SCHENECTADY – When Marie Pugliese suggested to Jim Henderson more than a half century ago that he “mind the store” for a month, it seemed like a pretty good idea. Fifty-two years later, Henderson is still there.
Pugliese and her sister, Evelyn, were high school friends of Henderson’s at Linton, and when they were both unable to take care of their hair salon business, Sicilian Stylists, they asked Henderson to temporarily help out. That was during the spring of 1970. Later that year in September, Henderson opened his own hair cutting business in the same location right in the heart of the Goose Hill Neighborhood, the corner of Van Vranken Avenue and Seneca Street, and named it The Only Place.
Henderson had already been cutting hair down in Naples, Florida, but returned to Schenectady to help take care of his wife’s ailing mom. He was 27.
“My wife and I already had a daughter and I was cutting hair down there, doing pretty well,” remembered Henderson last week. “But we came back to take care of her mom in Glenville. I was on my way to Honeyland Pharmacy to get a prescription and I passed Marie outside her salon. She knew I cut hair and she asked me, ‘Jim, are you working anywhere?’ I told her no, and she asked me if I would be interested in watching her place for a month.”
Henderson said OK, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Marie had an operation that didn’t go that well, and her sister was going to have a baby,” said Henderson. “I had asked her before if her customers were going to be OK with me, and I guess they were. She got back in touch with me and told me the situation and asked me if I wanted to buy the place, so I did.”
While The Only Place has survived and thrived for more than 50 years, Henderson has seen seven or eight different businesses next door come and go, and Honeyland Pharmacy, a few more storefronts down Van Vranken, has been gone since 1996. The pharmacy, open in 1925, was started up by Romeo and Betty Sessa.
Henderson said he continues to work because business is good, and he enjoys it.
“I joke with people that why would I retire when all I do is stand around and talk to pretty women all day, and then they pay me,” he said. “Retiring would drive me crazy, and I never considered this work. The pandemic was bad because I had a lot of older customers and I lost quite a few of them. But it’s going pretty well now. I make enough to pay the expenses and have a little for myself. That’s all I’m looking for.”
His business is good, says Henderson, because his customers like him. Phyllis Derenske, who lives up on Avenue B, has been a regular there for 54 years, two before Henderson took over, and Sister Maria Rosa Querini, who taught at St. Anthony’s School on Van Vranken for 30 years and celebrated 50 years of service to St. Anthony’s parish on Nott St., has been a regular for nearly as long.
“I’m still cutting Sister Maria Rosa’s hair, and Phyllis still comes here every Saturday morning,” said Henderson. “One of the other customers drives Phyllis down, and I help her get in and out of the car. I think my customers like me because they know I’ll never cheat them. They keep on coming back, and it’s important to them. Looking good is more important to them now than it was 20, 30 years ago. And for me, it’s a great feeling to help them feel good. Looking at them, knowing they feel good about what I just did, is very rewarding.”
Henderson, who now lives near Ballston Lake, grew up in Goose Hill and has lived on Van Vranken Avenue, Foster Avenue and Clarendon Street.
“It’s been a great 52 years,” said Henderson. “I’m in good condition, I have no ailments, so I’m gonna keep on going.”
Goose Hill mainstays
While things have changed in Goose Hill over the last half century since Henderson took over the building at 1801 Van Vranken Ave., (he rents out a three-bedroom flat upstairs), there are some other businesses that, like The Only Place, have stood the test of time.
Four come to mind quickly, beginning with the Avon Meat Market at 1631 Van Vranken, started by Abraham Cohen way back in 1935. Stoney Lane Grill at 1859 Van Vranken opened up in 1946, Schenectady Auto Service has been at its current location at 2401 Van Vranken since 1947, and Riccitello’s Restaurant on Foster Ave., first appears in the city directory in 1963. All are still owned and operated by the family that created them.
