Local guy Mike DiCecco-raised on Othello Street, educated at St. Edward's grade school and O'Dea High-knows that people around here are still hungry for what the old Chubby & Tubby stores served up daily: quality, practical merchandise at prices about as good as you'd find anywhere. (The stores also stocked a lot of stuff you couldn't imagine yourself ever having any earthly use for, but you always figured that somebody must have wanted it.)
The now 45-year-old DiCecco had worked for the three-store chain since he was a teenager, eventually becoming its general manager, until the stores closed about 15 months ago.
Since then, DiCecco has been working on resurrecting at least one of the stores.
He succeeded in getting the property owner, the California-residing nephew of one of the enterprise's late founders-Irv "Chubby" Frese, who died widowed and childless in January 1997-to lease him space at the Rainier and Aurora Avenue locations last holiday season to bring back the Christmas tree lots, which, with their dirt-cheap trees, had become a tradition around here. And since late March of this year, he has been selling plants and seeds and gardening supplies and such in the parking lot at the Aurora Avenue location.
"I can't use the Chubby & Tubby name in this venture," DiCecco said. "But we happen to be in the parking lot and the signs are here. I can't help that."
DiCecco would like the rights to that name, and he wants to lease the space.
"I'd like to buy the name outright," he said. "I don't want to be tied to a lease on the name as well as the property."
The Aurora Avenue garden store fell together in a hurry, he said. He had to scramble to get the inventory, but, after three decades in the business, he knew who to call.
The garden store experience has indicated to him, just as the Christmas tree lots did, that people want their Chubby & Tubby store back. Numerous customers from the South End have made their way out to 80th and Aurora and have told him precisely that.
"I wish I had a recording of all the comments," he said. "People like the old-fashioned stores, but they're forced to go to the big stores because the small stores are gone."
For now, DiCecco runs his garden store (with an amazing array of inventory, considering that it's run out of a small trailer on a parking lot, necessitating that the merchandise gets secured behind a fence at night) and makes his plans for again running the stores the way the founders did.
There's no bar code scanner at DiCecco's place. He has the prices memorized, most of them anyway. And those prices are, like at the old Chubby & Tubby, right in line, if not a bit below it.
"We always tried to run on as lean a margin as we could without going over the edge," DiCecco said. "That's what the original partners taught me and, you know, it hasn't changed."
DiCecco said he had hoped to open a garden store, for this season at least, at the old flagship (if that's the right word) store at Rainier Avenue and Walden Street, but that the owner was entertaining another offer for that space.
"We've been talking," DiCecco said. "I sent him a proposal on both the Rainier and Aurora locations, either one. It would be one or the other to start. I don't think I could start with both at once."