Stephen Attardi Jr. is dead.
He died of cancer at his second home in Thailand in January, but I only recently learned about it.
Dead at 78, he left a lasting impression on me when I first started to cover the Bayonne beat in 2004, even though I only met him once. Perhaps this was because his story so resembled my family’s story and the story many immigrant families, who came to the United States to build a new life, and somehow had to settle for making a better life for their kids.
Attardi called me years ago at the newspaper and told me he was closing his parents’ store and wanted me to come over and write a story about it.
He assumed I knew more than I did about the importance of that small shoestore on Broadway since nearly everybody else in Bayonne knew about the place, which had once even gotten a mention in The New York Times in a political piece about the New Jersey governor’s race.
Comet Shoe Repair was a Bayonne legend for more than 60 years, with roots that went back to another shoe store on Montgomery Street in Jersey City, and before that, a small village in Italy from which his family’s fathers had come.
“Since my father died, this place has become a kind of social club.” – Steve Attardi, Jr.
“Right next to the post office,” he told me, though not indignantly, but with a very weary, and perhaps sad tone in his voice.
With the Bayonne Community News office located on 21st Street at that time, it was only a five block walk uptown, and Comet Shoe Repair occupied the ground floor of a house across the post office’s driveway. For 60 years, Steve, Sr. and Jean ran the business on the first floor and raised their family upstairs.
More of a social club at the end
Attardi unlocked the glass door when I tapped on it. In his mid-60s then, he looked weary and sad. He had retired back in 2001 after having worked for more than 30 years as a postal inspector in the Pacific Northwest. A local sports hero while at Bayonne High School, he had gone on to make a name for himself in college sports at the University of Montana, and continued to play softball with the post office league, which had retired his number after years of championships.
He chuckled a little when I pointed out the irony of his having a career with the post office when he had grown up living next door to the main post office in Bayonne.
Steve, Sr. and Jean had run the shoe repair store for so long most old timers couldn’t remember a time when they hadn’t, though as pointed out in a New York Times article published in 2000, the place had become more of a social gathering spot than a shoe repair, where old timers gathered to talk sports and politics.
These discussions were sometimes heated. Jean often supplied the guests with home cooked food. Since they owned the building and eventually collected Social Security, they weren’t as interested in making money as having a good comfortable place to live.
Like many of the stores along Broadway that began fading away with the start of the 21st century, Comet was already an anachronism. It reminded me of similar places my family had gone to when I was a kid. Along either wall stood red vinyl chairs with metal arms worn down from years of use.
Steve, Sr. had died in 2002.
“Since my father died, this place has become a kind of social club,” Attardi said, his voice filled with remembered pain, renewed by the more recent death of his mother, Jean.
For three years, Jean had tried with the help of a hired shoemaker to keep the business going. But Attardi said it wasn’t the same.
For him, every inch of the place was filled with lingering memories of growing up here. As a boy, Attardi had come down to clean up the place, and even polished shoes, but never took up the trade. His father wouldn’t allow it.
“He didn’t want us to give up our dreams the way he had to,” Attardi said.
The machines along the rear wall, behind the counter, still reverberated with his father’s memory, machines he’d installed there when opening the shop in 1954.
It started with Steve Jr.’s father, Vito
Steve, Jr. and Jean had grown up in Jersey City, not Bayonne. He was the son of Vito Attardi, who had a similar shop on Montgomery Street.
Born in Siacca, Italy in 1894, Vito came to the U.S. in 1907 and set up a shop on Brunswick Street and lived first on Bright Street, and later Wayne Street. Unlike his son and his grandson, Attardi, Vito was small, 5 foot four inches tall, about 145 pounds with blue eyes and brown hair, and a complexion straight from the Mediterranean. He had no formal education and yet somehow learned how to read and write. He married his wife, Nancy at 19. Steve, Sr. was the eldest of seven children.
Steven, Sr. and Jean grew up in the same building.
“Over the years, they kept in touch,” Attardi said.
They got married on the eve of World War II.
“My father was a great singer and an athlete,” Attardi said. “He didn’t want do shoe repair.”
During the war, Steve, Sr. found work at the Federal Shipbuilding Co., a U.S. Steel subsidiary based in South Kearny, which supplied ships for World War II, popping out destroyers as fast as they could to meet the need for the war in the Pacific. These operations faded out by the end of the war and for Steve, Sr., jobs became scarce.
Steve, Sr., who had helped Vito in the Jersey City store growing up, went back to it, moving his family to Bayonne.
At first, he worked for another shoe repair shop on 23rd Street and Broadway, with the aim of opening his own shop the way Vito had in Jersey City.
“I’m very proud of him because he didn’t like shoe repair, but he stuck with it and made a success of it,” Attardi said.
Building a business legend
Steve, Sr. and Jean purchased the building next to the post office on April 15, 1953, but the building was in such disrepair, they could not open the store until 1954. He originally named the store “Super Comet Shoe Repair” because people could wait for their shoes to be repaired.
Steve. Sr. and Jean were something of a novelty.
“My parents spent all their time together in the store and raised four children,” Attardi said. “My father was a good repairman. He had a great sense of humor. But my mother ran the store. She ordered all the supplies. She made sure it had everything it needed. My mother was a good business person. She made all the decisions.
By the time, Vito passed away in 1974, his son’s business in Bayonne was already locally famous.
Then day in and day out, hand in hand, the husband and wife team built their lives around the family business.
“But my father didn’t want us to go into the shoe repair business,” Attardi said.
Steve, of course, went on to become a successful high school and college sports star, and his siblings found lives of their own as well.
Attardi paid for his parents’ trip back to their ancestral village in Italy, after which Steve. Sr. and Jean got the travel bug, going everywhere together around the world. Their last trip was to Israel in 1999.
Not the same business any more
After Steve’s death in 2002, Jean kept up the business. But in the era of sneakers and disposable shoes, it was a lost art form.
When Jean died in 2005, Attardi and the others decided to close the doors on the business, even though it was a huge part of all their lives.
“They were great and generous people,” Attardi said in near tears as he spoke. “I miss them dearly. But my mother was 91 and she was ready to be with my father. She kept saying she was ready to see her honey.”
And now, more than a decade after that moment, Attardi joined them.
And like some many institutions that rose out of the old country, passing from Vito to Steve and then in a strange way in Attardi’s heart, Comet Shoe Repair became a memory, symbolic of some greater change not just in Bayonne, or Jersey City, but in a country where old must give way to new.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.