Ripe old age: Flatbush fruit market turns 80

Some of the fruit and vegetables that John Cortese sells.
Chandler Kidd

Brooklyn has its fair share of great museums. From the roughly 3,400-year-old stone likeness of Egyptian lovers Nebsen and Nebet-ta, to an 18-year-old portrait of stoned American rapper Snoop Dogg, the borough’s eponymous Eastern Parkway repository of fine art — the Brooklyn Museum — boasts an exquisite, history-spanning collection. Elsewhere, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden hosts a world-class gallery of green stuff, the Brooklyn Transit Museum has even older trains than the Transit Authority, and the Wyckoff House Museum offers a glimpse of Brooklyn living — Dutch style.

But of all the wondrous reservoirs of knowledge, art, history, and vintage oddities housed behind polished panes of Plexiglas, there’s only one Kings County museum that sells fruit.

“Welcome to 1939,” says Grocer John Cortese, greeting a shopper on her way into Golden Gate Fruit Market.

Cortese celebrated the 80th anniversary of his Flatbush grocery store on, what else, but the Fourth of July, and while it’s not your typical museum by any standard, there’s plenty of history on display within this modest purveyor of produce.

A nearly century old balance scale hangs from the shop’s original tin ceiling, while the pilot light of an ancient 1918 Triplex gas stove still burns in the back. On the wall hangs a vintage 1960s Sunkist banner featuring the fruit company’s classic logo — before it sold soft drinks — and a long-retired, analog cash register sits operable, but unused, having been replaced by a newfangled digital version.

John Cortese smiles in front of vintage photographs at Golden Gate Fruit Market.
Chandler Kidd

The store is covered in vintage photographs, including an autographed photo of Tony Bennett hanging near a box of pasta-sits, along with a shot of the Brooklyn Dodgers featuring famed slugger Jackie Robinson. Another famous New Yorker has also visited the shop, Cortese said.

“Gil Hodges once came in the shop. I saw him picking grapefruits,” he said. “His hands were like baseball mitts, so I helped him pick out the ripe ones.”

And if you’re looking for a history lesson, the 95-year-old Cortese has plenty to say, especially when it comes to the dietary habits of Kings County shoppers. The grocer used to carry lima beans, oyster plants, and rhubarb, but stopped as habits changed and people began looking for prepared foods — customers shop lighter these days, says the grocer, who attributes the lighter grocery bags to smaller families.

“I used to have families of four or five walk into the store. Now families are smaller. Most of the people who used to come in have either passed away or moved away,” says Cortese, a little melancholy. “I remember when the block would have trolleys strolling down the avenue, and women left their doors open as they cleaned.”

World War II memorabilia, stirring memories of the Battle of the Bulge, where Cortese served as part of the 551st Field Artillery Battalion, helping to stave off the German advance in what would be Hitler’s final offensive on the Western Front.

An autographed picture of Tony Bennet, who has visited the store and is close friends with John Cortese.
Chandler Kidd

The veteran recalls how, before he joined in the Allied invasion of Normandy, the army put him through a two-hour demolitions course, and he was taught how to handle mines in a live mine field.

He recalls vivid scenes of horror — the smell of a concentration camp, having to tend to dead bodies on the battlefield, and maggots crawling on the dead.

But the old grocer’s life wasn’t all blood, guts, and mangos.

Cortese meet his wife through a friend, who thought enough of him to introduce the shop keep to his sister. She died when he was 92 — another reason he continues to return to the store.

“I don’t view this as work, this is just a hobby I enjoy doing,” he said.

The outside of the Golden Gate Fruit Market.
Photo by Louise McCarthy

Reach reporter Chandler Kidd at ckidd@schnepsmedia.com or by calling (718) 260–2525. Follow her at twitter.com/ChanAnnKidd.

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