Bensonhurst’s last Italian record store tells the story of a community
Ilario Bianchi opens the door of S.A.S. Italian Records and heads straight to the back of the store to snag a copy of his favorite weekly Italian magazine: Cronaca Vera. At the counter, Louise Baslie is naming all her family members who need cornicelli, Italian amulets that protect against the evil eye. Italian opera from surrounding speakers is sending waves past every green, white and red knick knack, cassette and CD in this homogenous oasis of a fleeting culture that once called Bensonhurst home.
It was Baslie’s first time visiting the shop on 18th Avenue between 71st and 72nd streets. The 68-year-old Staten Island resident called ahead to secure the cornicelli for her loved ones and ended up leaving with six of the talismans and a stove-top espresso maker.
But 80-year-old Bianchi has been buying Italian magazines there almost every week for 50 years, since he moved to the neighborhood from Italy as a child.
“Italian people, they used to meet here,” Bianchi said in a thick accent that was born in Calabria. “This place, thank God we got this place but you know, I don’t know how long they’re gonna be here.”
S.A.S. stands for Silvana, Adrianne and Silverio, the three children of founders Ciro and Rita Conte. Since opening under the name in 1967, S.A.S. has been a niche in Bensonhurst, blasting Neapolitan pop onto 18th Avenue and supplying a vibrant Italian community with a link to its home country through melodies and gifts.
Ciro Conte moved from the island of Ponza, Italy to the Bronx around the late 1940s, where he opened an Italian luncheonette before making the transition to Brooklyn.
When he arrived, Bensonhurst boasted a booming Italian population. But for years after, as other immigrant groups began moving in, Italians steadily left for places like Staten Island, according to Jerome Krase, emeritus professor at Brooklyn College. Bensonhurst now holds one of Brooklyn’s largest Asian populations.
Silvana Conte, 62, has been running the shop with her younger brother for 21 years since their father was diagnosed with cancer and later retired. She says business at the store has dropped dramatically because of the neighborhood demographics.
Similar shops like Little Records on 62nd Street have already closed, leaving S.A.S as the last of its kind in the area.
“The Italians have moved away, everyone is doing everything online now, so music, DVDs, that’s all gone,” Conte said. “I wonder sometimes if it’s even worth it for me to be here anymore because it breaks my heart, and then I say, ‘My dad would have wanted us to continue.’ But it’s really hard.”
Conte remembers a time when the family ran three shops nearby and rented out a warehouse to ship wholesale items across the country. With a high demand for Italian music and residents inquiring about Italian-made products, the family began importing a trove of goods like hand-crank tomato crushers, pasta-makers, espresso machines and Italian perfumes that still line the shelves today.
Thousands of records eventually turned into over 3,000 different CDs and rows of cassettes that sit on wooden shelves Conte and her family built by hand. The merchandise remains, but for the sentimental owner, the shop’s magic lives in its history.
“It means everything — my livelihood, my childhood, all my memories, my first kiss, all here,” she said.
Like a number of old Italian institutions on the block, the store was a meeting place in the neighborhood. In 2006, people climbed onto shelves to see Italy win out over France in the World Cup and celebrated by pouring onto 18th Avenue, Italian flags in hand. And when stars like Little Tony or Rita Pavone visited to sign autographs, fans lined up around the block, Conte says.
“When Little Tony came here, he was like the Italian Elvis of the time. They announced it on the Italian radio; there was so many people here,” she said. “The women didn’t want to lose their spots, because it was Little Tony, you know, so they peed on the floor.”
S.A.S. tapped into a local community that didn’t want to travel to Manhattan’s Little Italy every time they sought authentic products from their home land.
“It’s an institution in the neighborhood,” said Assemblymember Peter Abbate, who represents Bensonhurst. “I think for those older Italian Americans who are here, it preserves part of their past and hopefully for younger people, it shows the future.”
Saturdays at S.A.S. often bring in former residents like Tom Del Giorno, 71, who toured the neighborhood on his recent trip out from Tucson, Arizona, where he currently lives.
Reminiscing with Conte, Del Giorno rolled up his sleeve to show off a faded tattoo that branded the words, “Brooklyn Bensonhurst,” across his forearm.
As the neighborhood continues to change and technology advances, Conte still intends to hang onto the shop, preserving its memories and ties to a different time, a duty she feels she owes to her father.
“I feel like I’m letting him down,” Conte said. “It would be my pleasure to be able to say, ‘Dad look what I did. I kept it alive for you. I kept it going.’”