He’s ripe with stories.
A 92-year-old Brooklyn native has seen it all from his family’s fruit shop on Flatbush Avenue. Veteran produce-seller John Cortese began working at Golden Gate Fancy Fruits and Vegetables when the Dodgers still played at Ebbets Field and Floyd Bennett Field was still a municipal airport. But by 2016, not much has changed in the shop, which sold its first peach before the outbreak of World War II, the owner said.
“You just walked into 1939,” he told a reporter.
An analog scale waits for loads of apples and bananas, songs from the American song book issue from a turntable, and a rotary-style phone still rings when customers call (Esplanade–7–2581, according to the store’s marquee).
Cortese’s parents opened the shop, and the apple did not fall far from the tree — at 14, he started bringing produce to patron’s homes for his father.
“I was delivering orders here for him after school — with a pushcart,” he said. “You’d put all your orders going down Avenue M and put them in the box and start walking.”
Cortese helped out until he graduated from high school in 1942, when he received a diploma in one hand and his deployment card from Uncle Sam in the other. But after serving his country for three years, Cortese returned home and picked up right where he left off — helping out his dad with orders and deliveries, he said.
He took over manning the store in 1960, and now works every day except for Sunday and Monday (doctor’s orders after three heart attacks), he said. Cortese opens up around 7:30 am, putting Frank Sinatra, Billy Eckstine, and Tony Bennett on his record player to get into the groove.
The nonagenarian is still totally hands-on, he said.
“I make up the orders, some people call up, I examine all the vegetables make sure they are up to par,” Cortese said. “If something isn’t good it goes in the garbage, but if something’s still salvageable, I put it on the side and some people come along they look at it — most of the time they say, ‘How much?’ and I say, ‘Nah take it, take it.’ ”
The fruit mogul has lost shoppers to chain supermarkets, but he doesn’t give a fig — Cortese, a widower, just enjoys his days in the market with family, friends, and customers, he said.
“And today I’m just passing time now, “ he said. “I lost my wife about a year ago, and if I stay home I go crazy, so whether I do business here or not, I just want to be here, that’s all, just to pass the time.”
In some ways, the store is a museum and a repository of local memory, according to one of Cortese’s sons who helps run the shop.
“People used to shop here with their parents and now they are old, and they want to see if it’s still here,” said the son, who is also named John. “It reminds them of good times, and seeing him, and takes them back to when they were younger, and when their parents came in. So you really step back in time when you come here.”
Golden Gate Fancy Fruits and Vegetables [2080 Flatbush Ave. between Avenue P and Quentin Road in Marine Park, (718) 377–2581].