Andrew Greenberg is what Smart car drivers might call “with it.” He plans to do consulting for a solar power company. He drinks anti-oxidant hydrogen water (that’s H4O). He wears a Bluetooth.
But less than a year ago, Maegreen’s third-generation owner accepted a harsh truth: His downtown corner gift shop – once the center of commerce under whose giant green roof over the years the farmers brought their eggs, the poor found housing, the rich purchased jewelry and the political hatched campaigns – was now out of touch.
“Over the years we kept putting up walls,” he said while packing wedding frames, dining ware and lighted snowman sculptures into boxes. “I was trying to keep it open, but I can’t fight the reality of people’s tastes and wallets.”
To be sure, since taking over the building on Clifton Avenue in the early 1970s, the retail fixture has become the lonely patriarch of an unfamiliar household. By its Dec. 31 closing, it was clinging to a mere sliver of store, as more and more of the half-block building was rented to merchants better aligned with the changing demographics – a Cuban record store, urban sportswear, a Mexican salon.
“I could see it coming for quite a while,” said Helen Corso, who started working at Maegreen’s eight years ago after retiring from her sales job. “People didn’t want to come into this part of town. Older people didn’t want to get out of their cars.”
“He (Greenberg) hung on as long as he could,” she added. “I think he was hoping things would change.”
The downtown strip is divided into Hispanic and Orthodox Jewish retailers, and, statewide, the number of Latino businesses is up 38 percent from five years ago – a far cry from the rural centricity in which Mae and Morris Green opened Maegreen’s on Monmouth Avenue in 1959.
As an egg-candling business, the couple weeded out fertilized eggs by showing a light through the shells and separating those with chicks inside. A few years later, at the recommendation of the Fortunoff family, of the department-store chain into which Mae’s sister had married, the Greens switched to gifts, luggage and hardware, and soon relocated to Clifton Avenue.
A fire in 1974 consumed most of the store as well as the Greens’ will to run it. But Lakewood’s future political knight, H. George Buckwald, “begged, pleaded and fought” Morris until a new Maegreen’s emerged in 1975, under the ownership of Morris’s son, Jerome Greenberg, and his wife, Dorothy.
It would never again be just a gift shop.
As Jerome Greenberg grew in stature, from zoning board chairman to mayor to sought-after advisor, 200 Clifton Ave. became the revolving set on the town’s governmental and commercial stages. Andrew Greenberg recalls his father holding meetings with policymakers in the basement among stocked Lenox ornaments and bridal registry gifts.
In 2005, the Lakewood Resource and Referral Center set up shop there as a one-stop center for housing and social service needs.
“It was the second town hall,” said Robert Singer, now the mayor who was a township committeeman for 29 years.
But business slowed as the downtown diversified and demand for high-end accessories dropped. The recent downturn in the economy dealt the final blow.
Linda Hassa was getting a ring repaired at Twin City Jewelry down the street recently when she saw the handwritten sign on Maegreen’s door thanking customers for their years of business.
“What a disappointment,” the Brick resident said, remembering the bargain she got on the champagne flute glasses and engraved picture frame for her son’s wedding engagement. “They were always the place to go.”
Yet Andrew Greenberg, who will stay on as the building’s landlord, felt somewhat relieved. Now was his chance for a fresh start in the new age fields of drinking water and solar technology.
“I’ve come to terms,” he said. “It’s time to move on.”
Not so easy was telling his 84-year-old father two weeks before he died that the family store of 50 years was closing.
“He could have said a lot of things, but all he said was, “I feel bad for you,’ ” Greenberg, 51, said. “He wanted me to enjoy it all my life like he did.”