Tailor Sought American Dream in Hightstown
Once an outsider, longtime business man shares changes in Central Jersey.
When the 23-year-old Italian immigrant first arrived in America in 1964, it didn’t take long for him to see the streets weren’t paved in gold.
However, Jerry Paragano discovered the next best thing, seeing his new country’s streets lined with bustling businesses and a customer for the taking at every corner.
“Everyone was talking about America back in those days,” said Paragano, owner of Jerry’s Custom Tailoring in Hightstown. “America had better opportunities.”
While he didn’t have much to sell at the time, the newcomer did have a viable skill set.
“When you go to [trade] school in Italy, you start at 10 years old,” he said. “I had to learn [tailoring] from scratch.”
The son of a farmer, Paragano knew early on that his plans didn’t include toiling his days away in a Salerno field.
He studied hard and eventually mastered his craft, graduating from an apprenticeship at the age of 18.
Required to serve a mandatory 18 months in the Italian military, the newly made tailor was forced to put down the thimble and thread for a short stint; and instead, escorted officers as an enlisted driver.
But it wasn’t long before the reputation of his nimble fingers preceded all others.
“There were uniforms to be altered,” Paragano said from behind a rarely fading grin.
At that time, his wife-to-be had already traveled to the states and once Paragano received his discharge papers, he wasn’t far behind.
Shortly after arriving, he married his hometown sweetheart and found a job working as a tailor in an East State Street shop in Trenton. While the work was second nature to Paragano, other elements of job were not.
“When I came here I didn’t know the language,” he said. “I went to school to learn English but that first year was kind of rough. When you go to work everyone is speaking English; when you go home everyone’s speaking Italian. But when you want something bad enough, you find a way.”
Those were different days for the city, he explained.
“It was beautiful back then,” he credited the capital. “There was no crime. You could walk down the street and no one would bother you.”
While Paragano had little to fear at home, the same couldn’t be said for the threats from abroad as the Vietnam War weighed on the minds of many, but mostly the young men who were eligible for the draft.
Married to a citizen, Paragano remembered the day that that dreaded draft card finally came. Fortunately, the newlywed soon learned that his wife was expecting their first child, making Paragano ineligible for military service.
But the challenges continued to mount.
Slowing business caused the owners of the East State Street shop to shut their doors, and Paragano was left to fend for more work.
He finally found it – only in Philadelphia, where the schedule and commute were too hectic even for a desperate Paragano’s liking.
Much to his relief, the tailor found himself back in Trenton within a year, working at another business closer to home. Twelve years later, the shop owner opened a second location in Lawrenceville and sent his most trusted tailor to manage that operation.
While Paragano was content, he started to imagine a storefront of his own, eyeing sleepy Hightstown in the late '70s.
By 1978, he was the proud owner of Jerry’s Custom Tailoring, a place where a customer could come for anything from minor alterations to dry cleaning and ready-made garments.
While it hasn’t lost the small-town charm, Paragano said the Hightstown and surrounding area he first moved to would be unrecognizable compared to today’s setting.
“I used to come to work through the back roads, through the farmland,” he said. “Now there are houses every where. More and more people moved in.”
"That’s when most people stayed in their hometowns – most people knew each other. I still know a lot of people, but half of them either moved out or died out.”
Back then, Paragano could construct a fitted suit from high-end materials for $500.
“Business was good in the '80s,” he said. “The economy was good and people were working. In those days there was a lot of work.”
Making his bread and butter on return customers, Paragano can only shake his head at much of the work he sees and stories he hears from customers who seek products and services elsewhere.
“When you know as much as I do about this business … let’s just say I’ve seen a lot of stuff that would make you want to cry,” he said. “You’ve got to be honest and do good work.”
Like every other business owner, Paragano has struggled through the recent recession, but has managed to make up the shortfalls with the seasonal prom, wedding tux and formal-wear rentals.
Nearing retirement, Paragano said he’s waiting on a buyer – a buyer he hopes will come sooner rather than later.
“I would like to see the economy turn around and go back to where it was,” he said. “But really there’s nothing wrong with the economy, it’s the people in it. This country is going to bounce back on its feet. You wait and see.”
Editor's Note: This article has been updated to clarify Paragano started trade school at 10 years old.