LI downtowns: Why Huntington's works

Dwntown Huntington has long offered residents a neighborly

Dwntown Huntington has long offered residents a neighborly quality of life. (Credit: Huntington Historical Society)

Joye Brown

Newsday columnist Joye Brown Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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I ventured into Huntington, my local downtown, the other day to find out what makes it one of Long Island's most popular downtowns. The village - which isn't an incorporated village but looks and acts like one - always scores at the top of Long Island's great downtowns list. Beyond the obvious, which is Huntington's enviable mix of restaurants, bars, museums, churches, movie houses and businesses all within walking or biking distance, what's the village's secret?

Actually, there are five:

1. Customer Loyalty. Francine Federici met her husband in downtown Huntington. She worked at one clothing store. He worked at another. The couple married and raised three children. Now, Federici has her own business, Francine's fashion boutique. But her husband, Gerry, still works nearby, at Marsh's. What makes Huntington great? "A big part is loyal customers who make it a point to support local businesses," Francine said. "It's people who make the difference. I have customers who have followed me around for years."

2. Community Pride. Rita Ciaffone was 14 years old when she walked into Fern's gift and collectible store looking for a job. She got it. She also dreamed of one day owning the 24-year-old business. Eventually, she got that too. "I knew at 15 I wanted it," Ciaffone said, smiling. And when the chance came, "I begged, borrowed and stole to get it." Why does she stay? "I'm Huntington born and bred," she said. "I know this is the greatest place in the world."

3. Excellence. Mary Alice Meinersman used to wear a white hat and sit in a storefront window, dipping chocolates. But don't call her Lucy. Back then, Bon Bon Chocolatiers didn't have a machine like the one made famous by an "I Love Lucy" episode. When Meinersman first bought, moved and expanded the store, she didn't have business training. "We are constantly moving things around here," said Meinersman, whose daughter, Susannah, also manages the business. "The goal is to keep your loyal customers and attract new ones." What works in Huntington? "You have to be good or else you don't make it in Huntington," she said. "You have to pay attention to detail."

4. Friendliness. It takes months for Albert Garbus to get Huntington Business Supply ready. And then the lists start coming home after the first days of school and, boom, the store fills with parents who often gossip while a controlled storm of children gather up school supplies. Garbus puts the notebooks, pens, book covers and mostly everything else at the front of the store, so children stay close to parents. And when the fast-moving checkout line sometimes stretches clear to the back, no one seems to mind. "This is Huntington, which means that the line is full of neighbors," said Garbus, who has owned the business for almost 40 years. "Yes," his wife, Amira added, laughing. "Someone told us we should serve wine and cheese."

5. Longevity. Jane Greenberg, owner of A Lion in the Sun, is now seeing parents who once ordered birth announcements returning to help their children pick out wedding invitations. "I wouldn't leave," she said, "I wouldn't leave, ever." And there are other business in Huntington that are determined to stay too, through a recession that, even in downtown Huntington, has left several storefronts empty. "There are a lot of institutions here, a lot of history and a lot of businesses that, thanks to willing, loyal customers, have become institutions too," she said. "We dig in because it's Huntington. We dig in because there's no place like it, no place to walk like it, no place to spend an entire day in like it. We don't want to be anywhere else."