From hiking trails to Main Street - we'll be featuring the best of our people and places from The BRJ archives, so check back often for new posts!
As if on cue, Van Morrison was crooning Into the Mystic over the sound system, when we stepped through the door at Metropolitan Seafood and Gourmet, on Route 22, in Lebanon, New Jersey. “Hark, now hear the sailors cry, Smell the sea and feel the sky…” Read More
During the thirteen “roaring” years of Prohibition illegal suds and hard liquor literally poured into New Jersey and a budding entrepreneur established what had to be Mendham Township’s only speakeasy. Read More
Lib Schley and her sister Mayor Watts grew up in a world of Victorian make-believe, filled with fairies, fables, and magical journeys to the “wonderlands” of children’s literature. Read More
BRR’s owner, Chris Merton, is a bearded, java guru who enjoys grooving to the Grateful Dead almost as much as he enjoys the raucous din of a NY Rangers game from the old blue seats at Madison Square Garden. Read More
Polonius – “Do you know me, my lord?”
Hamlet – “Excellent well. You are a fishmonger.”
Polonius – “Not I, my lord.”
Hamlet – “Then I would you were so honest a man.”
The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act 2, Scene 2 - William Shakespeare
As if on cue, Van Morrison was crooning Into the Mystic over the sound system, when we stepped through the door at Metropolitan Seafood and Gourmet, on Route 22, in Lebanon, New Jersey. “Hark, now hear the sailors cry, Smell the sea and feel the sky…” Appearing incognito in a white t-shirt, faded jeans and a backward baseball cap, Mark Drabich waved us into the backroom office, his inner sanctum at the bustling market. We expected him to be exhausted after his nocturnal pilgrimage to the Fulton Fish Market, in the Hunt’s Point section of the Bronx, but Mark is the kind of guy that would be hard to keep up with even on his worse day.
“This is a good occupation for me to be in. I don’t require a lot of sleep,” he said.
A pulsing, current of kinetic energy, all we had to do was click the recorder on, and Mark was off and running. Before I could ask my first question, we had covered everything from his fillet-cutting days in high school and college and the identity crisis of his successful foray into corporate sales during the 80s preppie-era, to the pitfalls of his first 450 square-foot store, but all that was just a warm-up for the what we had really come to hear – a fish story.
Mark picked up the phone and called one of his cutters in the front of the shop. “Do me a favor, bring me a sea bass,” he said, in his gravelly, North Jersey dialect. A minute later Woody showed up at the door with a mottled, blue-black Centropristis striata, fresh from the waters off Long Island.
“You see like a slime on a fish, it’s a fantastic thing, “Mark pointed out, always eager to educate anyone who will listen on the finer points of his trade. “When its rigor mortised, it’s a great thing because it means the fish is not that old. The older it gets, the rigor mortis leaves it. Rigor mortis only happens in the first 8 – 9 hours.” But mark doesn’t have to lay a finger on a fish to tell if it’s worthy of his esteem, he only needs one look.
“I think it’s a gift. I see things,” he said. “When I see guys squeezing fish, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, why are you molesting that fish?’ He gestured to the sheen on the black sea bass in front of us. “Now, you don’t have to be a fishmonger to see this is gorgeous,” he growled - but a fishmonger is exactly what Mark Drabich is.
Since his first job at a fish market in Hillsborough, when he was 15, fishmonger has been a moniker that Mark carries with a certain swagger and blue collar pride. He seems to loves and respect everything it stands for, from the centuries of tradition to the fishy smell on a cutters clothes after a long day of filleting.
“Looking back now, I was so proud to work at the fish market when I was younger, that I used to go to the bank, and I would stink of fish and knew I stunk of fish,” Mark said. “Not only was I not self-conscious about it, but I would wait for it to catch someone’s nose. Literally, I’d be sitting back and a woman would be like, ‘Do you smell that?’ I go, ‘That’s me,’” he related with a nostalgic, self-satisfied grin, “I work in that fish market down the street.”
Drabich and Metropolitan Seafood have been a presence in the Clinton area for almost 30 years, but after moving into their tony new digs, on Rte. 22, In Lebanon, four years ago, they’ve become the piscatorial mecca for seafood lovers and pescavores with a discerning palate. “We always had the same great fish, but this store made us legitimate,” Mark said.
