the street, narrowly missing the adjacent gumball machine. Just feet beyond the door sat a cardboard box with its flaps cut off. In it were brand new, hard-as-a rock Spaldeen rubber balls. Hundreds of them, and they seemed somehow to smell the pink they were colored. Written in thick black magic marker, a hastily scribbled “25 cents” on the side of the box drew every prepubescent boy, and the occasional girl, towards them. Though they all seemed identical to the adult eye, kids could detect subtle differences that required some serious sampling on their part. Picking out the ball of their choice, they would run it through a series of qualifiers and then proceed to give it a final “squeeze test” – the firmer, the better.
The quarter plus two cents tax price tag meant something different to each kid. For some it was nothing, a small fraction of their allowance for the week. For others it meant forsaking a Hershey’s bar or maybe a Slushie at the Baricinni Candy shop two doors down, never an easy decision when you are eight. For still others, often the kids from the Alphabet soup area southeast of Jo-Jo, this was it, their major purchase for the month. A quarter meant everything to them, the tax might even preclude the purchase; and the man behind the counter remembered who they were, in case a teary-eyed kid returned a Spaldeen that had worn out before its time.
Most of the kids buying the balls came from Stuyvesant Town, across the street to the east. With its dozens of identically constructed 12-story apartment buildings, endless walking paths, and playgrounds with a staff who watched over those playing, Stuyvesant Town offered a myriad of ways to make use of a Spaldeen. If enough kids gathered in one spot, there was a game of stickball, as Spaldeens, when hit solidly, could fly long distances and make a hitter feel like he was a Mantle or a DiMaggio. When the critical mass for stickball was absent, a Spaldeen could be employed in a game of apartment ball between just two boys, positioning themselves to score runs that were amassed through rules known only to apartment-complex-living youth that involved how high the ball was thrown (what floor it hit on the apartment building), and how many bounces it made after it landed but before your opponent caught it. Spaldeens could also occupy the imagination of the loner who might just walk the paths, keeping track of how many times the pink beauty was bounced.
The young customers always seemed to flash a proud smile when they forked over their quarter, plus two cents tax. The man would ring up the purchase on the behemoth NCR cash register that sat to the right of the counter, just behind the rotating case holding a hundred or so of the newest Matchbox cars, each in its own little cubicle behind a cheap but clear piece of plastic. If there was change to be made, it was always slid across the counter, never handed to the new Spaldeen owner. The bolder kids would bounce the ball on the floor after their purchase as if to make certain that the monetary exchange didn’t negate the magic of the Spaldeen, leading to the inevitable friendly warning to cease and desist such things at once.
As a matter of pride and juvenile autonomy, buying a Spaldeen was something a kid did on his own; the consequences of being seen purchasing such an item in the presence of a parent could be severe social ostracism, or even a bloody nose, and so there was rarely an adult involved in the transaction.
Baseball cards, another favorite, lay on the counter in strips of three connected packs, each holding ten cards. The top and bottom card in each pack were visible, so the collector kids could sift through and have a running start with information on 20 percent of the cards. A pack with a Yankee never lasted more than a few minutes before it was swooped up. In the minds of the neighborhood kids, the cardboard box full of Spaldeens and the counter baseball cards alone justified the everlasting existence of Jo-Jo Toys, but the bill collectors would have demurred, and so the aisles were stocked with hundreds of toys and an equally dazzling array of stationery and greeting cards.
On the west side of the aisle directly behind the hallowed pink balls sat the board games on five vertical shelves, with Monopoly, Clue and Chutes and Ladders as the perennial best sellers front and center on the shelf that sat at eye level. The east side of that aisle housed coloring books and Crayola crayons, including the monster box of 64 colors with a built-in crayon sharpener, and the assorted line of children’s books, featuring bright blue Hardy Boys books, which garnered embarrassed titters from the grade school girls, and bright yellow Nancy Drew Mysteries, which the ancient rules of machismo dictated must not ever be looked upon by a grade school boy.
Both sides of the middle aisle were jammed with school supplies. Every paper size, rubber band strength, eraser color, page protector and book cover known to humanity could be found here. When September dawned, and the school doors re-opened, this aisle was a madhouse, a hodge-podge of parents stuffing items into a basket and kids looking as if the items were evil harbingers of another nine stuffy boring months of being bamboozled by the likes of some poorly dressed adult who thought math was actually interesting.
