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New York is a city of specialists from foodies to academics, laborers to shopkeepers. Every Wednesday, Niche Market will take a peek inside a different specialty store and showcase the city's purists who have made an art out of selling one commodity. Slideshow below.
382 Graham Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11211
"My name is spelled J-E-R-R-Y R-A-G-U-S-A and if you spell it backwards it’s, 'a sugar.' I’m sweet — but I’m not that sweet!"
Jerry Ragusa has a personal touch, and Grande Monuments is a one-of-a-kind place, as is only fitting for a manufacturer of life markers. Anyone who has strolled in one of the city's grand cemeteries knows that monuments, like the people they recognize, come in all shapes and sizes — from an inconspicuous flat stone to a 10-by-10 mausoleum. Memorial Granite, and its retail storefront Grande Monuments, makes them all. The showroom, chock full of monuments, Catholic icons and family mementos, hasn't changed much since when Jerry's uncle ran the place a half century ago, and it's frequented by a number of the same characters.
Anthony "Brush" Brucella, an octogenarian who grew up in Williamsburg — a neighborhood that was once Italian American but is now more known for a prevalence of skinny jeans — makes the trip to Grande every day from Queens.
"Sometimes we have lunch here, on him (nodding to Jerry). Some other guys come in around the same time and we eat, we bull and that carries the day. It ain't bad at all," Brush said while sitting among the tombstones, drinking an espresso in a micro to-go cup. Others drop in to use the bathroom, or to buy the one other specialty Ragusa, a managing partner of the business, sells: Italian bread.
Grande does no advertising. It has longstanding relationships with Brooklyn's funeral homes, cemeteries and individual families of all denominations and cultures. "Most of the undertakers were very close to my uncle," Ragusa said, adding that he works to keep up the business' reputation for high quality service and high quality granite. It's all about putting customers in a comfort zone, customers who are going through one of the most difficult periods in their lives. That's what Jerry says his uncle Mario taught him when he was starting out in the business as a fidgety kid. "He said, 'Jerry, in this industry you got to be patient, that’s the key. Everybody mourns differently, you can’t judge anybody, and you gotta be patient.'"
How long have you been in the monument business?
I’m the third nephew here. My uncle Frank Grande originally opened the establishment in the early 50s, late 40s, and we’ve been here since. Uncle Mario Frazzitta, he took over in the 70s, 80s, 90s. We just lost him in 2004, and that’s when I came back into the picture here at Grande Monuments. And ever since then, I’m comfortable here. I worked for Mario as a kid, I started working when I was about 17 years old. I didn’t want to go to school, so my father said to his brother-in-law Mario, Sal says to Mario, ‘My son’s a dummy, and he don’t want to go to school, so teach him the monument business.’
How much do the monuments cost?
What we do is we first go to the cemetery. We find out exactly what it is and how much space we have. They sell it by the inch. So we go to the cemetery and the cemetery will tell us, ‘You can put a two-footer here,’ or ‘You could put a flat marker’ or ‘You could go up to five feet high and two feet wide. So the rules and regulations, once they’re obtained by Grande Monuments, we go ahead and we price it. Usually what we do is we give the family one price, so not to create any confusion. They want to put a design on. They want to put a name on. They want to put the dates on. And they want the monument delievered to the cemetery. And, naturally, they want a color. So what we do is we try to give them one price, and one price includes everything.
When a family member dies, it’s a very delicate time. How do you handle your customers?
Well I like to handle the families with wisdom and dignity. First I start out by being 100 percent truthful with them in the sale. Years ago what they did was they layered the sale. What I mean by layered is, they would confirm everything with the family: 'You see the way you want that kind of letter? Well that kind of letter is a special kind of letter and it will cost you X amount of dollars. Oh you want those roses? Those roses are a little bit cultivated, they’re carved,' and what happens is everything that the family wants, while they’re bereaving, is endless. It’ll come out, it’ll pour out of them, cause they’ll want to keep doing, and keep doing and keep doing. So what I find is the families come back to me and they thank me, they want me to come home and have dinner with them because I tell them in one shot. This is what it is, any design you want, all the letters, installation to the cemetery, it’s going to cost you this much money. ... Right out of the [gate] — not an hour into the sales pitch.
How many customers do you have a day?
Well, in the monument business, if you sell one stone a day, two stones a day, two stones and an inscription — that’s three — in hockey you call that a hat trick — I go out and get drunk because it just doesn’t happen. We probably sell about 15 units a month, 10 to 15 units a month, maybe about 30 or 40 inscriptions a month. They’re all recommendations so sometimes we’ll go to the families’ houses, or they’ll come here, basically, you know, that’s it. Every day I’m here, like a solider. I have to be here, I can’t go nowhere. Sometimes I feel like I’m in prison. You see that statue of Jesus over there? When he turns and looks at me I get up put my hat on and run to the door and run to Belmonte's, and I go get myself a cup of coffee or espresso, chill out a little bit, then I come back, cause it can get a little boring.
Why did you start selling bread?
I tried to bring my daughter into the business. Angela, of course, doesn’t want to work with me, ‘Dad is too this, Dad is too that,’ so what she did was she went to work for my cousin, Joey. He’s another cousin, who runs a bakery business. He has a bakery on 17th Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, and it’s called Il Fornaretto Bakery. The lines are like from here to the corner. Every day people are lined up to get this bread. So my daughter went to work for him. And with that, one day she had a few loaves of bread left over, and she said, 'Daddy, go feed the birds.' I said, ‘Go feed the birds! This bread is too good to feed the birds.’ So I brought the bread here, and I introduced it to Father Verrano around the corner at St. Francis, and he said, 'Jerry this is great.' And with that I passed a couple loaves out to a couple signoras in the neighborhood. My uncle always told me, 'Be nice to the ladies in the neighborhood; it will come back to you.' Once their husbands find out that you were kind to them, it will work itself out. So I handed out a couple loaves of bread. With that, I get a response that, 'Jerry, it’s a good idea if you maybe open up a bakery or put a bakery next to Grande’s.'
So what we do is we put the bread in the window here at Grande’s, right next to the Blessed Mother, so the bread is like the mother and the son, and we got the blessing from Father Verrano, it’s not a desecration or anything. He cleared it will all the signoras in the neighborhood. So it’s now about three years in the making and the bread is here by popular demand, and it’s also here because of the notoriety of Grande monuments. Grande monuments has been around for such a long time that when we put the word on the streets that Grande monuments is selling Italian bread, old-fashioned brick-oven bread, 300 people showed up at the door because we service the community with their loved ones.