Column: Four years after closing shop, Fran is still here
Fran Squillo Vessichio was quick to tell me, as she sat contentedly in her family’s closed cigar store on State Street: “There are certain people who can stay home. I’m not one of them. I’d go out of my mind if I had to sit at home, looking at the walls.”
And so there she is, the fixture people call “the mayor of State Street,” taking care of business when there is no actual business — receiving visitors, counseling a network of callers and enjoying being around her old friends.
When I heard that Vessichio was sitting in the old shop she closed four years ago, playing Solitaire and Spades on her laptop computer, I thought it was a sad story. Well, it’s not sad at all.
“This is like my little social club,” she said last Wednesday afternoon when I stopped in. She introduced me to two of her pals who were sitting with her at the dining room table where she spends her days: Robert Hoffman and Ralph Cannata.
Hoffman was smoking a thin cigar. Vessichio was enjoying a cigarette.
The shop is a little eerie, a place where time seems to have stood still. On the counter sits an ancient cash register, not used for the past four years. On its surface sits a photo of Vessichio and her husband, “Big John” Vessichio, on their wedding day.
“There are a lot of old things around here,” she acknowledged. “When
you’ve had something for so long, it’s difficult to part with it. I don’t like change.”
I asked her about the sign in the front window: “Premium cigars sold here.” She said it’s no longer true. “I haven’t taken the sign down.”
In the back corner of the room, there remains a large glass display case which at one time was filled with brands of cigars. Only a handful are there now.
Knickknacks and mementos still line the shelves. Here’s a faded photo of Vessichio with her beloved horse, Chips Impressive, at an animal show in 1991. “He was a good boy,” she told me. “He lived to be 30. I had to put him down about three years ago. He was like part of my family.”
Her husband, who worked alongside her at the store, died in November 2009. She kept the business going until the summer of 2015, when sales became too slow to justify remaining in operation.
“I had to pay the state 50 percent on imported cigars,” she said. “The cigarette bills were astronomical. It got to the point where, with the expenses and the bills, it was ridiculous. I realized it’s better not to sell anything.”
Her sales had also been hurt by the internet. “I couldn’t beat the prices they have online.”
But still she comes in six days a week (never on Sunday). It’s a quick drive from her home in the Annex neighborhood of New Haven. She rolls in at around 9 a.m., goes to lunch in the neighborhood if she feels like it, and heads home at about 4 p.m.
“I play games on the computer and look up things,” she said. “When I get tired of that, I’ll play the piano if I’m in the mood or read or do the crossword puzzle. It keeps my mind sharp.”
Sheet music for “The Wonder of You” was propped up on that piano. “I was taught on classical music but I’ll play anything.”
Hoffman and Cannata are there a lot; Cannata is one of her two tenants living above the storefront. Vessichio, who owns the building, said she doesn’t like to raise the rent because “they’re like family.”
When I asked her if she has considered selling the place, she grew indignant: “And then what you you want me to do? Money is nice but it’s not everything.”
During the time Hoffman and Cannata were visiting last Wednesday, the topics ranged from President Trump and his efforts to build a wall along the Mexican border to the question of gun ownership. “We have many interesting conversations,” Vessichio told me. “That’s why I come down here.”
Hoffman, who is retired, comes in from Hamden. Last week, he had brought with him a stack of “American Rifleman” magazines for Vessichio to read.
Asked what motivates him to come down to State Street so often from his home, Hoffman replied: “Bored. When you retire, you get bored fast.”
State Street has seen many changes and business cycles over the years but Vessichio has been able to handle those changes fine. “The neighbors are very nice. Everybody looks out for everybody. We’re not like all that glitter; we’re more homey.”
She reeled off the names of nearby longtime businesses — Marjollaine Pastry Shop, J.P. Dempsey’s, Modern Pizza and the Pantry. She also noted some relative newcomers: Jordan’s Hot Dogs and Tlaxcala Grocery.
After Hoffman and Cannata wandered off, Vessichio said Hoffman is one of the people she sometimes “counsels.” Often this is done for others over her phone from the store. “I’m a very practical person; I listen to what they’re saying. I have been around for a long time, so I do have some wisdom. They call me because they’re distressed. It’s fine if they call me; I don’t like to see people distressed. And if I can give them any peace, that’s good. You do what you can do.”
Vessichio has been working in that space at 965 State St., which was long known as the Squillo Distributing Co., since 1960. “Before that we were on Wallace Street until they cut it off for redevelopment and messed it up. This business was started by my great-uncle, Salvatore Apuzzo, around 1930.”
She still keeps a framed photo of her father, Angelo Squillo, in the front window. After he took over the business, he started Squillo Cigars, shaped like Italian cigars and thin.They are still being made in Scranton, Pa. but Vessichio
doesn’t have any left in her place on State Street.
When her father died, she taught the business to “Big John.” He logged more hours there than she did because she had a second job as a registered nurse. Often she worked a combined 16 hours a day, going back and forth between the two occupations.
Asked if she keeps coming in because of the old store’s association with her husband, she said she misses him but added: “No, I don’t stay because of John. I stay to stay alive.”
During my afternoon visit, Joel LaChance stopped in with his dog, Archie. Vessichio immediately reached for a bag of dog bones she keeps near her chair.
LaChance, who lives across the street, told me, “I come in for the fellowship and the rumors and the drama, the scoops on the street. Archie comes for the bones.”
Vessichio has a son, Angelo, a high school music teacher. “He’s a nice guy, he takes care of me. So I did something right in this lifetime. It’s hard to raise a child.”
I asked her why she has a baseball bat under the table. She pulled it out, waved it and said with a smile: “If I have to use it, I will!” But she said she has never needed it. “Everybody knows me. Nobody bothers me.”
Toward the end of my visit, Vessichio said, “It’s an interesting life. And I have a lot more life in me.’
It was 4 o’clock, closing time. Cannata materialized, knowing he had a favor to do. “Ralph helps me open and close the (steel) shutters, which is a big help. It’s hard to pull them down. And I’m short!”
Joel LaChance and his dog Archie pays a visit to Fran Squillo Vessichio inside her old business on State Street in New Haven.