When Abraham Cohen passed away in 1965, his son, Marvin, took over the Avon Meat Market, and when he died a few years ago, his son-in-law, Jim Ostrowski, picked up the reins.
Mike Bennett has been keeping up the family tradition at Stoney Lane for a couple of generations now, and the Falvo family continues to fix cars at their place at the northern end of Van Vranken just inside the city limits. Nick Falvo opened the shop back in 1930 on the other side of Van Vranken from where it is today, and his son, Jack, ran the place from 1961-1975. Jack’s son, Nick, took over the business and continues to run it today on Van Vranken across from Wood Avenue, where it has been for 75 years.
Riccitello’s, meanwhile, which was originally called the Mohawk View Restaurant back in the 1930s and later named Hennesey’s, was started up by John and Mary Riccitello in 1962. Their son, Lou, now runs the place.
Along with Stoney Lane, Van Vranken Ave. has offered a number of establishments to quench your late-night thirst over the years. Gone but not forgotten are places such as Teddy K’s, the Brothers Three, the Van Vranken Bar and Grill, and the Arrow Restaurant and Bar, to name a few. The College Inn at 1526 Van Vranken near Nott Street became Gravel Gerties and is now Rookie’s, and the fine dining opportunities aren’t as vast as they used to be. Places such as Cornell’s and The Ritz are gone from the Van Vranken landscape, but many people do find a wonderful alternative at 1839 Van Vranken where the Montavo sisters have been serving splendid Italian food for 42 years at The Appian Way.
And there’s the view.
Where exactly was Arent Van Curler when way back in 1642 he first saw the land that would become Schenectady?
The smart money – when discussions like this come up among historians – typically suggests that the Dutchman was standing on a hill in the Bellevue section of our city, looking down at the Great Flats and the Mohawk River, the two natural elements that inspired him to write “the most beautiful land on the Maquas [Mohawk] kill that eyes ever saw.”
But I’m not so sure Van Curler was in Bellevue. I’m thinking that maybe he wasn’t on the south side of the city at all, but instead was over on the north side, up in Goose Hill.
The reason for my change in judgment is because when Stewart’s opened its new store at 1757 Van Vranken, where Marty’s Hardware used to be, it gave Schenectadians easy access to one of the best views of the Mohawk Valley you could ever want to see.
Sure, if you live in a second-story flat somewhere in Goose Hill and the trees aren’t too obstructive, you might get a good look at the Glenville Hills (called “Touareunia” by the Mohawks) on the right and the Rotterdam Hills (“Yantapuchaberg”) to the left, with the river below. But now it’s there for all to see.
As a longtime Stewart’s customer at various locations, I want to thank the Dake family for opening up the area and providing a wonderful vista for all to see. According to Camille Sasinowski, a lifelong Goose Hill native and former president of the Goose Hill Neighborhood Association, the store’s new layout and view have helped make it an important meeting place for those who live nearby. Earlier this fall, I told her how during one visit I made to the store, there were four men sitting outside at a picnic table enjoying their conversation and the view. They were speaking Italian.
“To hear that story just fills my heart,” said Sasinowski, who along with Linton history teacher Julia Holcomb, rekindled the Goose Hill Neighborhood Association back in 2004. “When I was a kid everybody’s name ended in an I or an O, and we still have a lot of old Italian people here and some Polish people. That takes me back to the good old days with all the grape vines and fig trees that were in the neighborhood. Things have changed a bit, and while we do have a few too many absentee landlords, it still is a wonderful neighborhood.”
It was during the first two decades of the 20th century that the Goose Hill area became populated with immigrant Italians and Poles coming to Schenectady to work for the American Locomotive Co. and General Electric.
“We need more shopkeepers like Jim Henderson, Mike Bennett at Stoney’s and Lou Riccitello,” added Sasinowski. “We’re trying to help people maintain that pride we feel because Goose Hill is really a special place.”
Bill Buell is the Schenectady County historian. His bimonthly history column appears on Mondays. To write to him, email b[email protected].
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