The aisle on the far east of the store served multiple functions. There, across large display units mounted to the wall, sat hundreds of Hallmark greeting cards for every conceivable occasion, each in its own little cubby. The lower part of each unit had a series of closed faux-wood drawers that always seemed to mystify the customers. In each of these drawers were replacements for the cards above, everyone in a separate folder with an alphanumeric label that corresponded to the location above. On the wall above the greeting cards was a series of long glass shelves, six of them running parallel to one another, separated by three feet of wall space. These shelves housed the most expensive items in the store – the plush animals ranging from palm-sized mice to the occasional three-foot tall gorilla. While adults rummaged through the greeting cards searching for just the right words written by a stranger, their kids could glance up and fantasize about swinging through a plush jungle as Tarzan or Jane.
The man behind the counter, the brains and heart behind Jo-Jo Toys and Stationery, answered to many names. Born Harry Dugatkin, his Yiddish nickname was Heshie, often shortened to Hesh, and for reasons that no one could quite recall, some friends referred to him as Star. Around the neighborhood, those who didn’t know him by name did so by sight, with his signature coke-bottle lenses cased in thick black frames and his ever-present cardigan sweater. For that bunch he was just Jo-Jo. “Hey, Jo-Jo!” was a common refrain wherever he strolled.
Born in Brooklyn shortly after World War I, Jo-Jo’s family had no money to pay for any of the four kids to go to college. For Jo-Jo’s two sisters and one brother that was not a problem, as they had no desire to go to college in the first place, but Jo-Jo, a bookworm, who was by far the smartest of the lot, desperately wanted to attend. He tried night school for a while, but it got in the way of work, and the family just needed the money too much.
When the Korean War broke out, he became an army chef, and a damn good one at that. After his discharge, he stuck with what he knew, first working at, and later becoming part owner of, a series of diners. The food was good; the money was not.
In 1947, a massive, 80-acre housing development called Stuyvesant Town was built with veterans in mind, and in 1960 he moved into a one-bedroom apartment on 16th Street and Avenue C. It was then that he opened Jo-Jo Toys. It seemed natural enough. His brother Abe had a toy store in Long Island and a brother-in-law, Marks, owned one in Brooklyn, so he had the family connections. Shortly thereafter, on a quick trip to Puerto Rico, he met his soon-to-be wife, a Queens gal also on vacation, and they swapped out the one-bedroom apartment for a two-bedroom one in 4 Stuyvesant Oval, close to 14th Street, between Avenues A and B, a two-minute walk from Jo-Jo Toys. A couple of kids followed shortly thereafter.
At 8:45 a.m. every morning, Jo-Jo pushed the elevator button to start the journey down from apartment 11H. At about 8:52 he arrived at the store. The two silver padlocks on the gates guarding the store were opened, the top lock always first. If it was winter, sometimes the locks froze, and then Jo-Jo had to take out the lighter he kept in his right trouser pocket to melt away the ice. The blue and silver colored gates were pushed back, the door to the store unlocked, and the burglar alarm, which amounted to a series of thin parallel electrified sensor wires that ran long the ceiling, was shut off. The switches on the electrical panel near the counter were turned on, the gum machines were dragged out onto the street, and the ancient cash register was stocked with $1s, $5s, $10s and a few $20s from the locked brown canvas bag under the NCR behemoth.
The door always opened for business promptly at 9 a.m. – never a minute earlier nor a minute later. Six days a week, closed on Sunday; for though Jo-Jo wasn’t Christian, for the most part his customers were, and they expected the local stores to shut down for their Sabbath. Mornings tended to be the calmest time of day. Kids were at school, dads were working and mothers were running a million errands, or on the rare occasion, relaxing. One hundred dollars in sales would be a good haul before lunch.
But the a.m. was hardly downtime for Jo-Jo. New shipments of toys, cards and school supplies often came then. Trucks would pull up in front of the store, the drivers dragging in any number of boxes, and depositing them near the Spaldeens (if it was summer) or along the west aisle if the shipment was large. Jo-Jo would make sure everything was present and accounted for and then sign the delivery slip, in his near typewriter-like signature, for the driver. Since mornings were a one-man operation, which posed untold and delicate dilemmas when it came to using the tiny bathroom located down in the basement, he would unpack the shipment and stock the shelves. Whatever remained after that needed to be put on the basement shelves in case there was a rush on some item. Getting that material to the basement would need to wait until the afternoon, when help generally arrived in the form of a local kid making a little extra money as Jo-Jo’s gofer.
