On a sidewalk outside an old appliance repair shop on Myrtle Avenue in Clinton Hill, a man takes a break from his afternoon walk to comb through a box of screws, nuts, and bolts, labeled “Please take.” Inside the shop, two white-haired men wearing caps emblazoned with the declaration “WORLD WAR II VETERAN” are removing frames from a wall plastered with photographs and news articles. A sign reading “Elect Roy G. Vanasco” lies on the floor nearby.
The men are brothers, and after operating the shop for 60 years, today is their last day in business. But they’ve got a lot of work to do by tomorrow to make way for a developer’s demolition crew that will raze the three-story brick structure. Soon, a seven-story apartment building will stand in its place.
Rocco “Roy” Vanasco, 91, and his brother Jack, 89, bought the building in the late 1950s for $15,000. They purchased the lot next door for $5,000 through a city program that sold property at low cost to those willing to rehabilitate decrepit land.
For decades, a hand-painted sign advertising “Parts” for refrigerators and washing machines, with a phone number drawn next to the words, hung over the shop’s door. That’s already gone, sold earlier this month to a local artist for $500.
Decades ago, the now-silent phones in the shop rang incessantly with callers’ complaints about failed appliances, their voices occasionally drowned out by the near-deafening noise of elevated Myrtle Avenue line trains rumbling overhead.
“This was the neighborhood store,” says Roy, a lifelong Brooklynite who was born just a few blocks away on Clermont Avenue.
He started the business after returning home from World War II, during which he served aboard the USS Osterhaus, a destroyer that protected Navy vessels from attacks in the South Pacific.
Once back in Clinton Hill, he and Jack threw themselves into the business, heaving milk crates loaded with spare parts into their cars and going out on service calls for which they charged $75 each. The education the brothers received from Manual Training High School in Park Slope armed them with all the know-how they needed to revive ailing appliances.
During decades of running a popular local business, Roy rose to become the head of the Myrtle Avenue Merchants Association. Later, he became the inaugural chairman of Brooklyn Community Board 2 and its transportation committee.
His first order of business upon achieving influential Board 2 status was to lobby aggressively to have the Myrtle Avenue El — which he’d hated since he was a boy — torn down.
“When you were 10 years old, you’d cry, ‘Ahhh! Is the train going to fall down?’ It was ugly, it was noisy, and it was falling down,” he said. He got his wish in 1969, when the overhead tracks were razed and replaced with what is now B54 city bus service, with the remainder of the subway line becoming the M train.
Roy proudly pointed to a proclamation on the wall given to him by former Borough President Abe Stark — who helped put together the first community boards — commending him for his civic work. It hangs next to a photo of him and his wife, Rhoda, posed with Nancy and Ronald Reagan at a swanky Manhattan party, dressed in suits and ball gowns.
On another wall of the shop hangs a photo of Roy as a boy playing basketball on an 88th Precinct Police Athletic League team. He went on to become president of the precinct’s Community Advisory Council, which serves as a liaison between residents and local authorities.
Roy left the community board in 2012, but continued civic activism, pushing for the reopening of the World War II Memorial on Cadman Plaza, which has been shuttered pending upgrades to bring it into compliance with the American Disabilities Act. Last month, the city announced plans to finally to renovate and reopen the memorial.
“It just came naturally,” he says of his long-time community involvement. “I grew up that way.”
But now, he’s ready to say goodbye to the refrigerator repair business, and settle into a life of leisure with Rhoda in New Jersey. They’ve had a home there for years, but Roy would spend weekdays in Brooklyn working at the shop — staying with Jack in Marine Park — and drive out to the Garden State on weekends. In retirement, he plans to stay in shape by walking and playing tennis from time to time, and giving speeches to local high-schoolers.
And though Roy will be living full-time in another state, he’ll remain something of a local legend within the confines of Community Board 2.
“There’s any number of people who lived here a long time but probably not a lot of people who lived here their entire lifetimes and are also so actively involved,” said current Community Board 2 District Manager Rob Perris, who has worked extensively with Vanasco.
On the last day at the shop, customers filtered in and out, and chatted with Roy as he showed off his collection of memories. They asked when he was closing the doors for good, and their smiles quickly turned to looks of disappointment when he broke the news.
That loyalty cut both ways. On the shop’s last day in business, he prepared to make one last house call.
“Someone’s grandson called me up and said, ‘My grandfather used you.’ I said, ‘Okay, that makes me feel good.’ ”