Last Butcher Shop in
Brooklyn Heights Closes

By Ken Ficara
February 1990

Bob Barone's cleaver fell for the last time.

"That's it, the last piece of meat," he said, wrapping a large piece of lamb in brown paper, and handing it to the State Meat Market's last customer. The last butcher store in Brooklyn Heights, at 116 Court Street between State and Atlantic, had its closing day on Wednesday, January 24, after 50 years of business.

"We've got to find someplace else," said the customer, Dirhem Alnssar of Fort Greene, holding his big $47 piece of lamb. "Everybody talks about his stuff."

"This trade is dying," said one of the owners, John Barone, 63, standing in the back of the small store. "A lot of these younger couples, these business couples, they eat out. They don't eat home."

"But when they cook," he grinned, "they come in here."

Tony Barone founded the store in 1940, said John. Four brothers--Tony, Louie, John, and Bob, at 46 the youngest, have run it ever since. The two younger brothers talked in the near-empty store, with unplugged refrigerators along one wall, and a tray of crackers and cheese and some bottles of liquor set out for the customers.

"The whole family is retiring together," said John, adding he had no special plans, but would stay in Brooklyn. Born on Wyckoff Street in Cobble Hill, he said he now lives in Flatbush.

When the store first opened, John said, the Heights was a good neighborhood frequented by vaudeville and show business types. But it soon began to go downhill, he said, with prostitutes frequenting State Street. Once, he said, a woman came in with a debt to the store and offered to let the store take over the mortgage on her house. The brothers asked a friend knowledgeable in real estate, who advised against it because the area was not a good investment. But in the 1950s, he said, it turned around. One of the first families to come in, he said, bought their house for $28,000 and sold it recently for $750,000.

The store was originally located one block up Court Street, but "they kept doubling the rent," and when an opportunity came up to buy a new store, the brothers took it and moved down one block.

"Property down here has gone crazy," he said.

"In a way, I'm sad," John said. "I've been doing this since I was 13. When you're doing something for 50 years--it's like an old firehorse. You hear the bell and you leap up."

The brothers will rent the store to Terry Chang, who runs a fish market at 94 Court Street, but has lost his lease because of development plans for the site. Chang, originally from Korea, came to this country 17 years ago, he said, and started the fish store about 10 years ago.

"I like this area," he said. "I don't want to go to another place. I already know this area. The people are very nice around here--the best of all in Brooklyn."

He said he thought business might drop off a bit in the new location.

"It was a corner store and a little bit more space," he said of the old location. "Right now we have to evaluate. It will be less but we'll keep trying. Maybe in two or three years" it will improve, as development continues.

A man walks into the store and asked if there is any bacon left.

"No," says John. "Well, packaged bacon," he amends, but the man shakes his head. "Nah."

"We had a lot of butchers" when the store first opened, said John, estimating that there were about 15 butcher stores in the Heights. "But nobody wants us today. Most supermarkets bring in the vacuum-packed meat. Even they are doing away with their butchers."

"This business is dying," he said. "We broke our backs when we were young and we sent our kids to college, and now they've got good jobs. They want no part of this hard labor."

He pointed at Chang.

"His children here will go to school, and they're not going to want the fish business either."

Alnssar leaves with his piece of lamb, and a well-dressed young man in a raincoat stops at the door of the store.

"Do you have any chopping blocks left?" he calls.

"No," Bob answers, but then John points at the last one, where Bob had cut the lamb. "We got no meat left, let's sell that one."

Identifying himself as Mark Musters, 25, the man says he moved to the Heights from Manhattan six months ago, and found it "cleaner and quieter." Originally from Canada, he says he had been a frequent customer of the store.

Using a wire brush, Bob begins scraping down the chopping block--a big one that looks more like a table--while the young man calls his roommate.

"I just bought this great meat chopping block at State Meat Market and I need someone to help drag it out of here," he tells his roommate.

"We just moved, so this is great," he explains after hanging up. "I always wanted a chopping block."

In the back, Bob cleans the cleaver.