Metro draws a cult of loyal customers from a dozen zip codes and every walk of life, from backyard grillers and culinary artists, to professional athletes, captains of industry and finance, and regular work-a-day folks. “It doesn’t matter who the client is,” said Drabich. “You turn my lights on every day.” The prices may be higher than what you’d pay at other markets, but for anyone who has brought a piece of old cod home and been overwhelmed by the ammoniated smell of decomposing fish, or bought a higher-priced piece of sock-eye salmon that was actually coho, the extra cost is money well-spent. (According to a 2011 Consumer Reports investigation, “more than one-fifth of 190 pieces of seafood… bought at retail stores and restaurants in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut were mislabeled as different species of fish, incompletely labeled, or misidentified by employees.” Mystery Fish: The label said red snapper, the lab said baloney.” Consumer Reports, December 2011.) And all of Metro’s fish are free of preservatives, color retainers, growth hormones, and antibiotics. (“All my fish are naked,” Mark told us. “It’s like fish porn.”)
“I get aneurisms when I think about how some restaurants have so deceived the public,” Mark lamented. “I don’t mind explaining why it’s more expensive.” “When I first came to Clinton, I remember when swordfish took a big jump one time and I decided well, I’m not going to buy swordfish ‘cause it’s really expensive and I don’t know if my customers will pay for it. This woman came in and she said ‘do you have swordfish?’ I said, ‘it was too expensive this week.’” She said, ‘Honey, your job is to get good fish. Don’t worry about what it costs. As long as the fish is good, I’ll buy it. I don’t want to hear about the price of fish anymore.’ And I was like, ‘you got it.’ For those first couple of years, you got to understand the mentality, you feel like you have to compete with everyone who’s selling fish, you have to keep the same price point as the supermarket. And I don’t remember when the metamorphoses took place, but I decided I didn’t want to compete with anyone. I just want to get fish you can’t get. Like the sea bass I have today out of Long island, this time of year, each boat is only allowed 50 pounds. I feel amorous when I look at them. They’re so sexy. You can go to Le Bernerdin or Per Se tonight and you’re going to get the same fish. To bring these wonderful exotic fish… you can’t get razor clams, I’m not bragging, you can’t get razor clams anywhere to buy, you’d have to go to a NY restaurant tonight. Live scallops, sardines from Greece, Branzino... We have 17 different oysters today.”
When you step into Metro for the first time, you’re struck by how little it actually smells of fish. A mark of cleanliness that Drabich takes great pride in. The front of the store is tidily stocked with locally baked breads and ciabata rolls, garden-green produce and herbs, and refrigerated display cases laden with smoked fish, fresh steamed (never from canned) tuna salad, colorful frutti di mare, gourmet cheeses, and middle eastern specialties (after all, they are in Lebanon, NJ) such as Egyptian fava bean salad, tabbouleh, stuffed grape leaves, store made hummus and baba ganoush… but the short step up to the back of the market, is where the real action is.
When the market is really buzzing, it’s an exciting place for a seafood lover to behold. They sell 500 pounds of salmon alone on a typical weekend, and there are --- guys cutting, shucking, taking orders, and offering tasters of everything. I know from experience that if I hang around the oysters long enough, I’ll be offered a sensory experience that French poet Léon-Paul Fargue, likened to “kissing the sea on the lips.” My preference is a tidal taste of home - a salty, Connecticut Blue Point. In the midst of the controlled chaos is Mark Drabich, greeting clients like old friends, talking fish, and inspecting the displays, “that needs ice, freshen that up, get rid of that piece…”
Metropolitan carries a dizzying array of the freshest and hardest to get seafood. On any given day you can discover catches from Nova Scotia to New Zealand and from Brazil to the North Africa, including shad, cod, swordfish, and halibut, Branzino, Pompano, and American Red Snapper, Sushi Grade Ahi, 17 different kinds of oysters, lobsters, live scallops, mussels, little necks, cherry stones, and Maine steamers, crawfish, catfish, and Arctic char, Hamachi, Moon Fish, and Mahi Mahi, squid steaks, conch from Belize, Spanish octopus, organic Scottish salmon, King crabs, Snow crabs, Jonah crab claws, and hyper-local favorites like Musky Hatchery rainbow trout. And if you don’t feel like cooking, Metro will do it for you, whether it’s a dinner for two (or more) or a quick lunch from their daily specials menu. How about classic fish and chips, a whole-bellied fried clam, or fried scallop platter, herbed, grilled sea bream over a Caesar salad, rock shrimp tacos, Arctic char over saffron rice, a fried catfish po-boy, or a grilled Thai tuna health wrap. In the mood for soup with your sandwich? Many specials include a choice of lobster bisque, or clam chowder (Manhattan or New England).
If its sounds like some sort of fish-fest, you’re not far off. “We want you to be part of this party we’re throwing here,” Mark said. “Seafood is a celebratory food, you’re not bumming eating lobster. Liver and onions, I’d be pretty depressed. ‘You know honey, you know what? I’m just not in the mood.’ ‘What do you want to have?’ ‘I don’t know. Grill some shrimp.’ It’s celebratory!”
