Polish In America: A Profile
Dariusz Grabowiecki’s Recipe for an Authentic Pole
It all started with a broken leg. Not his, someone else’s. Back in the 1990s, when Dariusz Grabowiecki was working part-time in a grocery store in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, the owner of the store needed help. An employee from his other store, a bookstore, had broken his leg. Mr. Grabowiecki agreed to temporarily replace the employee. He is now a co-owner of the bookstore.
“Actually, I’m here because of my grandmother,” Mr. Grabowiecki says. His grandmother had been born in New York City, then moved to Europe. The family settled in Poland, where they lived happily ever after… until, in the early 1990s, Mr. Grabowiecki’s cousin ventured to the United States and learned that children of American citizens could obtain American citizenship. “My mother left Poland on a Polish passport, and entered the US on an American passport,” Mr. Grabowiecki explains. His two siblings and Mr. Grabowiecki followed. “I had a job on my third day here,” Mr. Grabowiecki informs me with pride. But his story is not that of an Eastern European who dreamt of the Promised Land. “I had a good life back in Poland. I didn’t need America,” he says. But if he didn’t want to lose his newly granted green card, he had to at least make an appearance on the American soil. He devised a plan: visit New York as a tourist. Mr. Grabowiecki came for two weeks and, over twenty years later, he has yet to go back to his homeland. “I still have my return ticket to Poland,” he says with a smile, adding that it may no longer be valid.
Mr. Grabowiecki’s first job was at a sweater factory in Brooklyn. It was easy and enjoyable. “Even though it didn’t pay much, I was in heaven,” he recalls, given the lucrative exchange rate between the dollar and the zloty back then. Also, Poland, which was just beginning to recover from Communist rule, meant empty shelves. But in America, Mr. Grabowiecki could purchase anything he wanted. So he stayed. And soon thereafter, he landed the bookstore job. It wasn’t exactly for the love of books. “I became a bookseller by accident. I could have ended up as a butcher instead,” he says with disarming honesty. But it was for the love of working with people. When, three years ago, the bookstore went up for sale, Mr. Grabowiecki wanted to buy it. One of his co-workers was interested, too, so they decided to buy it together. J.D. Bookstore, located on Greenpoint’s busy Manhattan Avenue, continues to be an important fixture of Polish culture in America.
Asked about his customers, Mr. Grabowiecki says they are growing impatient. “They hear about someone on TV and they want a book on that very subject right away. Or a new American novel comes out, and they want it in Polish the next day,” he explains. He laments that young Polish people aren’t interested in reading in Polish. “They used to be, but their English is too good these days, so if they read, they read in English,” he says, adding that most of his customers are people over forty. He recalls how angry people used to get when a Polish magazine was sold out. “Those days are over,” he says with a note of nostalgia. He subscribes to the notion that books are gradually dying out. But Mr. Grabowiecki has no intention of selling the bookstore. Instead, he listens to his customers, he reviews the bestseller lists in Poland, and then he places his orders. When he says that he knows what sells, he sounds confident indeed.
Mr. Grabowiecki, who is in his late forties, lives in Greenpoint. “Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one left,” he says of the traditionally Polish neighborhood which is gradually turning more cosmopolitan. Still, Mr. Grabowiecki seems to have every reason to feel nothing but Polish: 99% of his customers are Polish, he lives on Polish food (and grimaces at the mention of American cuisine), and he is, of course, surrounded by Polish books. When a woman walks into the store and, in Polish, asks about a Verizon store, Mr. Grabowiecki directs her to a place further down on Manhattan Avenue. Needless to say, he answers her back in Polish. We are in New York City, but aside from the American pop music playing in the background, one could easily mistake the place for a bookshop in Krakow.
By Ewa Bronowicz