Although it may lack the faux Frank Lloyd Wright touches — the cantilevered roofs, the colored shapes that mirror stained glass — of North Haven Commons, which is the town’s newest major shopping center, the North Haven Shopping Center on Washington Avenue can claim a distinction of its own.
It is rumored to be one of the oldest, unenclosed shopping centers in New England.
“That’s true,” said Wayne Luciani, son of the late Ettore “Sheik” Luciani, earlier this week. With his three brothers, the elder Luciani built the North Haven Shopping Center in 1952 with only one “leg” of stores — and this, the line perpendicular to, rather than facing, Washington Avenue.
“It may have been something as simple as Southern exposure,” said Luciani of the siting of the initial development, although he described his remarks as purely speculative. “It’s the kind of thing he taught me,” he said, remembering that his father taught him to park his car in winter facing the sun. “They were all farmers, so they were forced to think of those things.”
“It wasn’t like you wanted traffic to see you,” he added. “How much traffic was there really back then?”
“I think the community basically grew up around it,” he said.
The 59-year-old Luciani said he can recall a lot of vacant spaces in the area near the Center in its early years. He said there was a two-family house where the Shell Gas Station now operates, and that there were fields next door.
In addition to Stop & Shop, which built its own plaza next to the North Haven Shopping Center in 1992, one of the early tenants was a Woolworth’s, part of the pioneering five-and-dime chain. It closed in North Haven in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s.
One store that remains is Arnold’s Jewelers, which, according to Larry Lazaroff, the son of the jewelry store’s founder, re-located from Hamden to the Center at the senior Luciani’s urging 45 years ago. According to Lazaroff, Arnold’s continues to be very successful.
“Right now, there are two anchors—myself and Sav-Rite Liquors,” Lazaroff said. He said the shopping center is probably between 60 and 70 percent occupied, although, he pointed out, this is not one of the the Center’s best times. “A number of small stores are empty. We’re busy,” he said, noting that his customers come not only from North Haven but also area towns such as Guilford and Clinton. “That’s a good thing.”
Luciani said the North Haven Shopping Center was the only shopping center his family ever built.
“It was my father’s and three uncles’ lives,” he said. “They devoted everything to it. They made things happen for a lot of people. They helped tenants get started . . . My father said, ‘Everybody should eat’.”
And if the Center lacks the selling points of the four major shopping centers that lend a regional character to Universal Drive — the amount of gross leasable space, the newness, the extreme proximity to Interstate 91, and the chains and overwhelmingly national tenants — the North Haven Shopping Center, with its more local status, has tenants who are largely independent and family-owned businesses.
Those tenants, Luciani said, stay.
“It’s kind of a unique place,” said Luciani of the Center. “A lot of
those tenants have been there for a long time." For instance, he noted that there has always been a pizza parlor at the Center. Today, it’s Droogie’s, although Luciani noted the pizza shop has changed hands a number of times. “The big boxes are the ones that leave. The little guys will stay there forever,” Luciani said.