By Judie Jacobson
WEST HARTFORD — For Hartford native Sherry Haller, going to the Crown Supermarket with her parents was like going to a kiddush
after Shabbat services. “It was a social event – it was almost like going to a kiddush or meeting in Keney Park after shul on the High Holidays,” she recalls. “You’d never know whom you’d see, but it was always friendly faces, familiar faces. It was like family. It was a ritual to go there for Pesach, for Rosh Hashanah…You didn’t have a High Holiday if you didn’t go to the Crown. It always felt like such an intrinsic part of the Jewish community in Hartford that you can’t imagine not having it.”
Yet, that is exactly what Haller and so many other Jewish shoppers from the Greater Hartford area and beyond will have to do, as word came down Tuesday morning that the Crown Supermarket would soon close its doors for the last time, after more than seven decades of service to the community, that included carrying an extensive line of kosher products.
“We spent a lot of time considering the alternatives and looked at all sorts of promotions and other things we could do to keep our
customer-base coming so that we could keep the business thriving and stay in town,” says Marc Bokoff, who purchased the business in May of 2009. Ultimately, says the Norwich native, the store simply could not hold its own in the face of stiff – and much mightier – competition.
“Last year, we had new competition come into town, and our other competitors reacted by stepping up their aggressive advertising and promotional programs, renovating their stores, etc. We could only keep up with them so long. We’re a small store and every little bit hurt,” he says.
Not that Bokoff is going down without a fight. As the Crown teetered on the financial brink, Bokoff feverishly worked with his attorneys and accountants and a group of caring community people who wanted to see the store survive. Ultimately, though, a variety of obstacles made the deal unfeasible, Bokoff told the Ledger. While a last minute sale is still possible, it is remote. For now, says Bokoff, his greatest concern is how best to take care of his employees. As the Ledger went to press on Tuesday, Bokoff had not yet set a closing date.
“I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll be devastated if it closes,” says Barbara Gordon of West Hartford, who has shopped at Crown her entire life. “I am there once a week for a big order.”
Like Haller, Gordon, who is a former president of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, recalls with fondness shopping at Crown with her mother way back when it was on Albany Avenue in Hartford.
“I have a big history with Crown,” she says. “My affiliation with the Jewish Historical Society makes it even more obvious that they are such an icon for the Jewish population. Whenever we talk about the good old days in Hartford, we mention the Crown Market. I always say I never had to go to my high school reunion because I saw everybody I wanted to see at the Crown Market.”
Founded in 1940 by Sam Smith, Sam Sowalsky and Meyer Goldfield on a piece of land on Albany Avenue between Magnolia Street and Irving Street in Hartford Crown Supermarket was originally a group of concessions operating in the store. The meat and delicatessen was run by the Crown founders, while the bakery was run by the Lassoff family, the fruit department run by Bob Kotik, and the fish department by Hymie Goldfarb. The grocery department was run by the Winer family. Perhaps someday, this original plan might be able to be put into place.
According to the book Jewish West Hartford: From City to Suburb by Betty N. Hoffman, in 1943, Goldfield left the business and was replaced by Jack Sloat. Sloat, Smith and Sowalsky ran the operation until the late 1960s. The Albany Avenue store was expanded several times, but by the mid-1960s, much of the Jewish population had moved from Hartford into the suburbs of Bloomfield and West Hartford. In 1967, the Crown moved to Bishop’s Corner. By that time there were no more concessions; the business was run by the Crown owners. The store began offering pre-packaged kosher meat and the next generation of family members came on board. By the 1990s, the second generation of owners included Alan Smith, Ralph Seltzer, William Sloat and Marvin Cremer. Later, the store was run by Mark Seltzer along with Bill Sloat and his daughter-in-law, Erin Sloat.
When Bokoff purchased the business in 2009, he added his own touches – including a special section of fresh glatt kosher meat supervised by the Hartford Kashruth Commission (HKC).
“The Crown is an integral part of Jewish life in Hartford – to my mind, it’s as important a Jewish institution as almost any other,” says Schwartz, calling its loss a “wake-up call to the community.”
“We need to appreciate and support the Jewish institutions that are surviving,“ she says.
Haller couldn’t agree more.
“I’m very sad,” she says. “It’s an institution that is sort of a cultural reminder of what keeps us together in this Jewish community. It is a place that I remember as a way of remembering that I was Jewish.”
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Photo credit: Elisa Wagner