Out at Willets Point, the office of the Bono Sawdust Supply Company is a small space cluttered lovingly with mementos from days past -- black-and-white photographs of the company’s founders standing atop mounds of sawdust sacks, a calendar girl from 1961 easily disrobed by lifting a cellophane sheet, a tin thermometer printed with Bono’s bumblebee logo and their old telephone number: HIckory 6-1374. They even have on display a bill of sale from the 1958 purchase of a Dodge truck ($2,387).
Jake & Jack Bono with the founding brothers
“It’s just for nostalgia,” said Jack Bono, son of Sicilian immigrant Jacob Bono, who founded the company with his brothers in 1933. Known as busy bees (hence the logo), the Bono brothers spent long days peddling bags of sawdust, delivering their product in horse-drawn wagons to saloons, butcher shops, and loading docks all over the city. At night, without time for rest, they laid the bricks for their building, the same structure that stands today.
“How do you put a price on that,” said Jack, tugging off a dusty pair of work gloves. “I don’t want to move. This is my home.”
Under a framed picture of a bumblebee flying over the city, Jack’s son Jake sat with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth and a button pinned to his coat that read: Willets Point Not For Sale, referring to the city’s current attempt to push his company and many others out of the area using eminent domain.
“This is street tactics,” Jake said, “Strong-arming. Extortion. My father’s been working here since he’s 12 years old. Since I’m a little kid I’m coming here, playing in the sawdust. I learned how to work here, how to interact with people.”
Like his father, Jake started young and still drives a truck today. He’s proud of the work they do, recycling scrap wood into something useful. As he says, “We’ve always been a green company. We’re more green than the money that the developers are drooling over to get this property.”
It’s a property that Bloomberg plans to turn over for big development and that Jake and his father want desperately to hang on to. The city has half-heartedly shown the Bonos possible relocation sites, but none can compare to their custom-built facility. The walls, roof, and basement are filled with a Habitrail of metal tubing that whisks the sawdust from one place to another, filtering and sorting it. To replace this intricate complex, the city showed them a small storefront that currently houses a check-cashing outfit.
Jake and his father laughed at the ridiculousness of the offer. They have to laugh, otherwise it’s ulcers and sleepless nights, not knowing what’s going to happen next.
“You know what Bloomberg said about us all up here?” the elder Bono smiled and shook his head, “I heard this on the radio. He said: This land is too valuable for you. Too valuable for us?”
“What’s next?” said Jake, “What’s he gonna say, You’re wife is too pretty for you, so you can’t have her?”
“There’s a reason they have that saying, You can’t fight City Hall. We have nobody to stick up for us. Who do we go to?”
“People have to realize—they could be next,” Jake said, taking the toothpick from his mouth for emphasis. “We’re not just fighting for us. We feel proud because we’re fighting for everyone who owns or wants to own a piece of property. That’s what people work for. But with eminent domain, no one really owns their property. It can be taken from you at any time.”
He sat back in his chair with a sigh, “But the two of us, we’re gonna fight to the last breath in our bodies to keep what’s ours.”
Not For Sale