By Jay Cook |
NAVESINK – Pat Verange’s life has gradually changed since he turned off the grills for the final time last month at The Red Store.
Some routines remain the same. Verange, 58, still goes to bed late at night and his interior clock continues to wake him at 3 a.m., just like a normal day of work. But instead of walking down from his upstairs apartment to unlock the doors at 5:30 a.m., he’s instead greeted by construction crews renovating the recently sold general store into a pit stop for a new owner.
“It’s been a roller coaster ride, a good ride,” Verange, the former owner, said candidly Monday morning. “I know I’m going to miss it and be sorry that I sold it. But I do know I have enough memories to put up on my walls.”
The Red Store officially closed for good April 28 after 59 years in business owned by the Verange family. Verange started working in the general store when he was four years old, helping out behind the counter, handling tasks fit for a toddler. But as the years progressed and health issues began to affect the business, he knew it was time to begin considering a sale.
That was nearly a year ago. He listed the building in October and the queries came flying in, he said. He eventually sold it to a team comprised of Restaurant Nicholas, an upscale restaurant in Middletown, and a former chef there, Mike Metzner. It will be called Big Mike’s Little Red Store. The closing was final about two weeks ago, and the price tag was $725,000.
“It was just a matter of who am I going to pass the torch to and who is going to do what I want to maintain this,” said Verange.
The landmark red façade, which was originally green with black shutters, has fed thousands of locals spanning over 130 years. In one of the oldest parts of Middletown, it’s been a vital mainstay for laborers and nearby homeowners yearning for a hot morning coffee or a turkey on rye.
While the exterior still has its original charm, the interior now is nearly unrecognizable. The wooden sidings and personal knick-knacks are no longer there. It’s been stripped down to the studs, literally, even recently exposing two old barn doors used in the early 20th century for horses to carry and offload goods right in the store.
“You get the chill right through you” when walking through the building now, said Verange. “When you see everything coming down, it’s a little surprising, but definitely more of a chill. It’s weird.”
Serving Up History and Hominess
Verange doesn’t know a life without The Red Store in it. His parents purchased it on a whim in 1959, looking to fund a growing family. John, his father, was a World War II veteran turned plumber and milkman. His mother, Etta, ran vegetable and fruit stands in the greater Red Bank area.
But the history goes much further back. It was discovered after talks with Middletown historians that the building dates back to 1867, although it officially became a general store in 1885. An 1898 ledger Verange recently recovered lists sales to surrounding homeowners for bales, buckets and sacks of goods.
Verange said it’s believed the store shuttered for about a decade in the 1930s after those owners gave out too much credit during the Great Depression. Those debts understandably were never repaid.
But history wasn’t the only dish that drove customers in on a daily basis.
“The old school ways, the communication and people coming in and (us) knowing what they wanted,” made The Red Store special, Verange said.
It’s exactly what brought Barbara Criscito in regularly. Outside of being Verange’s real estate agent through the sale, she had been a longtime customer. Criscito brought her son and a handful of his friends in for lunch on Fridays after half-day dismissals from Rumson Country Day School.
“Pat made everyone who was a customer in the store feel like they were the only customer,” she said. “I’ve been coming here for 15 years with my kids and they’ve always remembered everything that they liked.”
General stores are a dying breed among the food service business due in part to larger corporations flooding the industry, Verange said. He only knows of two which are remotely close that have survived.
In an effort to stand out, The Red Store had become its own brand. Bottles of soda and sarsaparilla-flavored seltzer water were specifically branded and brewed for the store. And a few years ago, Verange invested in customized sandwich wraps with The Red Store scripted logo accompanied by a “There’s only one!” proclamation.
Verange ordered those sheets 100,000 at a time. He can only find one remaining sheet now and it’s stowed away in his apartment. He’s already planning to save it for his eight-year-old grandson.
A Landmark’s Future
The background sounds of a buzzing saw or a hammer’s clank illustrate the amount of construction left. Metzner, 33, the eatery’s new partner, said they’re focusing on reopening in either July or August.
“We want to keep true to what has been a big part of the neighborhood there forever,” he told The Two River Times. “We want to be part of that town and keep the family feel to it.”
Big Mike’s Little Red Store will still be a breakfast and lunch shop, still offering some of the usuals. They’ll also incorporate BLT and Cuban sandwiches, farm fresh salads and protein bowls for customers.
Verange, though, is still figuring out his next step. He’ll soon move out of the upstairs apartment where he’s spent most of his life. He’s planning a “Red Store garage sale” later this summer for regulars to come and pick through old artifacts. But he’ll also have to say goodbye to a street corner that’s provided him with more than enough memories for a lifetime.
“I haven’t had to (say goodbye) yet, so I don’t know,” said Verange. “But when I do I’m probably going to have a meltdown. I just don’t know when it’s going to hit me.”
This article was first published in the May 24-31, 2018 print edition of The Two River Times.
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