"I was born over the store," Marra, 76, said, pointing to his birthplace from a back room in Marra Drugs on Paterson Plank Road in the heart of downtown Secaucus. "And I've been here ever since."
Marra may have been in one place for over three-quarters of a century, but he has the luxury of the whole world of Secaucus coming to him at his store, a longtime town gathering place. Close to 400 people came to see Marra, along with his brothers Gerard Jr., 77, and Michael, 82, honored by the Italian-American organization UNICO as the 2006-2007 Citizens of the Year at La Reggia restaurant on Nov. 17. To understand why Marra and his brothers were acknowledged by so many people for their family's efforts in the community, all you have to do is go to the store.
Service with a smile
Dropping in for a recent weekday visit was local businessmen Joseph Morano, the first vice president of the Secaucus chapter of UNICO. Morano described the central role Marra Drugs has played in Secaucus town life.
"Marra's drug store is the only business in the town of Secaucus that has been open for 365 days for 83 years," he said. "It may the only business in Hudson County like this, maybe even the state."
Morano explained what UNICO is and why they chose to honor the Marra brothers.
"We're the largest Italian-American service organization in the country," he said. "We have 85 members in Secaucus, and hundreds of thousands of members across the country. The bottom line of what we do is raise money and then give money away. And we have a lot of fun doing it. The Marra brothers have been a big part of what we do. "
One of the town's leading citizens also noted the contributions of the Marra brothers to Secaucus.
"Being born here and growing up in town, I've known the Marra family all of my life," said Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell. "The one thing that is evident about the family is that they are true volunteers. They have always served the town and have proven that they care about the community. This community spirit and involvement made them a wonderful choice to be honored by UNICO."
The hub of the community
Gerard Marra Sr., the son of Italian immigrants, opened the store in 1923. Back then, Secaucus was a farming community with a population of only about 4,000 people.
"There wasn't much here," Angelo Marra remembered. "It was a lot of swamps."
Marra fondly remembered his father as a jack-of-all-trades who seemed to be the master of everything around him.
"He was a very intelligent man who also had a lot of street smarts," he said. "He belonged to lot of clubs, of which there was lot because there was no TV and it was a good way to meet people. During the Second World War, he spotted planes and he was on the draft board. He ultimately drafted me and both of my brothers. All sorts of people came to him for advice. Mayor Kane would even say "Go see Gerry Marra" about certain ideas before the town. They all came to him. He was a one man gang."
Angelo Marra remembered another more solemn task that his father took upon himself.
"We used to get the Western Union telegrams telling people that their sons had died during the war," he said. "My father would deliver them personally. He would say to me 'Angelo, get the smelling salts. Mrs. Lanza lost her son.' My brother Michael was wounded twice, and he had to come upstairs and tell his wife. That was difficult."
The patriarch of the Marra family also often served as the town physician in a time before Secaucus had its own hospital and only a few doctors. The store had a buzzer for after hours emergency medical calls in case someone needed help, whether it was broken limbs, cuts, burns, or eye injuries.
"My father would take care of it himself, and he did it for free," Angelo Marra said. "People today still tell me how the police in Jersey City, Union City and North Bergen would send people to us. We were here all the time."
The tradition continues
Angelo Marra and his brothers tried to continue the sense of service of service imbued in them by their father after they took over the store and Secaucus continued to grow.
"The population got bigger and bigger," he said. "Secaucus always had a friendly atmosphere, and it was a good place to come to."
But while the census figures continued to rise, one thing always remained the same at Marra Drugs.
"Customer service has always been very strong here since day one," Angelo Marra said. "Other stores came in and played hardball, but we are family oriented. I only hire happy people. People often come to a pharmacy because they aren't felling good, and they need a breath of fresh air. What they get from us is that they meet an old school mate or a friend, so they forget their troubles for a moment. You can't come to this drug store without meeting someone."
Marra Drugs remains a family affair. Michael Marra's children, Joanne and Joseph, work as pharmacists at the store. Darin Marra, Angelo's son, is also a pharmacist, and the other Marra children all help out in some capacity. In the age of impersonal corporate chain stores, Angelo Marra is confident in the future of his family's drug store.
"People like to come here," he said. "And we'll be here as long as people come."