Col­umn: Four years af­ter clos­ing shop, Fran is still here

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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!”

Chris­tian Abra­ham / Hearst Con­necti­cut Me­dia

Joel LaChance and his dog Archie pays a visit to Fran Squillo Ves­si­chio in­side her old busi­ness on State Street in New Haven.

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