Many Coney Islanders fondly recall Jimmy Prince pausing whatever he was working on to bid the visitors of his beloved Mermaid Avenue butcher shop a proper hello.
“He would be working, butchering, whatever he was doing, and he’d wipe his hands and he’d look up with a big smile,” said Michael Quinn, a resident of Coney Island who grew up visiting Prince’s butcher shop. “He loved people visiting him, whether it was an adult or children. He was like everybody’s grandpa.”
News of Prince’s death on May 3 at the age of 89 sent shockwaves through both Marine Park, where he lived nearly all his life, and Coney Island, where he worked for over 60 years at Major Markets Prime Meats — and where he was bestowed the nickname “Major.”
“People in the neighborhood didn’t know his name was Jimmy, everyone just used to call him Major all the time,” Quinn told Brooklyn Paper.
Prince joined the Major Markets team as a 17-year-old in 1949 and eventually bought the shop from his longtime boss and great friend Willy Palumbo in 1975.
“We called him Uncle Willy,” said Todd Prince, the sixth of Major’s seven children, of the shop’s previous owner. “He was great to my dad and he was great to our family. We all have really fond memories of Uncle Willy.”
Prince remained proprietor of “Uncle Willy’s” butcher shop for nearly 30 years until he closed up and retired in 2009, but continued working part-time at G&S Salumeria and Pork Store on Avenue U in Sheepshead Bay until 2019.
Those who knew him remember Major for taking great joy in serving his community. The beloved butcher would often go above and beyond his daily duties, many said, and was always grilling up hamburgers for neighbors who didn’t have stoves and hand-delivering goods to those who moved out of the neighborhood, or forgot to pick up something.
“He started doing that at the butcher shop because a lot of people at the low-income houses didn’t have a stove or couldn’t cook on their own,” Quinn said, “so he would cook the best burger I’ve actually ever had in my entire life.”
He was also known to sell neighbors food on credit, to be paid back later, despite friends’ and family members’ warnings — but he ran his business the way he wanted, Prince’s son said, never choosing to make a buck over helping a neighbor in need.
“People told him repeatedly he shouldn’t give out so much credit,” Todd said. “And he chose to run the store the way that was aligned with his values and made him feel good.”
The walls of his Coney Island butcher shop were plastered with pearls of wisdom for all his customers to see — sayings he also shared at home with his seven children, with whom he worked hard to instill a positive attitude.
“He used to have quotes up in the store,” Todd told Brooklyn Paper. “‘Treat others as you want them to treat you’ was one of his favorite sayings. ‘Kill them with kindness’ was another.”
The personality many came to love in the market was no different than the one Prince shared at home with his wife and children, his son said, adding that he doesn’t have one memory of his dad yelling at him. Instead, his dad would sit down with him and his siblings and explain what they did wrong.
“As a dad, he was incredibly kind, never yelled, always had a smile. When we were upset, he was always trying to cheer us up and encourage us,” Todd said. “That’s the way he always was. I wouldn’t say he had a different personality from work and home — even at work he was like that, always trying to encourage people.”
His dad’s dedication to his business did keep him away from home a lot, the son said, as Prince rarely ever took a day off. “From 1980 to 2009 … he probably worked 363 days a year. I remember two four-day vacations in the 1980s.”
In lieu, Prince would travel far and wide by pouring through the monthly editions of National Geographic he received for decades, and vicariously through the travels of his many children, who now live all over the country.
“He was a big National Geographic collector and we would go through them together,” his son said, “and that had a bit of an influence on me and I ended up moving overseas when I finished university.”
The late Prince was also a baseball enthusiast and grew up a Brooklyn Dodgers fan until the team left for Los Angeles. He later conceded to root for the New York Mets, taking his kids to a game each year.
“My father was a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan and he was devastated when they left Brooklyn,” Todd said. “He switched to the Mets, but not immediately.”
To honor his father, Todd said, he hopes to start a new tradition with his family: attending a Mets away game in his new home of Washington, DC with the new Jimmy Prince — his nine-month-old son.
“I think I will make it a tradition of taking him to a game on Father’s Day,” he said.