Finding Joy Between the Racks at Avato’s

Avato’s Department Store in Clifton was a place of elegance and style that kept customers happy for over 70 years. It was also my grandmother's shop.

Photo courtesy of Maria Mullen

Avato’s Department Store was like many retail enterprises that sprang up in mid-20th century New Jersey. A family-run business, Avato’s built a loyal following with quality merchandise and by forging personal connections with its customers.

Located on Valley Road in the Albion Place section of Clifton, at the base of Garret Mountain, Avato’s opened in 1930 as a dry goods and shoe shop. The founders, Italian immigrants Angelo and Immacolata Avato, raised three children in the apartment upstairs: Cosmo, Rose and Marian, my grandmother. Marian would later bring up four daughters in the same apartment with her husband, Robert D’Ettorre. She also took over operation of Avato’s.

Avato’s came to personify my grandmother: elegant, welcoming, generous and stylish. She was a savvy businesswoman, too. Faced with competition from shopping malls and discount stores, she filled her racks with fine merchandise­—Northern Isle sweaters and Vanity Fair lingerie. She even added a U.S. Post Office station when she recognized a community need.

For me, Avato’s was a place of joy. At holiday time, my grandmother let me decorate the storefront window, stapling plastic ornaments and paper snowflakes to the ceiling. The spool of white package string underneath the register was endlessly fascinating; unwinding an arms-length strand and slicing it in half was a source of simple satisfaction. I remember ducking behind display counters and between racks to hide from my brothers, trying not to let the rattle of hangers expose my location. Then there was the unique nightgown my grandmother gave me: a long-sleeve, purple-cotton number that read, “I’m the one daddy always brags about.”

My grandmother sold the store in 2004; she died in 2010. Her wake was crowded with former customers who spoke glowingly of her kindness. As a kid, I probably didn’t realize how special my grandmother was. But when I hear an old cash register chime, or see an artfully organized display, I think of her.

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