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Everything must go — for good

Cancemi is closing his Pine Avenue furniture store

The Niagara Gazette

Dec. 23, 2006


Vincent A. “Jimmy” Cancemi started selling furniture in 1971, hauling around catalogue items in the trunk of his very compact Dodge.

More than 35 years later, Cancemi is working a late night — like almost every night — in his namesake Pine Avenue store.

He’s reminiscing about the spaces he’s occupied between then and now, and he still can’t believe his good fortune at ending up here.

“When I was growing up, if you made it onto Pine Avenue, you’d made it,” Cancemi said. “Everything was happening there. It’s where all my goombahs were.”

By the end of January, the late nights probably won’t be a thing of the past. But Cancemi Furniture, the store that occupies a half-block of Pine Avenue, will be.

Last month, Cancemi, 64, sold his property to what he said was “a major corporation.” His store will be open extra hours until its furniture is sold, or before his property’s new tenants decide he has to move out.

Real estate records show V.J. Cancemi Associates sold the 14,840-square-foot property on the corner of 26th Street to an Atlanta-based company named RentProp for $340,000 on Nov. 17.

Other Pine Avenue merchants said that Arkansas-based representatives of a furniture store chain have been in the area recently. Cancemi would not name the company behind the purchase, but said the property would likely be sub-divided.

Staying with a tradition

Charles O. Marazzo, owner of Latina Importing Co. on Pine Avenue and a longtime friend of Cancemi’s, said the furniture store is just the latest in a long line of small businesses driven off the storied strip.

“It’s very hard for somebody like Jimmy to do business nowadays, to compete with the Raymour & Flanigans,” he said. “He did a good job, as a salesman and at picking the items he liked. Now it doesn’t matter how good you are, you just have to buy 25 couches or something like that.”

Cancemi said the city’s declining population has also taken a toll on his business.

“When I started out, there were 23 furniture stores in the city,” Cancemi said. “I’m the last guy here, the last independent one. Now there won’t be any.”

Before the recent offer for his building, Cancemi had never considered closing down his store.

Not when he found out in the mid-1990’s that he owed roughly $230,000 in back taxes and economic development loans — a story Cancemi says he can’t talk about, other than to say he thought an employee had been paying them.

Not when, soon after the tax discovery, state environmental inspectors found low-level petroleum contamination in a city right of way near his store, scuttling a refinancing effort and forcing Cancemi to turn to friends for money.

Even when the city was threatening to foreclose on him in 1998, Cancemi said he wouldn’t seriously consider closing his shop.

“My pride would never let me,” he said.

“A great loss to our area”

With his private and public debts paid off, Cancemi said he has no regrets, other than wishing he’d had more time to spend with his sons — Vincent, now 30, and Anthony, 17.

“It was a hard decision … but it’s been a good run,” he said. “It’s been a lot of work, but I’ve never considered it ‘a job.’ I’ve enjoyed every day of it.”

Marilyn Lojek, a former head of the Pine Avenue Business Association who remembers buying from Cancemi during his trunk-sale days, described the closing of Cancemi’s as “a great loss to our area.”

“He’s a fixture on Pine Avenue, and a fixture in our city,” Lojek said. “He’s a wonderful decorator, he’s done so much for the Business Association, the Boys & Girls Club … people can’t believe he’s closing.”

From trunks to showrooms

Cancemi was born and raised in Niagara Falls, the son of Anthony, a fruit peddler, and Paula. His father died when Cancemi was 7 years old, and his mother worked at Sears Roebuck and other jobs to make ends meet.

While in college he started working for an interior decorator, installing draperies and other items. His taste and knack for decorating led him to start a small business selling furnishings from his home and his car.

He grew into a space on Highland Avenue, above the former Prestolite building, and then to a space on Sixth Street, before purchasing the property at 2525 Pine Ave. from Robert L. Andrews in 1989.

Cancemi expanded the space to make room for repair, storage and painting operations, and told the Gazette in 1998 that sales, at their peak, had reached about $1.2 million per year.

More than anything, Cancemi enjoys tackling entire rooms customers are buying for, especially when he gets to travel to the homes themselves.

He admits to being somewhat strong-willed, a quality testified to in a poem written about him by former Mayor Jacob A. Palillo, tacked to a wall in his break room:

“You go in to buy your choice / of a dresser, lamp and bed, / by the time you leave you end up/ with Jimmy’s choice, instead.”

Saying goodbye

Cancemi retired five years ago from working days as a special education teacher at Niagara Falls High School. He doesn’t have any plans for after the liquidation sale is finished.

“I haven’t taken a real vacation in 35 years,” he said. “My family says about me, ‘Jimmy can go anywhere he wants, as long as he’s back in a few hours.’ ”

Shortly before closing Thursday, Dorothy Cancemi Frost, Jimmy’s sister — “My left hand and my right hand around here,” he says — was talking with a couple who were long-time customers., both about their recent couch purchase and the birth of their three new grandchildren.

“It’s been like a family reunion since we put the word out,“ Frost said. “They come in, they tell us what’s been going on … we’re going to miss them.”

Cancemi may agree, but his take on closing after more than three decades comes more from experience than sentiment.

“I’m probably going to see everybody come in, at least once,“ he said. “Everybody loves a funeral in Niagara Falls.”