NEW YORK -- "We'd probably have to go to Quantico, Va.," said Staff Sgt. Alfredo Yulan, from 6th Communication Battalion in Brooklyn, N.Y. "That would be the closest place for uniforms if this place wasn't here." A four-hour drive from New York City to Virginia to get uniform alterations done may not sound like an appealing option to New York Marines. However, that's the option they'd face without one New York City business.
"This has been the one-stop spot since I got here," said Staff Sgt. Donald Herring, 6th Comm, standing inside 99th Street Cleaners in Brooklyn. "So far they haven't failed me yet."
Herring's statement echoes the opinion of many Marines in New York -that 99th Street Cleaners is the answer to their necessary uniform needs. New York doesn't have a Marine Corps Base to go to for uniform updates and alterations, so the active duty and reserve Marines in New York turn to this civilian business.
Salvatore Piccolo entered the alterations business with his brother Nicholas in 1958. They opened 99th Street Cleaners at their current location at 4th Avenue and 99th Street in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in 1968.
The store is within walking distance of U.S. Army Garrison Fort Hamilton. The Piccolo brothers ran an extension of their 99th Street store on the army fort for 35 years. Ft. Hamilton houses New York's Military Entrance Processing Station (MEPS), so the Piccolos did business with each branch of service. Over time, they gathered a large following of military customers.
The store has always been a family business. "My brothers and I would come and work with my father in the summer," said 33-year-old Anthony Piccolo. "My father always had a dream of us running the business, and here it is."
As Anthony and his brother have grown up with the business, so have their customers.
"I've seen Marine sergeants come in here, and then they retire years later as a first sergeant or sergeant major," said Anthony. "They just keep coming back each year."
"I've been coming here for forever," said 1st Sgt. Genaro Gabbe, 6th Comm. "I guess it's been 15 or 16 years now."
The store keeps customers coming back because the Piccolo family makes it a point to remember people. "I know faces," said Anthony. "I see a customer of mine regularly for four or five years sometimes," he said. "Then he'll deploy for a while, and I'll still recognize him when he comes back," said the Long Island native. "We're a friendly place."
Anthony said military customers make up about 80 percent of their business. Some of the busiest times of year come before and after local units deploy, and near the Marine Corps birthday.
"As the troops come back from deployment, they update their uniforms, and as others get ready to deploy they bring their uniforms in to get them ready," said Anthony. "During Marine Corps Ball season, it's pretty much 18-hour shifts here."
The store usually has about six people working to ensure they can meet customer demands.
"I always recommend (99th Street Cleaners)," said Sgt. Lennox Smith, a recruiter from Recruiting Sub Station Staten Island. "The biggest thing is (the employees) understand uniform regulations...and they're also very fast and reliable."
"They know all the uniform regulations," added Staff Sgt. John Marable, 6th Comm, as he picked up his uniform during his lunch hour. "I don't have to worry about having to explain to them how to do the alterations correctly."
Anthony said he and his family have learned from experience. "This business is not something you pick up in two or three years," he said. "I can tell you the name of any of those ribbons without even looking them up," he added, gesturing towards a wall of multi-colored ribbons stored in clear plastic drawers behind him. "That just sort of gets cemented on the brain."
Word about the store's reliability has spread to Marines stationed outside of New York City. "Marines make the trip because they want to get their uniforms done right the first time," said Nicholas Piccolo, Anthony's brother. "Other times they come to us because they went somewhere closer to their house the first time that messed up the uniform."
The Piccolo family also keeps up with the new wave of uniforms. "About a week after the digital cammies came out, I started making nametapes for the digital cammies," said Anthony. "We try to carry the new things as soon as they come out, because we know the Marines depend on us."
The store carries all of the accessories for Marine Corps uniforms; they also make custom t-shirts and dog tags. "There's not much we don't do."