Episode 1: Meet Your Host - Jay DePaolo

Exclusive chat with our dynamic new host as he shares his journey, passions, and the inspiration behind the new podcast.

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Episode #1 Podcast Transcript:

Good morning, Jay. How's it going?

Good morning, Catherine. It's going great. It's great to see you.

You as well.  Welcome the world to the Choices Podcast "Where You Always Have Choices."

Jay, it's So, great to be sitting down with you. I can't wait to get in and speak about your story and learn more about you. So, let's get right into it. Where'd you grow up?

I grew up in Regal Park, Queens. I came to Manhattan when I was 15, and I was a wild man in New York City. I grew up on 71st Street and 3rd Avenue. And I've lived everywhere in New York: downtown, uptown, crosstown, east side, west side. 

So, you're a New Yorker, you're through and through.

Yes, absolutely. 

And I feel like I sense some Italian in you somewhere.

Yes, absolutely. Especially when I start talking – lol - I can't control myself.  I come from an Italian American family. We had a tiny restaurant when I was a kid. My mother cooked, my father was the bartender, and my brothers and I waited tables. So, when I say authentic, it was genuine.

So, how did you go from working with a family Italian restaurant to the owner of Choice's Books and Gifts?

Wow, that's a big story. But in a nutshell, when I mentioned I was a crazy man in Manhattan, I was. I was drinking and drugging everywhere, all over the place. Little by little, increasing.  When I was younger, I could handle it. But as the years passed, it started catching up with me.  I knew I had to do something. And thank God I had people around me, such as my older brothers, who had been through the process (of sobriety.) So, they helped me.

How old were you when it started catching up to you? 


Yeah, I'm in my early thirties, and I feel what you're talking about. Suddenly, waking up with a hangover is just different than it was. Is that what you're speaking about, or how did you realize it?

Yeah, I'll tell you, we all worked in the restaurant together.  I ran with my brothers. So, we all had to get healthy, but one at a time, we did it. We didn't do it all together. 

In the restaurant, we worked from morning to night. My brothers used to call it slave labor. They (my parents) had us work long hours. Then we would go out all night – to after-hour bars - the three of us. We did everything.  We would come back to work in the morning and go right to work the same day. So, that caught up to me. As I got older, I suffered more.

But that’s not the part that made me realize it – it was how it affected my life, my relationships, showing up for work, not showing up for work. It just became very negative in my life, and it affected everything.

Yeah. And you seem like a strong guy who can take a lot and take on a lot and carry a lot of weight.  I'm curious because many of us New Yorkers can do the same. We are okay with suffering to a certain extent. How does one know or realize when it's too much when it's time to put the load down and reevaluate?

Yeah, absolutely. It's called hitting bottom.  When you know there's nowhere else to go but up.  For me, the bottom was at 37 years old.  I owned a restaurant – and had business partners.  And they didn't want me involved anymore. They said, your shenanigans are too much.

My life was a mess.  I couldn't hold onto relationships. When we had family gatherings, I didn't show up. I isolated at home. I was completely miserable. I was miserable, and I didn't even really want (to be sober.)  I only did it because I remember I acted out in the restaurant one evening, and I said, let me beat them to the punch because my partners had said, “One more time and you're out.”   

I went to a rehab thinking, okay, let them see I'm getting help.  But it wasn't even really my decision - I did it to hold on to my position.  But in the end, that didn't work.  When I got out of rehab, it was all over either way.

What happened after you came out of rehab? You went to rehab to beat them to the punch and were externally influenced.  Did you find that your time in rehab helped you connect with a greater purpose? Did you find the internal motivation there, or was it a means to an end, and you had to? When you came out of rehab, were you still up to the same antics?

In rehab, it was funny because it was around the holidays / Christmas time, and they had all these deer and Christmas trees decorated.  I went and put them in all different positions. I was still an idiot.  And it cracked everybody up, but they had cameras and made me fix it. But once I settled in, it was one of the greatest things I could have done for myself.  It was fantastic. I learned so much. I learned about therapy.  I learned about myself and my problems.  I learned that alcohol was only the symptom. And it was a fantastic experience.

