By Julie Shapiro
If Sarah Jessica Parker gets a package in the mail, Leonard Cecere knows about it. He regularly sees stars like Parker, Matthew Broderick and Famke Janssen — and he’s gotten to know them, too.
Cecere is the proprietor of Something Special, a shop at MacDougal and Houston Sts. that offers mailbox rentals, key copies and notary services. The mailboxes attract frequent celebrity visitors, at least those who live nearby.
“Celebrities come in, but I wouldn’t know who they are until they tell me,” Cecere, 83, said. Cecere doesn’t find it difficult to converse with celebrities.
“It’s just like talking to me,” he said.
And talking to Cecere is easy. He reminisces fluidly about the people he’s met in the 28 years he’s run Something Special. Behind the counter, photos of celebrities line the shelves, each with its own story.
There is a photo of Cecere flanked by Lucy Lawless — whom Cecere calls “Xena.” And there’s one of rocker Patti Smith, who is “very nice, very polite,” according to Cecere’s wife, Lucy, who had dropped by the store for a visit the other day.
There is another photo of Cecere with Lawless, both of them peeking up from behind a table, only half of their faces visible.
“That was her idea,” Cecere said, smiling and shaking his head.
Not all of the photos Cecere displays are of celebrities. A framed People magazine cover, which proclaims “Sexiest Man Alive,” features none other than Cecere himself. The cover originally showed Richard Gere, Cecere said, but a friend doctored it.
Cecere cultivates friendships with anyone who walks in the store.
“It’s interesting running this place, meeting all different people,” he said. “So many people come in [that] I lose count.”
Lucy said that many people come in just to say hello — even the celebrities.
Sarah Jessica Parker has spent hours working behind the counter, Leonard said. Parker loves kids and insists on helping out when she’s in the store, he said.
Last Thursday, one customer, Marilyn Toule, came in to pick up a fax, and mentioned that she does numerology readings to advise clients on picking a new name or address. Cecere poked fun at Toule for doing numerology and feng shui, but Toule was all business.
“What’s the street address here?” she asked.
That would be 51 MacDougal St., Cecere said.
Toule added the five and the one to get six.
“Six is family, community, beauty, taking care of people,” she said.
“I don’t believe in none of that baloney,” Cecere said after Toule left. “Come on.”
Despite Cecere’s skepticism, Toule described the shop aptly. Cecere’s penchant for conversing with customers has brought him loyalty. And the shop has the warm feeling of a small-town general store, with plants in the windows and green plaid wallpaper covered in white-and-yellow daisies.
Beneath the counter, there are large glass cases that once held cakes and pastries, but now hold jewelry, mugs, vases, boxes of crayons, clocks and a few tiny pitchers from a child’s tea set. Shelves in the center of the store boast more tag-sale fare that Lucy Cecere has collected: a candelabrum, soaps, gift bags, plastic hangers, spools of ribbon and even a bowling trophy.
Many items sell for less than a dollar, relics of an earlier time when the neighborhood had more families and people stopped in to buy gifts for showers or parties, Lucy said.
Nestled among these items are several copies of former Kennedy in-law Carole Radziwill’s book “What Remains: A Memoir of Fate, Friendship, and Love.” Radziwill — who married Jackie Kennedy’s nephew — gets her mail at Something Special, and often stays to talk with Cecere. He displays her book as a courtesy, but doesn’t sell many copies, he said.
The book includes a description of Radziwill’s husband Anthony’s death from cancer, and also gives an account of the plane crash that killed John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife, Carolyn Bessette, and her sister Lauren in 1999 — Radziwill is the one who called the Coast Guard to tell them that the plane was missing.
Radziwell had inquired about buying the long-vacant building on the corner of King and MacDougal Sts., and offered millions for it, but for some unknown reason the owner just doesn’t want to sell, Cecere noted. He said he thought that building’s storefront had once housed a tobacco shop some time ago.
Cecere’s life is also steeped in history. He grew up in Borough Park, Brooklyn, and entered the army when he was 19, during World War II. He spent two years in Europe, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge.
Cecere spent one night of the battle lying on a bridge, freezing cold. The Germans had captured many American tanks, and had donned stolen American uniforms to confuse things.
“We were told, ‘If you see an American jeep, hit it,’ ” Cecere said.
The Americans later captured German soldiers, only to find that they were just 14 or 15 years old.
“We’d get truckloads of these kids, freezing,” Cecere said. “They didn’t know what was going on. I felt so sorry for those kids.” Cecere said he was glad when the war was over and he could return to the United States.
A few years after the war, Cecere met his wife. She retired three years ago, yet is busier than ever at the nonprofit Caring Community, an organization serving local seniors. Cecere refers to her as “the boss” and said that “All women are bosses.”
But Lucy set the record straight.
“It’s his shop,” she said. “I come in to help.”
In addition to celebrities, other photos behind the counter — owing to Lucy’s work at the Caring Community — show the Ceceres with local politicians, such as Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember Alan Gerson.
Before owning the shop, Cecere worked at Kodak for 23 years. When he started, his office was located on Ninth St., where he processed 8-millimeter film and slides. However, Kodak kept moving — first to Fair Lawn, N.J., where Cecere commuted, and then further south. Cecere decided to leave Kodak “before I killed myself driving back and forth” on a 50-mile commute, he said.
Cecere and his wife have lived in the upstairs apartment of the shop since 1962, and they have seen the space go through several uses. In 1962, it was Arturo’s restaurant. The space later became Morrisons Bakery. The bakery moved because its delivery trucks attracted too many parking tickets on MacDougal St.
The bakery’s last name had been Something Special, and Cecere didn’t change it when he took over.
Cecere first opened a shop selling donuts, bagels and candy, particularly targeting St. Anthony’s School, which was across the street. Business was tough, so he switched to a greeting card shop, but that didn’t work either.
“It was the wrong time — I lost quite a bit of money,” Cecere said.
Then he found the mailbox business, and has since expanded into key copies “to make it a little more exciting,” he said.
Cecere has two children, Leonard, 50, and Francine, 48. Both live in New York, and Leonard was recently appointed to Community Board 2.
Something Special’s brick building was constructed in 1846 and 1847, like other Village buildings, using lime and sand rather than modern concrete.
“I could take this building apart with my bare hands,” Cecere said.
The building is now a landmark — located within the Charlton-King-Vandam Historic District — which doesn’t exactly make Cecere happy. He can’t put signs on the side of the building, and can’t make many changes. Still, the landmark designation confirms what he already knows: “We’re ‘Something Special,’” Cecere said, smiling.
Cecere, who doesn’t look a day over 70, is in no hurry to retire.
“I don’t mind staying as long as I can,” he said. “When I can’t stay here, it’s going to be a sad day.”