When it comes to seafood, most chefs will tell you that it’s vital to establish a relationship with an honest fishmonger, and relationships is what Metro is all about. Ask Mark Drabich anything and he won’t hold back. He is happy to explain pricing, tell a fish’s story (every fish has one) and even likes fielding complaints. “You’re not happy. Don’t even bring it back. Just give me a number and I’ll give it to you,” said Drabich. “We actually don’t even use the word customer to be honest with you,” he said. “We use the word client. To denote a long term relationship. A customer is kind of in and bang, bang, but a client is someone you see on a regular basis.”
That relationship extends to the entire Metro team, many of whom have been with Drabich since the early years. “I wanted these men here not to have jobs, but careers.” said Drabich. “Colin’s with me for 22 years, Nicky’s with me for 18 years, Sellwood’s been with me since he’s 16 years old, Bill was with me since he was in high school, went and became a teacher, quit teaching to come back here. My point is, a fishmonger should be a career and I’ve been so blessed, my clients letting me be a true fish monger.”
Metropolitan Seafood & Gourmet
1320 US-22, Lebanon, NJ 08833
Phone: (908) 840-4332
TEMPORARY Hours of Operation
Tuesday - Saturday
9 AM to 7 PM
9 AM to 4 PM
Above photo by Susan Pedersen. See more of Susan's images from our visit to Metropolitan Seafood on our Gallery Page.
During the thirteen “roaring” years of Prohibition (1920-1933) illegal suds and hard liquor literally poured into New Jersey. On land, a never ending stream of beer-laden trucks, some of them World War I surplus, rumbled along the roads of the Garden State while rail cars chugged along the tracks, packed with bootleg whisky in crates labeled “Jersey Tomatoes.” At the shore, local fishermen found lucrative part time jobs running liquor into port from bulging cargo ships that sat 12 miles off the Jersey coast and liquor was sold at open air markets in broad daylight.
Much of the banned booze that entered New Jersey was destined for Newark, which the Kefauver Commission later named the “bootleg capital of the United States.” Tons of illegal alcohol was funneled through the city by a mob kingpin named Abner “Longy” Zwillman. In 1935, Zwillman, a Newark native and former ward boss, would take over the old “Dutch” Schulz mob, and become known as “the Al Capone of New Jersey,” but during the early 1920s he was the leading beer supplier to hundreds of illegal drinking establishments in and around Newark, known as “gin joints” or “speakeasies” because you often had to whisper a name or a password through a slot in the door to get in.
Speakeasies were an American phenomenon during the not-so-dry days of Prohibition and it is estimated that illegal operations replaced the once-legal taverns and saloons at a rate of from four or six to one, although one source placed the number in New Jersey at more like ten to one. Even the state capitol couldn’t be kept dry. According to an article by Jon Blackwell, entitled “1926: Wet and Wild Prohibition Days,” Chambersburg, South Broad Street, and State Street were “dotted” with “darkened speakeasies.” According to the article one popular speakeasy on Chancery Lane, which attracted jazz greats such as, Paul Whiteman, operated across the street from a police station.
A speakeasy could be a smoky basement or a more “sophisticated” operation. In urban areas like New York and Chicago some of the more upscale gin joints were as posh as the most stylish nightclubs, drawing musical acts like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington but you didn’t always have to go to the big city to wet your whistle.
In the western reaches of Morris County, where landmarks from the America Revolution dot the landscape, a stiff drink was a short drive to the village of Ralston. Here, amidst old mills, rolling pastures, and antique farmhouses, a now famous Mendham “institution” got its humble start. Officially named “Sammy’s ye Olde Cider Mill”, most folks just called it “Sammy’s” and still do today.
Remembered as tough, hardworking, but also a fun-loving family man, Sammy Fornaro immigrated to the United States from the Naples area of Italy, passing through Ellis Island before reaching rural New Jersey. According to his grandson and namesake, Sam Fornaro, he came to Mendham because it was an inexpensive place to get a fresh start “the less you had the further out (from the city) you went” Sam explained. “This is where he could afford to settle” (Oh, for the good old days). Sammy and his family moved into a farmhouse in the Ralston section of Mendham Township. The property along Burnett Brook came complete with a defunct cider mill.
Sammy opened up a roadside stand in a small house across the street, putting out a couple of tables and serving hot dogs and hamburgers to truckers and Sunday drivers. But while unsuspecting diners munched on their burgers and slathered mustard on their dogs the real action at Sammy’s was happening in “the basement,” where the budding entrepreneur established what had to be Mendham Township’s only speakeasy.
Those “in the know” entered the real Sammy’s through a bulkhead door at the back of the building. After a short step down they were confronted by an interior wooden door where, true to speakeasy lore, the anxious patron rang a buzzer and was scrutinized through a small window before they were finally allowed inside. Mirrors lined the wall behind the long hardwood bar, and though the spacious basement was dark and smoky it was also warm and welcoming. Sammy’s soon became a popular place to break the law, as well as grab a bite to eat.
