Bill Sbona stands by the long wall of magazine racks at Central News on Main Street and looks over his inventory. “We do well with car magazines,” he says. “And tattoo magazines are big now.”
“You never lose on porn,” adds Frank Nicastre from behind the counter.
In years past, stores like Central News, selling cigars, newspapers, and the occasional cup of coffee, filled the downtown areas of New England’s cities and town. Now, says Nicastre, “You have to go to New Haven or Glastonbury to find a place with so many magazines.”
Since 1946, Central News has watched the world change through its big glass window at 190 Main Street.
Inside, there have been some changes as well.
One Monday in March 1990, federal prosecutors announced indictments against 21 alleged New England mobsters as part of a large-scale crackdown on the Rhode Island-based Patriarca family. Among the indicted was Salvatore D’Aquila, known as “Fat Butch,” the proprietor of Central News.
D’Aquila was accused of running what the Hartford Courant called “a half-million-dollar-a-week numbers operation” out of the back room of the newspaper store. He was found guilty and sentenced to a total of 15 years in prison, nine for the gambling ring, and six more for acting as an accessory to the murder of a youth hockey coach, who D’Aquila helped bury underneath a garage in Hamden, Connecticut.
Sbona bought Central News 14 years ago, just as D’Aquila was heading to jail. An affable middle-aged former factory worker with a graying mustache, Sbona has a side job with the Middletown Water Department. He says that the press blew the gambling conviction out of proportion. “They sensationalized the whole thing,” he says. “[Sports betting] was a common thing then.”
Nicastre is around the same age as Sbona, with an angular face and short hair. “Gambling was a subtext of life,” he says. “It wasn’t thought of as a bad thing. You have to look at it in context. It wasn’t an uncommon thing in towns [to have a local bookie.]”
Sbona says that he’s barely done any renovations since he bought the store. It’s a long and narrow space, with a huge display humidor near the front and a small Formica counter in the back with six stools and a napkin dispenser. The walls are a thin fake wood paneling, and the place smells pleasantly of tobacco.
The store opens at 5:30 each morning, and serves $1 coffee to a host of regulars on their way to work.
“I used to open at four,” Sbona says. “I would get here at 3:30 and people would be waiting outside.”
In recent years, however, local factories have cut down on their shifts, and there’s no demand for such an early opening.
Traffic is still heavy in the mornings, but it’s nothing like it used to be. Sbona points to a stack of Styrofoam coffee cups. He says that they come in boxes of a thousand, and that when he bought the store a box would last about a week. Now, each box lasts three weeks.
The walls of the store are decorated with mementos: newspaper clippings, postcards. One entire surface is covered with snapshots of customers, smiling old Italian men hamming it up for the camera.
“Most of those guys are dead,” Sbona says.
Nearby is a picture of Middletown’s City Hall, circa 1930, an elegant four story brick building, topped off with a clock tower. “It was beautiful,” Sbona says. “They knocked that thing down in two days and thought nothing of it.” Today, there is a parking lot in its place.
Nearby is one more picture. Upon first glance, it doesn’t ring any bells. It shows an idyllic riverside scene, with tall grasses and clear skies. Once told that it is a photo of Middletown’s waterfront before Route 9 was put in, the landmarks become unmistakable. There’s the bridge, there’s the bend in the river.
“We had a nice waterfront area,” Sbona says. Now, it’s practically inaccessible.
Walking through Central Connecticut’s towns and cities today, Nicastre says, “You can’t get a sense of what these downtowns were like. It’s hard to imagine, it’s so antiseptic now.
”When we were growing up, we saw what these towns used to be,“ he continues. ”Then they started to modernize, brought the highways through. Cars have changed a lot. Downtowns aren’t even necessary anymore.“
The industrial base of the area has shifted as well. ”When I was a kid growing up in New Britain, you still had factories humming along. You’d be hard pressed to find one now,“ Nicastre remembers.
He laughs. ”I sound like one of the old farts that used to talk to me when I was a kid.“