“My grandfather, George Cafiso, was a tailor. Clothing was a big thing to him. He would always be sitting at the table with fabric or he’d be fitting and pinning people,” recalled Jay Cafiso. “I remember that he would take me with him to the garment district in New York City. I was only four years old at the time and I’d come home with new suits, but my father would say that I looked like a little gangster!”
“In 1952, my grandfather rented a storefront and started North Main Street Tailors. My father, Frank Sr,. didn’t join the business until a few years later because he was serving in the army. When he came home from the army he started the dry cleaning business and the shop became the North Main Street Tailors and Cleaners,” Cafiso said. “The shop was originally located in another building; where Serafina’s is now.”
When the property where the shop is currently located on North Main Street in East Hampton became available, Cafiso’s father purchased it, opening their new shop on January 5, 1971.
“I was probably in seventh or eighth grade when I knew that I wanted to work in my father’s dry cleaning business,” Cafiso said. “So when I was in high school I took a lot of business courses like accounting and business law. My father taught me how to do the dry cleaning and I learned to be the clerk and deal with people and get their clothes while my father was pressing in the back. I joined my father in 1976, but I had already been working part time for three years. We lived in Sag Harbor and I went to Pierson High School so I would get out of school and hitchhike or sometimes grab the bus and make my way to work. That’s how I got my first car. My father said he was tired of me being late so he gave me my great grandmother’s car to use.”
In addition to working at the cleaners, Cafiso held other jobs in his youth. “I delivered milk in the mornings. I would get picked up at 6 AM, and the truck would be fully stocked. I would deliver the bottled milk to the customers and then be dropped off to school by 8:20.” With a hearty laugh, Cafiso recounted being chased by the neighborhood dogs that seemed to “hate the sound of the bottles rattling when they were being carried.”
Cafiso also maintained a paper route for two years and served 76 customers. “I hated it. It was like doing penance for doing something bad. I’d get off from school, and it would be snowing and I really didn’t want to ride my bicycle in the snow so I would ask Dad for a ride. I’d sit on the back of his old Rambler station wagon and throw the papers in the yards. After two years, my sister Connie took over the route.”
Although Cafiso knew his wife Leslie Brewer when they they were children, he waited until he graduated from high school to ask her out on a date. “I took her out on July 4, 1976 to the fireworks at the Devon Yacht Club. I was 17 and she was 15,” he said. Leslie’s family lived in the house behind the shop. “My brothers used to beat him up when we were children,” she said. “He was shy and he used to try to set me up with his friends, but I wanted to go out with him, not his friends.” After their first date, Jay and Leslie stayed together until they married on November 1, 1980. They have two children, Frankie and Genevieve, and a one grandson with another on the way in July.
In what was truly a family business, Jay and Leslie worked side by side with Jay’s mother and father until the elder Cafiso retired in 1995. “People don’t realize how labor intensive the dry cleaning business is. Each item is handled at least three to four times in the process,” he said. “Every piece has to be marked in, itemized on the ticket, goes into the machine to be dry cleaned and then pressed. It’s then placed on the hanger and sorted to be put together with the ticket so that when a customer comes to pick up their clothing we can find it.”
“So, when my Dad was 62, I told him in a nice way that he had to retire. He was just sitting around the shop watching TV all day. I bought him an old pick-up truck that he could use to go clamming with his friends and told him to go out there and have fun. So he hooked up with some friends, the Lucente brothers, and they would go clamming and do some catering and the money they made they would use to go to Foxwoods and just have fun. After a few years my mother and father moved to Port St. Lucie in Florida. My Dad passed away in 2012 on his anniversary, July 9.”
According to Cafiso, his family has a colorful history. His great uncle, Ernest Cafiso, did the first Italian/American radio show on Long Island, which hosted several famous people of Italian descent. “His stage name was Roger Wayne. I had another great uncle who was a captain and a rumrunner. He was put in jail but when the war broke out they told him if he piloted some boats he would be forgiven.”
Leslie’s great-great-grandfather was a whaling captain and rumrunner and her grandfather was the first to have a liquor license in Suffolk County. He opened Ruschmeyer’s and Shagwong in Montauk and the East Hampton Motel on Newtown Lane where Fierro’s Pizza is currently located. “You have to remember,” Cafiso said, “once the whaling industry came to an end, it became speakeasy and rumrunner country out here. The carriage house where Leslie lived was used for rum running. But things change. I grew up in Sag Harbor and basically East Hampton and I’ve seen so many changes in business ownerships. They’re mostly owned by corporations now. There are very few little Mom and Pop businesses anymore. They’ve been absorbed by corporations. I know things change,” Cafiso said, “but it’s sad.”