Thirsty throngs from all walks of life patronized speakeasies during the uninhibited 20s, including women, which according to Sam Fornaro made up almost half the clientele at his grandfather’s establishment. Prior to the speakeasy era local taverns and saloons were almost solely the domain of men and very few “respectable” women ever set foot in a place that sold spirits. Those who did imbibe did so at home and were usually confined to sneaking a glass of wine or an occasional sip of sherry but after recently winning the right to vote many women, particularly the younger generation, were eager to test their new found independence.
Donning the short skirts and bobbed hair styles of the “flapper”, country maidens as well as the daughters of high society flocked to the speakeasies and gin joints where they listened to jazz music, wiggled and gyrated to the latest dance steps, and stunned their elders by showing bare arms and legs in public and engaging in such shocking behavior as social drinking and smoking cigarettes. They brought with them a new drink sensation – the cocktail. Bartenders who were used to pouring beer and serving shots now had to learn to “mix drinks” – the American bar scene would never be the same.
For conservative and temperance minded New Jerseyeans it was all too much. The law they hoped would sweep the scourge of alcohol from the land was not only a failure but it seemed to be having the complete opposite effect. As far as many were concerned drastic times called for drastic measures. So in 1926, a tee totaling, no nonsense, ex-Army colonel named Ira Reeves was named to head the Federal Government’s New Jersey District of Prohibition and tasked with drying out the state. Reeves went on a barrel bashing crusade, launching raids on an unprecedented level and even Sammy’s may have been snared in his far-reaching net.
According to Sam Fornaro, his grandfather was tipped off one day, that he was going to be raided. Instead of panicking Sammy decided to turn his misfortune into profit and he threw a big party at Sammy’s. That night federal agents came crashing in and raided the joint. The scene resembled the old news reels of the day, with agents in trench coats and Dick Tracy hats rolling beer barrels out of the building and smashing them with sledge hammers and axes for the cameras. But no one was arrested, not even Sammy, and the speakeasy didn’t get closed down. According to Sam, everyone had a good time and a soon as the Feds rolled out, the beer trucks rolled in and the party resumed. “They made a ton of money that night” Sam admitted.
The raid on Sammy’s was just a small-scale example of what Ira Reeves was up against. Faced with uncooperative police departments, lenient judges, and corrupt politicians, the “St. Patrick” of Prohibition soon became discouraged with his “holy” mission. According to one source, the low point may have come on a January night in 1927, when Reeves sent three of his agents to check on a reported beer warehouse on Market and Broad Streets in Trenton. Soon after their arrival they were surrounded by an angry mob. One of the agents fired his pistol in the air to disperse the crowd and it alerted a nearby police patrol. When he arrived the policeman immediately arrested the agents for carrying firearms without a local license. Jaded but wiser, Reeves resigned soon after and the booze binge rolled on for another five years.
In 1933, Prohibition finally came to an end and essentially put speakeasies and illegal gin joints out of business. For Sammy Fornaro however, the transition to a legal bar and restaurant was a natural. People were still coming to drink and Sammy was getting a reputation as a good cook. “He’d cook anything” Sam said. “The local guys would bring deer or pheasant, whatever was in season and he’d cook it up.” So in 1933, though it had actually been in business for years, Sammy’s officially opened its doors.
Sammy kept the fare simple; steak, chops, (later on lobster), spaghetti and pasta, and a fresh salad dressed with homemade wine vinegar, were the only items on the menu, although there wasn’t really a menu to look at. Instead, diners placed their orders when they walked in and then went down to “the basement” for a drink. When their meal was ready to be served they would be called upstairs to be seated. The most popular item was the steaks, which were dry-aged on the premises and then seared and cooked to perfection. It became Sammy’s signature dish.
Sammy also spiffed up the joint a little and hired a local artist to paint murals on the walls. As Sam recalled, his grandfather commissioned the man to paint scenes from around the restaurant, the old cider mill, the farmhouse, the landscape, but “I guess he used to drink a little” explained Sam “and he loved Florida, so he put palm trees in the scenes and left them there.” The result is best described as historic Ralston meets the Copa Cabana but it’s now part of Sammy’s lore – just like the lack of signage out front. There is no sign in front of Sammy’s, nor is there a sign in the window, on the side of the building, or anywhere on the outside of the premises to let passers-by on busy Route 24, know that there is actually a bustling Morris County hot-spot in the unassuming white structure. The anonymity adds to the speakeasy mystique but according to Sam, there was a sign out front in the early days that blew down during a storm. Sammy was urged to put it back up but decided not to, saying essentially that “They know were here.”
