Nostalgia and newspapers: A visit to the Darien News Store
DARIEN —Though some may think hard-copy newspapers have gone the way of vinyl records and landline phones, many people still see their value.
For Bill Frate, owner and longtime operator of Darien News Store, it’s the namesake that helps keep his store relevant—along with the important and beloved place it holds in the history of his hometown, now open for nearly 100 years.
The store became an invaluable resource for some parents who were out of luck trying to find school supplies as the pandemic’s impact on big box stores created stock shortages. It became a shared unsung hero among some parents in a Darien Facebook group.
“We’ve got some serious roots in Darien,” Frate said of his family, which dating back to the 1800s has played a range of key roles in this community.
Yet for many residents, none are as significant as the Tokeneke Road store his grandparents opened in 1928.
“I came into the business as soon as I could lift a bundle of newspapers,” said Frate, a 1973 graduate of Darien High School.
Prior to that, in 1950, Lottie and Gennaro Frate actually built the building in which the store is currently housed, moving the store from its original location just several stores over to the west.
There is a monument plaque and flagpole monument dedicated to Gennaro Frate at the entrance to Goodwives Shopping Center and was dedicated three days after Frate was buried in June 1976.
A native son and distinguished citizen of Darien, Gennaro Frate served as a Republican member of the Connecticut General Assembly.
Born in Darien in 1906, he was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1948 and was known as “Dean of the House” when he completed his 14th term in the spring of 1976.
Locally, Gennaro Frate influenced the widening of Tokeneke Road and forwarded plans to construct the underpass beneath the railroad tracks on the Post Road. Before owning the Darien News Store, he served as caddy master and assistant golf pro at Wee Burn Country Club. He was an honorary member of the board of the Piedmont Club, a past member of the Noroton Fire Department, a member of the Darien Kiwanis Club, the Old Timers Association, and the Darien Chamber of Commerce.
When his grandfather died in 1976, Bill Frate and his father became tag-team proprietors, keeping the store in operation along with Lottie, who continued there for well over a decade.
“I probably wouldn’t still be here if it wasn’t for all the legacy of my family,” Frate said, having reduced the store hours but still maintaining the vintage milieu that many describe as a subtle journey back in time when they walk through the door.
And amidst the products of 2020—lottery tickets and the current periodicals among them—there remains a panoply of seemingly antiquated merchandise—everything from vintage computer paper to packs of rarely seen hard-copy birthday party invitations.
Every holiday also brings out old-fashioned, and in some cases out-of-print and unreplicable seasonal decor.
Best of all, the myriad items remain housed in a range of timeless displays, including a classic Life Saver shelf, and the many of the original wooden shelves and cabinets.
“We’re more of a stationary store now,” Frate said, reporting that daily sales of The New York Times newspapers have gone from 90 a day to just three.
Yet faithful customers continue to patronize the place—drawn both by a quaint variety of five-and-dime-type items, a great selection of periodicals, and an opportunity to slow down a little and feel like they’re stepping into the past.
“I think this is a great store,” said Dorinda Dodge of Greenwich, who visits regularly even since moving from nearby New Canaan.
“I think the best thing is that it’s an old-fashioned store, and I like that,” she said.
“There are too many new places and they don’t have any charm,” she said, noting she gets her notepads, magazines and occasional gift items for her grandchildren.
Frate understands the attraction to the place, and often hears from visitors how just the smell itself sparks grand childhood memories of their own hometown news stores.
Frate jokes that the secret to the magical scent of history at the Darien News Store is a combination of old wooden shelves, newspapers, and decades of original dust.
The Darien News Store is one of a few historical businesses on Darien’s Tokeneke Road strip near the Darien train station. Just down the road, Johnny’s Records, in business since 1975, celebrated Record Store Day on Saturday, Sept. 26. Chéz Ernie’s, the historic bar on Tokeneke Road, has been in business for nearly a century — it opened in the early 1930’s.
At the time of the bar’s reopening in 2015, town history expert Ken Weiss talked to The Darien Times about the significance of Ernie's.
"The histories of places like Ernie's often take on a romantic tinge, so I've never known what the real story was," he said.
"I do know that it has been around a long time, and the 1933 date can't be far off. I have also heard that the bar in Ernie's had originally been in the 1880s Tooker House Hotel (now the big square building where Heights Pizza is)," he said.
The Darien News Store is at 19 Tokeneke Road and can be reached at 203-655-4853. True to its vintage reputation, it does not have a website.
Additional reporting by Susan Shultz.