I went back a few years later to do the family program in this rehab, the Caron FoundationSobriety there was easy because I was in one place, and I was watched – they watch you carefully. There's nothing you could really do to hurt yourself. 

How long were you in rehab? 

I was there for 30 days, but the real work started when I came out.  I had to go to AA meetings and began to live a whole new life.  I could not do that on my own.

How did that transition go from rehab back to real life?  Did the first experience with rehab, those first 30 days, allow you to come out and remain sober? Or did you, did the real world, re-engaging back into the real world cause you to drink or do drugs again? How did that transition go?

I'll tell you, that's a great question. So, what happened is I got out, I was 37 years old. I didn't have much schooling because of my parents and the restaurant. I was so scared because they had given me a few dollars to leave the business, but that was it.  So, at 37, I had no education, nothing really to show for it.  I was filled with fear.

I thought I was going to go back and drink. But the rehab set me up an outpatient care, and this one guy kept calling me every day, “Why don't you come in? Why don't you come in?”  No, no, I’d say, I have too much going on - it's impossible. And one day, he convinced me to come in, and it was another change ...it was fantastic. We'd meditate every morning, we did acupuncture. Once again, deep therapy all day long, learning about yourself and learning about the disease. Yes, it was fantastic. 

So, you were able to come out of rehab and remain sober and committed to sobriety with the help of others?

Not on my own with lots of help, but yes.

Gotcha.  So, that was the beginning of your recovery journey.  I've heard the phrase, you're always an alcoholic.  Is that true? Is it a daily commitment?

So, I began working a program - that was beautiful, again. It was just fantastic. And I worked that program for 14 years of my life.  But, like all things, there are many roads to Rome.  And after 14 years, I took a different path. And it's still a path of spirituality and helping others.  I like helping others, which helps me. But I no longer go to any of these programs.

I got it.  And it's funny to circle back all the way back to the first question: how did you become the owner of choices, books, and gifts? And I believe you said you've been the owner for 21 years.

Yes, 21 years, 21 wonderful years. It's a funny story. So, at the time, I had sponsees and sponsors.  It was my sponsor’s AA anniversary.  So, I always knew about this store called Choices because people had often told me about it.   I became a regular customer.  One day, I came in with a sponsee to buy a gift.

And while we were here, there were all sorts of signs “Going Out of Business,” our last days, and all sorts of sales. It was a staple for the city and recovery, and people outside the city thought it was a destination store. People drive to NYC, double park, and we bring their stuff to them.  

So, anyway, we did our shopping. We left. And a couple of hours later, my sponsee, who was a lawyer, gave me a call. He said, Jay, I called the owner of Choices, and they want to meet with us.  I said, “What are you talking about, dude?” And he said, yeah, yeah - I think you'd be a good fit there. So, this came out of left field.  I said, “The money I got from the restaurant wasn't that significant, I want to save it. I don't want to put it into this new business.”

He said, “I know a guy; he's a smart guy. I work for him now.  He likes to invest in people, his name is Jeff.” I said, okay, I'll meet him. I was selling data and voice services - a business I knew nothing about- nothing. It's funny that I was even doing that job!

So, we met with his investor friend, Jeff, we had lunch, and Jeff said, “What are you thinking?”  I said, “I can only answer that question once I spend some time there.” So, we arranged it, I spent about a week at Choices. 

We all met again for lunch, and I said, I can turn that place around. I know it.

Was it the same exact store as the one at your store on 78th?

Yes and no.  Same address, but I've made many different changes. The store's more expansive in size and scope, bigger, more open design. We made a lot of changes.

This story is funny.  Jeff had said, “Can you turn it around?” I say, yes, I can turn this around.  He said, “Great.  Give your job two weeks’ notice.”  So, I returned to work, and it was happening so fast; I couldn't believe it.  I should have given notice, but I didn't.