In the 1960s, Sammy’s sons, Phil and Nufri, joined him full-time at the family restaurant. Eventually Phil Fornaro took over all the cooking duties from his father but Sammy still kept busy as host and overseer until his death in 1972. “He was a lot of fun” Sam remembered. “He always had a rose in his lapel and he would walk around and make sure everything was the way it should be.” Chef Phil Fornaro kept up his father’s tradition of perfecting a small number of select dishes and the menu remained largely unchanged.
Like his father, Phil Fornaro introduced his kids to the family business at an early age using a bit of child psychology that is reminiscent of Tom Sawyer and the white wash fence. “We each worked one day a week”, Sam explained “but if we were bad we couldn’t come to work. That was our punishment as kids. I remember it would kill us if we couldn’t come. It was fun, it was exciting, it was great! Little did we know” he added. Or did he know all along… today Sammy’s is owned and operated by Sam Fornaro, a 1982 Culinary Institute of America graduate, his sister Maryanne, and his brother Phil.
Though a third generation has taken over at Sammy’s, the casual atmosphere, personal touches, and time-honored quirks, are still a tradition. There is still no sign out front, which can be frustrating for new customers that drive by the restaurant two or three times before finding it. (Sammy’s is now within a historic district and according to Sam, they couldn’t put up a sign even if they wanted to.) In the basement, now known to many as the ”Game Room,” the original hand-hewn bar, set off by lipstick-red leather swivel chairs and backed by the same smoky mirrors that reflected Sammy’s speakeasy days is still in use, and upstairs the “Miami meets Mendham” murals still decorate the walls. Seating is still done the old “Sammy’s way” as well; diners come in and place their order at the hostess stand, which now has one large menu hanging discreetly on the wall behind it, then they head down to the Game Room until they are called, which can be a quite a while on busy nights. But even the wait is just another part of the Sammy’s experience and regulars don’t mind socializing over a cocktail, beer, or glass of wine, while the kids play bumper pool or arcade games until they are seated.
The Fornaro siblings haven’t tampered with the menu much either. They have added a few new items that showcase Sam’s Culinary Institute background, like garlicky, batter-fried shrimp scampi, penne pasta in vodka sauce, a fresh fish each day, and an award-winning wine list, but the wine vinegar for the salad dressing is still made in-house and the crowd favorite is still the steak, which is hand-picked and dry-aged for almost a month in Sammy’s original drying room; an expensive process, since you lose some of the meat in shrinkage but according to Sam it’s well worth the patience and the price. For many folks who have been coming to Sammy’s since they were kids the incredible 32-ounce T-bone, smothered in Sammy’s hand cut, seasoned french fries, is one of their most memorable restaurant experiences.
Surprised patrons continue to discover Sammy’s each year, including politicians (according to Sam, even Governor Corzine recently admitted that “I’ve done my stint in the basement”), international tourists, celebrities, professional athletes and race car drivers, giants of business and industry, “old money,” “new money,” and “not so much money,” and their diversity represents a cross section of the community and its ever-evolving history. Yet, somehow the faces never seem to change at Sammy’s and maybe that’s because folks who have been there once, keep coming back, giving the place a feeling of comfortable familiarity, “It’s like visiting your friend’s house” Sam explained, “and it’s fun, and loud, and kind of cool. We’ve got second and third generations coming in to eat together or celebrate a birthday and then at the next table you may have people that are doing this huge business deal and they’re side by side. It all works.”
It’s been more than 70 years since the speakeasy days at Sammy’s but even the death of Prohibition couldn’t bring an end to the party. Laughter and excited conversation can still be heard behind the Venetian blinds of the nondescript white building, the sound of clanking glasses still climb from the basement, and the smell of good food still wafts from the kitchen, but in many ways Sammy’s is still Mendham Township’s best kept secret. So if you are looking for a great meal, a place to share a drink with good friends, and a unique New Jersey experience, head on over to this former speakeasy on Rte. 24 in Mendham Township. You can tell them at the door that The Black River Journal sent you…but don’t worry you don’t have to whisper anymore.
353 Mendham Rd W, Mendham, NJ (973) 543-7675
Picture above: Sammy Fornaro
Inspired by a love for children, influenced by Victorian elegance and whimsy, and nurtured by the artistic imaginations of family and friends, this country wonderland, secreted within the humble facade of an 18th century farmhouse in Oldwick, is “a place where magical things happen.”
Lib Schley and her sister Mayor Watts grew up in a world of Victorian make-believe, filled with fairies, fables, and magical journeys to the “wonderlands” of children’s literature. It was a childhood of unbounded imagination and fantastic possibilities that nurtured artistic expression and inspired a love for “delighting and entertaining children.” When they married and had families of their own, they shared their gift for sewing fun and whimsy with their own children, thrilling them with their homemade creations, especially during World War II, when a scarcity of materials prompted Lib and Mayor to invent toys out of whatever was on hand. In 1947, they decided to open up their own toy store in two antique buildings on the former John Henry Miller farm in Oldwick. They hired Freddy Foster, a local veteran and skilled craftsmen and he built and fashioned any design that Lib and Mayor dreamed up, from toys and music boxes to fanciful cuckoo clocks.
