CHESHIRE — A steady stream of customers into Paul’s Fine Clothing at the Watch Factory Shoppes Tuesday kept Paul Camerato busy.
Word travels fast when one of the town’s most beloved merchants announces he’s retiring after 41 years. And it travels even faster in the age of social media.
Jess Mollin, one of Camerato’s granddaughters, had posted Camerato’s plans on the Cheshire Community Facebook page Monday afternoon. By Tuesday afternoon, the post had attracted nearly 200 responses, many wishing the 76-year-old merchant well in retirement.
That response, as well as the steady stream of longtime customers who came in Tuesday to peruse sport coats, ties and other merchandise or just to reminisce, clearly heartened the Hamden native.
“I feel bad I’m leaving them,” Camerato said after one customer wondered where Cheshire High school teenagers would go to rent their tuxedos for proms when they resume. “I’m going to miss the people, dressing them and making them look good and feel good about themselves.”
Camerato’s voice hitched slightly with emotion as he spoke. He plans to keep the business open through the end of February, maybe into early March.
“People in Cheshire and the surrounding communities are really nice people,” Camerato said. “I would have quit long ago if it wasn’t for them.”
One of those occasions came in August 2003 when a fire at a neighboring business resulted in water damage to Camerato’s store. It took him two-and-a-half months to reopen.
“Sure, I thought about it,” Camerato said of closing then. “But so many people begged me to reopen the store that I felt I’d be letting them down if I didn’t.”
Among those who came to the store Tuesday were Barbara and Richard Prato. The couple came to to purchase a sport coat for Richard Prato and to wish Camerato well.
“We’ve known Paul for years,” Richard Prato said. “My son-in-law and I have gotten our clothes here for a long time. He’ll definitely be missed.”
The Pratos and Camerato are congregants at Cheshire’s St. Bridget of Sweden church. Barbara Prato noted that during a recent Mass, the priest had lamented how some people in the congregation no longer wear their Sunday best to services.
“Paul is always impeccably dressed,” Barbara Prato said. “There are no places like this anymore,” she said of the shop.
Paul’s Fine Clothing has survived tough economic times and changing attitudes about fashion.
Camerato has been in retail ever since he graduated from Hamden High School in 1963.
Back then, he was known as “Punchy Paul” for his penchant for giving male friends playful punches in the shoulder, he said. Camerato was captain of the baseball team and dreamed of a professional baseball career.
At one point early on in his retail career, Camerato went into business with his older brother, who owned a men’s store in Hamden, D’Cam. By 1979, Camerato felt the entrepreneurial itch and decided he wanted to run a clothing store of his own.
When Camerato opened his store, his direct competition was the well established Hutton and Cook, which had been in business for decades and was located on Main Street, a block away. Within five years of Paul’s Fine Clothing opening, Hutton and Cook closed.
Camerato’s store was the first tenant in The Watch Factory Shoppes. He and his wife, Corrine, whom Camerato met at Hamden High, told their three daughters that as the business launched, they weren’t going to be able to afford all the little extras.
One of the couple’s daughters, Allison, wrote a note to her father telling him proud she was of him and saying she would save whatever money she got to help the family make ends meet. Paul Camerato saved the note in one of several scrapbooks he placed around the store.
The decor of the business reflects Camerato’s love of family and creates a homey feel for shoppers. His mother’s hope chest is part of one of the clothing displays and sits across from a steamer trunk that belonged to Corrine Camerato’s grandmother.
Camerato said his credo for operating the business all these years was a simple one.
“Always treat people the same, whether they are spending $1 or $100,” he said.