One day, Jeff called me - as it was getting close to the two weeks - and he said, “Did you give two weeks’ notice?” And I said no. He said, “Put the phone down and give him notice right now while I'm on the phone.”  So, I went and gave notice, came back, and said, all right, I told them. And he said, “Great because I'm buying this business.” He would be the financial equity, and I would be the sweat equity until I could pay him back with interest, which I did within four or five years.

And I did well with that, with taking care of him.  It wasn't easy in the beginning. I was working seven days a week, killing myself - first because I had to learn about the business. Second, I had to build the business in order to pay him back and become the sole owner I am today. That, to me, is what we call a God shot. That whole experience, how that happened, it happened in a blink of an eye. And like I said, this isn't me; this is my higher power, for sure.

Wow. Yeah, wow, that is such an incredible story. And it seems like he was testing your commitment, and you met it. You just took this leap of faith and said, “I can do this and do this job well.”  And here you are 21 years later, that's really cool. And for it to be related to your personal mission - earlier, you said all you want to do is help people. And that comes across so clearly upon meeting you. Then, you learn that you run this store that's also committed to the same mission and purpose.

So, I'd love to hear more about the store. It's dedicated to helping people with substance issues and those who are in recovery, but it feels so much more than that. It feels like wherever you are along the spectrum, from drinking to being sober and everything in between, there's just something here for everyone. I'd love to hear -who does Choices help?

So, when I knew it, the store was a 12-step recovery store.  When I got in, I realized that helping people in recovery was fantastic for me. It is one of the most incredible things - another one of the most extraordinary things, helping others helps you. It's just that simple. If you want to keep it, you've got to give it away. All things of that nature. 

But I realized the world encompasses a lot of different people, and we're all suffering from something: disease, fear, anxiety. There are so, many different issues in the world. So, I added more self-help and wellness, which is what the store is today.  But recovery is the basis- that's the big thing we do here. 

Being here is amazing. So, I'm at the register. Somebody will come in and ask for an AA coin or NA coin, something of that nature.  Somebody else will come in, and then another person.  They're not from the same meeting, but they've all met, and it's fantastic how they hug and kiss. They have a little meeting even in the store.  

I have customers that live right in the neighborhood, and they'll run in and say, Jay, can I sit and talk with you a minute or stand here and take in the peace because this place is different from the outside world? I say, “Of course!”

I guarantee that when you come in here, it's like when you take a breath in and let go - that's what this place does to everyone. Peaceful.  That’s one of the things that I love about it most.

Where is the Choices Books and Gifts store located?

We’re at 220 E 78th Street - between Second and Third Avenue. We have the store, which has been here for 34 years.  I've owned it for the last 21 years. You can also, find us online, we have a strong web presence – we serve people all over the world.  Our website is ChoicesGifts.com.  Everything we have in the store is available online.

That's great to know. The physical shop, the retail store, really does, to your point, feel like a community. I've gotten the pleasure of spending time here, and I've watched people come in and say hi to you, and like you said, to one another.

You mentioned earlier that, people might come in for a coin. Can you tell our listeners what you mean by coming in for a coin?

So, a coin is lovely. It's great. It helped me during my time in the program as well. They're milestones and reminders of what you can accomplish with yourself.  So, say, a gentleman comes in and says, my wife has two years - I want to buy her a coin.  He can choose from many designs and can also have us add bling to them and put crystals on them

Its said in some programs that when you have one of these coins, it has two meanings, to me at least. The first one is if you're having a hard day and things are just not at a high point and you feel like drinking, you take that coin and you put it in your mouth. Now, mind you, they're bronze coins.  And the saying goes, “if it melts, you can have drink or a drug” to your hearts content. But if it doesn't, you have to wait untill it (the feeling to drink) passes.  That was great for me. I never had to place it in my mouth, because the concept was enough for me to know that the feeling would pass, and I had to just sit through it without making it worse, by drinking. And I reach in my pocket, and I hold those coins and whatever I'm going through, no matter what in life, I’m going to be ok if I don’t drink.  I can be thrown challenges, hardships, and other things, and I hold on to that coin.