From its founding, all profits from the store were donated to charity, “This was their creative playhouse. They were not in it for money,” explained Lib’s daughter-in-law Georgie Schley, who now helps oversee the operation of the shop with her husband Reeve. Initially all profits were given to the Hunterdon Medical center but since 19--, after the tragic loss of a family member, the store has operated solely for the benefit of the Bonnie Brae School, in Liberty Corner, New Jersey, one of the nation's preeminent therapeutic learning environments for troubled adolescent boys who have been neglected, abused, or abandoned. Appropriately, Lib and Mayor named their new toy store - the Magic Shop, not just for the wonders and excitement that waited inside but also for the “magic” that was created behind the scenes, at Bonnie Brae.
Lib and Mayor’s careful selection of specialty toys and children’s items, along with a fabulous array of fine European antiques and giftware quickly drew excited children (of all ages) to their curiosity shop, but it was a journey down the “Rabbit’s Hole” that started a holiday tradition and earned them a spot in scores of family albums and happy childhood memories.
Since Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was published in 1865, captive imaginations have dreamed of joining the intrepid heroine on her adventures through the pages of Lewis Caroll’s novel, but imagining wasn’t enough for Lib and Mayor. In the early 1950s, they decided that they were going to actually give Alice’s fans a chance to follow her down the “Rabbit’s Hole,” and with the help from a dedicated core of artists, friends, family, and volunteers, the shop was magically transformed into Lib and Mayor’s vision of Wonderland.
Traditionally, the “Rabbit’s Hole” involved visitors gliding down a slide into a brown paper maze that was sculpted to resemble a rabbit’s warren. Around every twist there was a different staging of colorful toys and costumed stuffed animals playing out a whimsical scene. Every year there is a different theme, which in the past has included holidays, a wedding, a beauty pageant, and an art show. One of the all-time favorites was the inauguration ball, held the year Lib and Mayor’s niece, Christie Todd Whitman, was elected governor of New Jersey. The event that year included an election and the starring rabbit was adorned in a gold lame` dress that Julie Aronson created out of material from Governor Whitman’s inaugural ball gown. Julie, along with Nancy Basset, Shelby Melick, and Joanna Wilmerding, are part of an “informal board” of dedicated and talented artists and volunteers who donate their time each year to what has now become an annual rite of spring in Tewksbury Township. “They do the whole thing” said Georgie. “They kill themselves.”
In recent years enforcement of modern fire codes has forced the creative team at the Magic Shop to tinker with tradition a bit. The dioramas have now taken center stage and though many folks miss the slide and the paper maze, the little ones don’t seem to notice and are just as thrilled with the spectacle as their parents were when they first visited. “We see people come through the “Rabbit’s Hole” now that say ‘I’m third generation. My grandmother brought me here and I’m bringing my children,’ said volunteer ans shop manager, Janet Beatty. “It’s very touching.”
One prominent visitor who made the yearly pilgrimage to the Rabbit’s Hole was Jacqueline Kennedy, who brought Caroline and John when they were children and continued the tradition with her grandchildren. According to Janet, they were also loyal patrons and she recalls one occasion when Mrs. Onassis visited with her granddaughters, who were primly attired in white gloves and Mary Janes for a tea they were attending afterward. They were told they could pick out one toy each and Janet remembers that they both selected the same thing, whoopee cushions (which may or may not have been intended for the impending tea party).
Lib and Mayor’s enchanted vision was brought to life at the Magic Shop but even a world of make believe can be touched by reality and in the 1960s, a devastating fire tore through the store. No one was hurt but many teddy bears, dolls, and other toys met a tragic end along with a room full of antiques, art, and one-of-a -kind pieces.
Lib was heartbroken when she wandered through the smoldering remains of the store inspecting the damage but as legend has it, she looked up and saw a white fairy which had been untouched by the fire hanging from one of the charred rafters. According to Georgie, “she took it as a symbol that the shop would go on.”
After a year of rebuilding the Magic Shop reopened its old red Dutch-door and continued conjuring up fun and surprises. The white fairy remained a theme in Lib’s life, and when she died in 19--, a group of her beloved wood nymphs emerged from the woods during her funeral to guide her home. “Shelby Melick fixed up all those little girls to come out of the woods dressed like fairies at her funeral” Georgie recalled. “It was wonderful. An illustration of the white fairy still hangs in the shop today in reverence to Lib’s spirit and as a comforting symbol of continuity.
