Verona's beloved Church Bazaar to close shop

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Nancee Federici sat on an antique couch, nestled among carefully arranged displays of gifts, crafts and collectibles at The Church Bazaar, the Verona business she and her husband Fred own.

The arrangement, covering nearly every inch of retail space, offers a warmth and coziness reminiscent of home. "Customers often tell me that visiting the store is like waking up in a dollhouse or sitting in their grandmother's living room," Mrs. Federici said.

This experience, which the Federicis have been providing customers since 1977, may soon be a memory. The Oakmont couple is selling the building, at the corner of Allegheny River Boulevard and South Street, and will not continue to operate the store. Listed at $525,000, the building includes the shop, a restaurant, four apartments, a two-car garage and a freight garage.

"It's time," Mr. Federici said. "Let somebody else have some fun with it, and do what they want to it. We've had our fun, and we just kind of want to lay back and relax a little."

Constructed in 1906, the building originally was home to The Liberto Grocery Store, which specialized in an array of fresh produce, dry goods and imported Italian items. The Federicis purchased it from the Liberto family in 1983 and moved their business, which had been across the street in a choir loft, into a large apartment above the grocery store.

Crooked floors and cabinets that needed to be redone didn't thwart the Federicis' vision for what it could become, and soon customers flocked to the shop with its stenciled walls and lanterns strung throughout.

With business thriving, the couple solicited the help of friends and family members to move it downstairs. Renovations to the 2,600-square-foot area included partitions, carpeting and wallpaper.

Faced again with bare walls and empty space, Mrs. Federici feared she would not be able to fill it, but vendors and consignors soon came, and the store was stocked, she said.

One early vendor was New England-based Wee Forest Folk, which made a line of miniatures featuring hand-sculpted and hand-painted mice. The store became the first in Pennsylvania to carry the line that Mrs. Federici said is still popular among customers.

Most memorable, said Mrs. Federici, were Ty Beanie Babies, which reached peak popularity in the 1990s.

"That was crazy. I never saw anything like it," she said. Mr. Federici recalled customers following delivery trucks to the store.

"As soon as the UPS truck would leave, they would just come in droves like you were giving away the store," he said. "That was a lot of fun to watch the eyes of the kids that came in."

Muffy and the Vanderbears, a line of plush teddy bears and animals by the North American Bear Co., also attracted customers.

To coincide with the company's launch of new teddy bears each year, the store hosted Muffy Days. Upon invitation, parents would bring their children into the store dressed up like Muffy for photographs and refreshments.

"It was a success," Mrs. Federici said. "It helped us put a new roof on the building."

Kathy, a 25-year store employee, said the popularity of Muffy Days is one reason for the store's longevity. Kathy asked that only her first name be used in this story.

"We actually knew our customers. We knew who their children were, what their children were doing in school, and where they were going to college," she said. "You don't find that in many businesses anymore. It's just fun knowing your customers for a long, long time."

Kathy said some customers came in Sept. 11, 2001, needing the store's warm atmosphere. "They didn't really know quite where to go or what to do, but they said, 'You know, I'm always happy here. The store always makes me feel comforted,' " she said.

Often, Kathy said, people came simply because they wanted to talk to somebody.

"Sometimes we feel like bartenders minus the booze," she said. "We celebrate with our customers; we cry with our customers."

One recipient of this compassion was an elderly woman who Mrs. Federici said visited the shop each year at Christmas-time dressed in red from head to toe.

She had no gifts to buy but would peruse the store to get ready for the holiday.

Saddened by her loneliness, Mrs. Federici would sit and have a cup of tea with her before she went on her way.

Their customers are faithful and loyal, Mr. Federici said, noting that those customers are what the couple will miss most about the business.

"It's been a nice operation for us and a lot of fun," he said. "It's like family."

neigh_east

Shannon Nass, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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