The most challenging thing for me was getting sober. That was the most difficult thing. And with help and people, it was terrific, but it's ongoing, and I need a reminder.

It's like, okay, I had an argument with my boss, or I just got fired. That's the small stuff. In the program, they say, don't sweat the small stuff. At the end of the day, Catherine, it's all small stuff. And you realize, okay, I've been able to stay sober for five years - there's nothing life can throw at me that I can't beat if I can do that (stop drinking for 5 years or x number of years.)  So, that's what that means to me with these coins.

And yeah, now you’ve said a few times that it's so true that just if you're a human being, you're going to be familiar with suffering and that we all have challenges and go through hard things.  And anyone can benefit from having something symbolic for overcoming hardship.  Or in a moment realizing that this too shall pass, and I like that.  I appreciate that the store caters to everyone, and everyone's needs and challenges.

And let's speak about that -  we’ve mentioned alcohol, but it's far beyond that.

How does the store cater to addictions far beyond alcohol?

Yes. First, we're known as the 12-step store because we cover everything. So, there's every program out there:

We cover them all - back behind me (literature, books, pamphlets.)  So, you can come here and make your purchases.

I want to mention the coins quickly again. We also have them for everybody because, as you just said, life throws us challenges, and we have coins with unique sayings and different prayers, and anyone can hold on to those and have the same benefit.

And in general, people come here to learn more. So, a lot of times, a lot of what we do, I work with two other young ladies that are lovely and prevalent, very prevalent to the store. We all help people - we've been doing it for many years – guide and help them.  Many people come in here, and they have sponsors, a program, and all that, and they still feel lost, and we help them.  They can ask us things that they are uncomfortable asking others.  They say, ‘I didn't understand what I was doing. You helped me.”

I used to also help newcomers.  I’d reach out to others in the program.  Get them a guide or a sponsor, a man or woman.  I knew who to call and where to send them. And once again, as I said, that was fantastic. I say “used to” only because I don’t spend as much time in the store as I used to because the staff here is so excellent, and now they offer the help and service I did. 

We have different things, like sometimes in sobriety, as you go along, you should always stick with the program you have, but we want to discover everything and anything.  So, we have an excellent selection, for example, of crystals and how they are also beneficial. They represent many different things - healing, health, protection.  We have many excellent self-help books that don't necessarily have to do with a program but how to get through life. We have a large variety of product.

It's almost like Choices is a resource and support center, it has the community component and then almost anything you need to just kind of assist getting through day-to-day life, which is unique.

100 percent. You said that better than I could.

And so, on that, and coming to an end here, I would love to hear you personally. What are the practices, tools, or things you include in your life to help Jay get through his day-to-day life?

I start my day, I wake up - then pray and meditate every morning for 20 minutes. I was very blessed when I was young. I was very squirrely, and my oldest brother took me to a transcendental meditation. I've been doing it for many years. That's one of the things I try to practice, along with the basics in life - a good diet and exercise. I enjoy exercising, so it's not a chore.

And last but not least, giving back.  When you can give back in all affairs, your life grows exponentially. It's amazing. So, I try to practice the basics, and if you're in or have a program - I would get involved with that community.  I'd also suggest to go as often as possible.  Practice the principles of that particular program, and follow what the leaders, the people with some time, have to say.  That's what I do.  I do these things every single day of my life. I must tell you, the bombshells don't stop and life doesn't quit. It keeps coming at me. So, I put up my shield to fight all that off. And the things I just mentioned are my shield.

Well, thank you so much for sharing your story, Jay.  And I know that you and I will be speaking to many more individuals, sharing their life stories and what they do to overcome their challenges. And that's what's so great about this podcast. And then having Choices, the store and online website,  to help everyone else whom we don't get to speak to is fantastic.  So, it's been wonderful.

I do appreciate that. And yes, let's say one last thing: stay tuned because the guests and the people we will have on this show will be wonderful. And if you're looking to live a better life, come here and check in with us.

Thank you again, Catherine. I appreciate you so much.

Thank you, Jay.