Another generation of Schelys has come under the Magic Shop’s spell and the store is now owned by Lib’s son Reeve and his wife Georgie. According to Georgie, Reeve was never really interested in the shop when his mother ran it but after her funeral the couple decided they wanted to keep it going. Reeve, an accomplished artist whose paintings hang in several museum collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery, and the National Academy of Design, is now very active at the store and offers something it has never had, a masculine perspective. “It’s hard to buy for boys” Georgie said, “Reeve has a good eye and great taste.” But it’s not all trains and toy soldiers. Reeve wants the Magic Shop to be “a special place where you discover toys that you can’t find anywhere else,” and Georgie admits that he’s even “very picky about the dolls.” Georgie appreciates her husbands discerning eye when it comes to choosing toys but confesses that her real passion is the search for the fine art, antiques, and unique gifts that are available at the shop. “I love all that” she said “glass and dinnerware…big chunky jewelry, accessories…we have great rugs. People say ‘You have so many different things!’ but that’s what so fun about it.” According to Janet, “Reeve and Georgie have brought a new energy to the shop.”
The holiday shopping experience, which defines the Magic Shop to so many, has also been revitalized under Reeve and Georgie’s stewardship. This year they stocked a “bewitching” array of contemporary as well as retro-style Halloween decorations and novelties, and added a “haunting” new event that featuring a Halloween parade and costume contest. But as popular as Easter is, and Halloween may become, Christmas is still a favorite time of year at the Magic Shop, and the traditional ride in the pony-drawn cart to pay a visit to Santa Claus, held each year in mid-Decemeber, even rivals a trip down the “Rabbit’s Hole.”
This season, Georgie admits that they have “gone all out.” Featured specialty items for “good” boys and girls include a menagerie of “super-size” stuffed animals, Madame Alexander dolls, trains, rocking horses, doll houses and furniture, games, costumes, a puppet theater, ride on toys, designer apparel and accessories, children’s literary and holiday classics, hand-painted furniture, and everything else from a giant circus tent that would hold a “troupe’ of little performers, to novelties that you can stuff in a stocking.
One of the wonderful things about the Magic Shop however, is that you don’t have to be a child to feel like a kid in a toy store. There are plenty of holiday delights for the adult tastes as well, like handmade Victorian centerpieces, old world style glass ornaments, miniature European villages, and Austrian music boxes. You’ll also find a treasure for everyone on your list, whether you are looking for an heirloom piece to grace someone’s home, a tasteful trinket for that special someone, a thoughtful expression for a host or hostess, or a little something for yourself. But the real gift you’ll be giving won’t be found under the Christmas tree, it will be found in the classrooms and hallways of Bonnie Brae.
The wonders and fancies of the Victorian era seem as distant today as the chivalrous notions of the Middle Ages, but like Lib Schley’s white fairy, the essence of magic, the belief in miraculous possibilities, is timeless and still dwells in our 21st century hearts. By patronizing the Magic Shop and making them part of your family tradition this holiday and all year long, you’ll help bring those miraculous possibilities to the boys at Bonnie Brae which, as the Schleys point out, is the real “place where magical things happen.”
Take a trip down the Rabbit's Hole on our Photo Gallery page!
60 Main St, Oldwick, NJ 08858
We recently paid a visit to Black River Roasters, in Whitehouse Station, and let’s get this clear right up front – despite what the name may suggest - they do not serve rotisserie chicken. What they do serve is a serious cup of coffee.
Heading west down US 22, Black River Roasters is hard to miss. Just look for the building with the colossal cup of simmering coffee emblazoned on the side. As you enter the front door be prepared to be swept into olfactory overload, because not only does Black River Roasters brew fresh coffee daily, but the newly opened café is also home to their roasting facility, and you can enjoy a “God shot” of espresso or a cup of their “daily drip” and watch first hand as Master Roaster, Matt Miller, selects and blends green coffee beans and then roasts them to perfection, filling every nook with their complex and heady aromas as the beans reach the point of the Maillard reaction; the chemical reaction that occurs when certain amino acids and sugars are exposed to heat – think of a toasted marshmallow, toasted nuts, or even the sear on a good steak.
The distorted electric guitar riff of Neil Young’s punk-inspired “Into the Black” vibrated from overhead speakers as we got our first look at the bare-wood, stripped down elegance of Black River Roasters (BRR) – half café, half warehouse/working roasting facility. BRR specializes in organic and Fair Trade certified coffees as well as ultra-premium coffees sourced from small-yield cooperatives, and burlap sacks of green beans from exotic locales bearing the words “rain forest organic” were piled high in one corner of the room awaiting their turn in the infrared roaster.
