Summer officially ended yesterday, and soon the unofficial season at Coney Island will end as well. When it does, seven mom-and-pops on the boardwalk will shut forever — including Paul’s Daughter, the one my family owns.
Central Amusement International, which the city hired to manage its property at Coney Island, wants what company president Valerio Ferrari calls a "more refined, cleaner" feel for the boardwalk. And the shops the company is shuttering "don’t fit into [CAI’s] vision."
There have been "Last Summers" before, including 2009, when my father watched as the Astroland rocket was torn off his shop's roof. But this past summer, Central Amusement asked the mom-and-pops to submit nine-year business plans in order to see if we could make our shop fit into Ferrari’s vision. My sister, Tina, submitted ours and offered to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to modernize our shop. It didn't matter; I believe the decision to evict had been made long before the plans were submitted. After being a part of Coney Island for the last six decades, we now have to close the store next month. My father says losing the store is "like a death in the family."
My dad, Chief as he's known on the Island, has been out there for 63 years, almost since the day he arrived in the United States from Greece. Chief started at a milk bar under the BMT depot when he was 21 years old. There, he met Gregory Bitetzakis, a fellow Greek. The two would go on to become partners for half a century. They worked for another Greek, known by everyone as Pineapple, until 1962, when they opened their first Gregory & Paul's on the boardwalk at West 8th.
They eventually opened three more. They lost one in 1968, when Nelson Rockefeller bought the land and donated it to the Aquarium. A fire destroyed another in 1980. Gregory closed the second-to-last location when he retired in 2009.
As a kid, I loved visiting the shop. I'd get a grape drink from the dispensers and thick crinkle-cut fries as they came out of the fryer, something I still do.
As teenagers, my sister and I worked on holidays. I have never spent the Fourth of July anywhere else. When the weather was good, the crowds were so deep you couldn't see the boardwalk or the ocean, just lines of hot hungry people, for hours on end.
In 2009, after the rocket had been taken down, Chief decided to give up his last remaining store. My sister offered to take it over; she's the one who renamed it Paul's Daughter.
It's always seemed to me that both my father and the store would go on forever — there has always been a store, and my father's always been there. I have no memories of him anywhere else when I was a kid (other than two blurry images of him on line at Radio City's Christmas show).
But now, we must pack up the store and vacate no later than November 4, even though our hearts are still in Coney Island — and business is still great. "Maybe I'll start over on the Bowery," Chief says, referring to the alley in Coney Island, not the now-hot stretch in Manhattan. Whatever happens, the store will continue for me, with the rocket on its roof, Chief behind the grill, and lines of people stretching out to the sand.