This one's for you, Aunt Agatha
It’s about 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday. I usually wait a couple more days to write my column, but I don’t need to think any more about what to write.
My first insights into retailing came to me by way of my great aunt Agatha Mastromatteo-Corsello-Langella at the boutique she owned just off the corner of 72nd Street and Broadway, here in New York City. As I write this now, it has been less than three hours since she passed away in the company of her two sons Michael and Glen.
I don’t have any brothers or sisters; neither did my mom. My grandmother did though, and her sister Agatha lived right across the street from her. I grew up less than three blocks away from them. I don’t remember when it was that I first learned that Michael and Glen weren’t my older brothers, but it was quite a shock to me at the time; we were all very close. My grandmother worked at Agatha’s Boutique; so did my mother.
Some of my earliest memories are of life “behind the scenes” at Agatha’s Boutique. For those of you who have traveled to Manhattan’s Upper West Side to sample one of New York’s grandest culinary attractions, Gray’s Papaya King, my aunt’s store was right next door. Today, it’s a Vitamin Shoppe.
But in the ’60s, ’70s and into the ’80s, the signature black-and-white polka-dot sign that marked Agatha’s Boutique was like a beacon of class and dignity on what used to be a pretty rough corner — back when gangs called the Vampires and Egyptian Kings ruled Amsterdam Avenue, and a traffic island called “needle park” was the center of a neighborhood that felt a lot more like the wild, wild west than the Upper West Side. Sure, she’d been robbed before; but she didn’t scare easily.
She had it all — brains, class, grace, beauty. And she had bigger balls than John Wayne. She was tough. She was resilient. She didn’t graduate from college, but you’d never know it; she was a progressive thinker before there was such a thing.
And, at Agatha’s Boutique, she did it all, too. She was the head merchant. She was in charge of marketing. And visual merchandising. Operations and loss prevention, too. She WAS Agatha’s Boutique; the physical embodiment of her own dream self-actualized right before my very eyes. Mary Tyler Moore had nothing on my Aunt Agatha.
And, like her sister, my grandmother, and my mom, man, could my Aunt Agatha cook. If you’d ever tasted her “gravy” with the meatballs, and the sausage and her homemade braciole, her baked ziti, her bacala, etc., it wouldn’t be so hard to imagine a 16-year-old, 295-lb. version of me. Luckily, I was always tall — just like my Aunt Agatha.
At the height of her success, my Aunt Agatha was also a divorced, single mother. And in retrospect, it is easy for me to see today how far ahead of her time she actually was. For my mother, Agatha — like her sons, roughly 10 years older than I, are to me — was like an aunt AND an older sister. She was the portrait of a modern woman, and she was a role model for my mother. When I was a kid, I wanted to be just like my cousins Michael and Glen. I wore their hand-me-downs. I played with their old toys. I followed in their footsteps from the School of the Blessed Sacrament on W. 70th Street to Camp Winaco in the woods of southern Maine to St. Francis Xavier High School all the way downtown. It was the path that Aunt Agatha blazed for her sons, to keep them safe and give them a better life. It was the same path my mother chose for me. So, I can honestly say that I don’t know who I would be today without my Aunt Agatha.
There’s a line in an Elton John song that goes, “I know it’s not much, but it’s the best I can do.” This is the only way I know to make a lasting tribute to someone I think is important. I know none of you reading this ever met my Aunt Agatha, but I wish you had. You’d have hired her to run your stores.
So, excuse me if this column doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the drug store business, but a few hours ago I stopped thinking about what I was going to write.
Rest in peace, Aunt Agatha. I will miss you always.