BRR’s owner, Chris Merton, is a bearded, java guru who enjoys grooving to the Grateful Dead almost as much as he enjoys the raucous din of a NY Rangers game from the old blue seats at Madison Square Garden. His two loves are evidenced by the mural of Jerry Garcia tipping a cup of coffee in the café’s lounge, and the autographed photo of Brian Leetch overlooking the immaculate, black and chrome Diedrich Roaster (greatest Ranger of all time according to Merton, “Brian Leetch… just ask Mark Messier.”)
Merton’s love for a good cup of Joe began at a young age, though like many of us he grew up on convenience store coffee, or as he calls it “gas station” coffee. But the epiphany occurred for Merton during his banking days in San Francisco when he tasted his first cup of Starbucks.
“I was there in the early 90s when Starbucks opened their first store in San Francisco. In the banking business out there you obviously have to get in really early. So, 4:30 in the morning they’re open and were down in the financial district and before you know it, there’s a line around the building for a little kiosk that they have between all the high rises... It was the first time you get to try out coffee that is so different than coffee anywhere else. You’re getting lattes and you’re learning all this new lingo.”
When Merton returned to the east coast, he became involved in a coffee company based in Vermont, learning and training in all the aspects of the business from sales, to bean selection and the intricacies of roasting. He eventually bought out the company and moved it to his home state of New Jersey, taking his new company name from the nearby Black River (sounds familiar).
Describing Merton as serious about ensuring that every cup of coffee that Black River Roasters serves is a fresh, full-flavored experience is an understatement, as he took us through the highly controlled process of creating an artisanal cup of coffee, which at BRR starts with buying the highest-quality organic coffee beans available and then manually roasting them in small batches. Coffee varieties, climate, altitude, processing… all have to be considered.
“It’s a real hands-on, controlled process from start to finish,” Merton explained. “How we handle the beans, how we roast them, how we let them rest, grind them and brew them… if you change anyone of those steps along the way it’s going to change the flavor for that coffee or the final outcome. So it’s all very important. Different beans will have different moisture content. Beans that are grown at higher elevations, lower elevations, they all have to be handled differently…harder beans softer beans, how they roast, faster, slower, how much heat you’re going to want how much air flow…”
But it’s not all science. A Master Roaster like BRR’s Matt Miller has to be in tune with his roaster and be able to make adjustments from experience and intuition. “Everything we roast we cup (taste),” said Merton. Matt will experiment with it until we get it right where we want it.”
Salivating and jittery with caffeine-fueled anticipation, I was eager to sample my first cup of Black River Roasters. Having just come from home and my usual cup of “whatever-is-on-sale-at-the-supermarket” coffee, I was in the mood for something exotic. I asked Merton what he would choose if it was his last cup of coffee – ever – and what he would have with it, if anything. He admitted that it was a tough decision but that he would go with their Ethiopian from Yirgacheffee and “I’ll have a smile with it,” he said. Our publisher immediately went with the Ethiopian and I opted for an organic Bali pour-over.
This is where the artistic and technical mastery of an experienced barista, like BRR’s Lead Barista, Casey Chartier Vignapiano, comes in to play, in a nuanced performance that is part skill and all theater. Described in a 2011 New York Times article as “coffee’s slow dance,” the Japanese pour-over method, simply put, involves pouring hot water over the grounds to extract the coffee flavors into your cup. I’ve made it sound fairly straightforward, but it’s actually a tedious three phase method that requires timing, patience and experience. (After the beans are measured, ground and placed in the filter, the pour-over at BRR takes three and a half minutes.) The result is a richer, more flavorful brew that brings out the complexity of the bean.
Both the Bali and the Ethiopian were sublime cups, but I have to admit that I preferred the bright, sweet and smooth, medium bodied Ethiopian, and our publisher was happy to trade cups, preferring the dark chocolate, fruity notes and earthy finish of the organic Bali.
The caffeine from the pour-over was already kicking me in to overdrive, when BRR’s Ashley Ryno, known at BRR as “general manager of everything,” offered us a chilled glass of “Nitro,” a cold brewed (BRR cold brews their ice coffee for 48 hours), ice coffee infused with nitrogen, that oddly resembles a pint of Guinness, with a frothy head and dark amber hue. I could drink ice coffee in the middle of January, and one sip of this incredibly smooth and creamy concoction and I was smitten (you had me at cold brewed, Ashley).
As I sipped my “nitro” with “Jerry,” in BRR’s upstairs lounge, a comfy hangout for java junkies, unpretentiously furnished with the sofas and rock-and-roll decor from Chris Merton’s bachelor days in San Francisco, I realized how little I knew about the complex life of the humble coffee bean and what it takes to bring it from cherry to cup, but I was happy that I had discovered a new mecca out on US 22, where I could watch, learn, and slurp, while becoming more enlightened.
424 Route, 22 West, Whitehouse Station, NJ.
Watch a little BRR "Pour Over Madness" set to the Grateful Dead's "Althea."
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