In Millburn, New Jersey, opening for business in the 1960’s and effecting me into the next decade, was a little glass-front shop called “House of Bernard.” It was situated perpendicularly across the street from the single screen movie theater on Millburn Avenue. These were the days before you purchased anything (and everything…) online. Closed-in malls would soon become the place to visit for all your needs — and to sometimes socialize — if you lived in the suburbs of northern New Jersey.
House of Bernard stood out for many reasons. The first is the fact that you could purchase a pair of beautiful, handcrafted beaded earrings for one dollar. It was a store that in my imagination, should have been placed somewhere on Bleecker Street or St. Marks Place in Greenwich Village. It had a “hippie” vibe, every inch crammed with leafy plants and cacti, handmade jewelry, pottery and collectibles you wouldn’t normally find in the stores that lined the fashionable avenues of the small towns in the area.
Named for its owner, Berry Bernard, it shone like an under-appreciated jewel among the expected but mundane colors of a luxury driven suburban shopping area. Berry was short, white, middle aged, with dark brown hair streaked with silver strands. He wore thick, black framed glasses, always had a cigar butt between his lips, and had an accent that I no longer can place. I think he was a German born Jew. His wife was an elegant, smooth skinned white woman, inches taller than Berry, dressed like television’s Maude, if you happen to know who that is. (“Maude” was a Norman Lear tv show that was a spin off from “All in the Family” and the character was played by Bea Arthur on CBS in the 70’s. Ms. Arthur, who had been married for 28 years to Broadway director Gene Saks, would be most notably recognized as Dorothy on “The Golden Girls.”). Mrs. Bernard often wore long, mid-calf length fabric coats over a blouse and slacks. No one that I knew or saw dressed like she did. Mrs. Bernard was the first person I remember talking to me about Louis Vuitton bags and luggage. She was genuinely surprised that I didn’t know that label. I don’t believe Mrs. Bernard was happy living in the manicured suburbs. She was a displaced big city woman, “stuck” in a dark Victorian house, ten minutes by foot from the store. I think she would rather have been living in Murray Hill or West Village in Manhattan. On a side note, my father, who was a cardiologist, was her doctor. She had a heart condition. And though Dad never would speak about his patients on any level, I somehow found out that she wouldn’t take his direction on medication.
My introduction to House of Bernard was due to my mother, who shopped there for gifts, pottery and antique planters for her porchside flowers and inside greenery. And later, she bought a 19th Century bronze Persian fire-pit ring that looked like an enlarged Medieval crown (with feet). Bernard arranged to have it wired for Mom, changing its definition. Now reimagined, it became a chandelier that floated eclectically over our contemporary Danish dinner table. It softly illuminated the room as well as a copy of a Picasso still-life that hung above the mantle of the dining room’s coal burning fireplace.
Eventually, I would visit Bernard’s on my own or with friends from school. Living two towns away in South Orange, I would either ride my bike or take the Erie Lackawanna train from Mountain Station to Millburn. By the time I turned 14, I got Berry to hire me part time. It was illegal in NJ to put anyone under the age of 16 to work, so I had to lie about my age, if anyone asked. That’s hilarious as well, since at 14, I looked like I was maybe turning 12 sometime in the distant future.
For me, there were a number of “firsts,” I credit to House of Bernard. Most notable, my friend Rebecca and I bought our first bag of pot from Berry’s store manager, Nick. Nicky was a young man (I’m guessing 18 when we met), with long, kinky curled light brown hair, and a somewhat flamboyant air about him. Though I believe he was a straight man, he certainly wouldn’t care if someone was gay — though this would be years before I would deal with my own sexuality. I adored him. I had often been drawn to persons older than I, which I’m guessing comes from having been the youngest of 4 children, wanting to hang out with my siblings and their friends. Though the “hippie generation” and “flower power” were documented as 1960’s markers, there was plenty of overflow into the 1970’s, including bell bottom jeans, leather strap sandals and men wearing long hair.
I remember Rebecca and I going to my bedroom and putting the pot in a pipe I had bought at Bernard’s. I don’t think it was the first time she and I got high, but it was definitely the first — and for me — the only time I bought marijuana. That’s not a judgement call. To this day, I simply prefer a glass of vodka to a joint. And though Rebecca and I are still close friends, pot and I ended our relationship permanently during my college years.
I worked at House of Bernard, part time and sporadically, all the way through high school. I don’t think I was a very good employee. Not only couldn’t I add without using a calculator, I remember not wanting to dust the glass display shelves. If I had cleaned them the weekend before, why was I asked to do it again the following Saturday? This probably explains why there is currently an inch of dust on my dresser at home.
It is no secret that I had a difficult time in school. I had the unusual circumstance of being both popular and, simultaneously, a serious victim of bullying. That tended not to be the case for most people I’ve talked to who survived being picked on regularly. House of Bernard was not only a safe haven, it was practically a second home. My parents hadn’t insisted I get part time work, it had been my choice. In fact, I needed to get my parents’ permission in order to take the job. There was an intangible sense of my shoulders relaxing when I walked in the door of the perfumed menagerie. At the time, I didn’t expect to end up living in New York City. And I certainly didn’t know I would fall in love with the city’s energy. But the acceptance felt before I had come to terms with who I am was something offered by Nicky and the Bernards. Outside the day-to-day terror of school hours, House of Bernard was an oasis where being “different” was nothing special.
House of Bernard closed its doors sometime in the 1980’s, though I don’t know exactly when. Berry was old enough to retire, but I think it was more a case of the store becoming obsolete. A victim of indoor mall shopping. Selling copper pots and painted clay beads was no longer enough to sustain in the changing times. Now, just a memory of an era stamped relic that was universally known on that street in Millburn, NJ, gone the way of bell bottoms and flower power, significant only to a very few. I being one.