Mornings might also be employed to rearrange the large window display that faced out on 14th Street. Access to the window came through a single small door cut out of the pegboard behind the front counter and kept shut by a small cheap hook lock. Jo-Jo would open the door, scrunch through the barely-large-enough-for-a-man-his-size opening and stand up in the window, which was always good for a chuckle if you happened to be walking by. Ensconced in the crammed window space, he moved things around to maximize the number of visible items and make the hottest or most expensive product reach out and grab the pedestrian passerby. He thought of it as his one sortie into the art world and took it very seriously.
Lunch was tricky. Sometimes he brought a sandwich, but the very act of leaving the store was cathartic after a morning with no help, and so he relished the chance to slip off for a few minutes, to get a slice at the pizza joint between Avenue A and 1st Avenue, or maybe a grilled cheese at Mindy’s diner or a turkey sandwich at the Appetizer Deli, both just a few doors down from the pizza place. A couple of times a week that wish was fulfilled when Mrs. Jo-Jo would walk over and stand in for him. Some days that made all the difference.
About 3:15 p.m., a few minutes after the dismissal bells rang at P.S. 40, the Immaculate Conception Parish School and Stuyvesant High School, more long-term help would arrive. Always male – Colin, Jerry, Sonny, Michael – they were generally the offspring of a good customer, about 15 years old, and happy to make the minimum wage they received. Often their older brother had held the job before them. Their duties, and that was how they would have been described to them, involved restocking shelves on both the sales floor and in the basement. Basement restocking was always the preferred of the two, not only because they were away from Jo-Jo’s watchful eyes, but, more importantly, they could go visit “Little Harry,” a terrifyingly bald, broken mannequin with red lipstick and ripped clothing that resided there in a dark dusty closet.
Gofers were also assigned the tasks of directing customers to the items they sought, working the cash register, making sure no one slipped a cap gun under their shirt and sauntered off, and running spy errands to check out how the F.W. Woolworths down the block was pricing their toys. Their presence also let Jo-Jo make phone calls and do some bookkeeping, and removed the sticky issue of bathroom runs.
During the school year a gofer would stay until the store closed at 6 p.m. At 5:55 p.m., he’d pull in the gumball machine as Jo-Jo finished tallying up the sales for the day and noting them in his log. After the gates shut, Jo-Jo would drop a locked sack containing that day’s haul into the night deposit box at the Chase Manhattan Bank half a block away. Next he would walk over to the local news stand to pick up The New York Post, and then head off to the Bialy store, where he’d grab a bag of right-from-the-oven hot ones, and a bulka, an oblong doughy foot-long bread covered in poppy seeds and onions. Jo-Jo thought the stoop-shouldered owner of the Bialy store, who rarely said a word and seemed to wear the same off white apron, had always been 200 years old.
Even when the store was closed on Sunday, Jo-Jo’s work was not done. The shipments that restocked the shelves didn’t just happen magically. He needed to decide what, when and how many of each item, and that entailed a Sunday morning drive in his gold four-door Oldsmobile cutlass to 26 Court Street in Brooklyn, the home of Conbro Products, a wholesaler that stocked the latest of everything. The place had not one foot of floor or shelf space that was unused, and even at 7 a.m., Conbro was always packed with buyers. Many of the products were just too expensive for Jo-Jo’s clientele, but he always found one or two items he could pick up. The visit was also a social one, as the salesman, Milty, who insisted Jo-Jo’s kids call him Uncle Milty, was an old friend. The world of mom-and-pop toy shops was a small one.
Monday morning at 9 a.m. saw it start all over again. And so it went, year in and year out for more than three decades. And he never seemed to regret a moment of it. He knew that there were many worse ways to spend a life, and on good days, realized there might be fewer better ones. The endless generations of youth that grew up at Jo-Jo Toys never forgot him or the store where they could live out a childhood fantasy or two, if they just saved up. Then they could simply walk over to Jo-Jo and play out the dream. Even if they didn’t manage to do all that much saving, there were always the Spaldeen balls in the cardboard box with the flaps cut off. A quarter. Plus two cents tax.
The author is the son of the late Harry “Jo-Jo” Dugatkin.