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 and welcome world to 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 just get right into it.
Where'd you grow up?
I actually grew up in Regal Park, Queens. I came to Manhattan when I was 15 and I was a wild man in New York City. And 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 in New York, you're through and through.
And I feel like I sense some Italian in you somewhere.
Yes, absolutely. Especially when I start talking, I can't control myself. Yeah, I come from an Italian American family. We actually had a small little restaurant when I was a kid. My mother did the cooking, my father was the bartender, and me and my brothers waited tables. So when I say authentic, it was authentic.
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 in between 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. And, you know, little by little, when I was younger, I could handle it. But as the years went on, it started to catch up with me. And I knew that I had to do something, you know. And thank God I had people around me, older brothers that had been through the process. So they helped me.
How old were you when it started catching up to you?
Definitely mid-30s, yep.
Yeah, so I'm early thirties and I definitely feel what you're talking about. All of a sudden, you know, waking up with a hangover is just different than it was. Is that what you're speaking about or when did you, how did you realize?
Yeah, yeah, I mean, I'll tell you, so we all worked in the restaurant together. And as they say, I ran with my brothers. So we, we all had to, you know, get, get healthy, but one, one at a time, we did it. We didn't do it all together.
Right. So what I was saying is like in the restaurant, we worked from morning to night. My brothers used to call it slave labor. They really had us work on a long time. And then we would go out after that, the three of us, and we'd go out all night after hours, everything, and then come back to work the same the next day. So that stopped happening. And it caught up to me. The hangovers were never that bad, things of that nature. As I got older, I suffered more. But that's not, that's not the part that, that made me realize it was how it affected my life, my relationships, showing up for work, not showing up for work. It just became so negative in my life that it affected everything.
Yeah. And you seem like, you know, a strong guy that can take a lot and take on a lot and, um, you know, carry a lot of weight. And so I'm just curious because I feel like many of we New Yorkers can do the same, like are okay with suffering to a certain extent.
How does one know or is able to realize when it's too much, when it's time to put the load down and reevaluate?
Yeah, absolutely. And it's, it's called the hitting bottom when, you know, there's nowhere else to go but up. And for me, bottom was 37 years old, I owned a restaurant. I had a partners and they didn't want me involved anymore. They said, you shenanigans are too much. And just my life, I couldn't hold onto relationships. When we had family gatherings, I didn't show up. I isolated in my home.
And I was just completely miserable. I was miserable and I didn't even really, the only reason why I did it is because I remember I acted out in the restaurant one evening and I said, let me beat them to the punch because they had said one more time and you're out. And I went to a rehab thinking, okay, they see I'm getting help, but it wasn't even really my decision. I did it to hold on to my position, which didn't work when I got out of rehab. I, you know, was all over either way.
What happened after you came out of rehab?
Yeah. So just because you kind of did it to beat them to the punch and were externally influenced, did you find that your time in rehab, you know, did you connect with a greater purpose? Like, 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, we're still kind of in the same antics.
Yeah, yeah. So in rehab, it was funny because it was around the holidays and it was Christmas and they had all these different deers and Christmas trees and I went I put them in all different positions I was still an idiot And uh, it cracked everybody up, but they had cameras and they made me fix it. They saw it was me but once I settled in it was it was
"One of the greatest things I have ever could have done for myself. It was fantastic. I learned so much. I learned about therapy. I learned about myself, what my problem was, that alcohol was only the symptom. And it was a fantastic experience."
Matter of fact, I went back a few years later just to do the family program in this particular rehab that I went to. So yes, and I just wanna say shortly, that was easy because I was in one place and I was watched. You will watch 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 came when I came out and had to go to meetings and really begin to live in life. And I could not do that on my own.
How did that transition go from Rehab back to real life?
And so, yeah, if you don't mind me asking kind of a personal question, did you, did the first, 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, you know, 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 the Italian parents and the restaurant. And I was so scared because when I got out, they had gave me a few dollars to leave and that was it. So 37, no education, nothing really to show for it. So I was filled with fear.
I thought I was going to go back and drink. But they set me up with an outpatient rehab and this one guy kept calling me every day, why don't you come in? Why don't you come in? No, no, I have too much going on. It's impossible. And one day he convinced me. I came in and that was another just change of...it was fantastic. We'd meditate every morning. They put in the needles, acupuncture.
Once again deep therapy all day long learning about yourself 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. And so, you know, that was the beginning of your, what I have come to understand as a lifelong commitment to sobriety, right? To recovery. I've heard the phrase, you're always an alcoholic. Is that true? It's a daily commitment right?
So I began to work a program and it was wonderful again. It was just fantastic. And I had worked this, this particular program for 14 years of my life. And it was fantastic, but you know, things just, you know, there's many roads to Rome and I just took a different path after, after 14 years.
And it's still a path of spirituality. Help, you know, a large thing that I like to get out of life is by helping others, helps me. But I no longer go to any of these programs.
And it's funny to actually circle back all the way back to the first question was, you know, how did you become owner of choices, books and gifts? And I believe you said you've been owner for 21 years now.
Yeah, 21 years, 21 wonderful years. It's a funny story. So, you know, at the time we, we had Sponsees and Sponsors. So it was my Sponsor's anniversary. So I always knew about this store because people, choices, people always told me about it. So I'd be a regular customer. And then I came in with a Sponsee to buy my Sponsor a gift.
And while we were here, there were all sorts of signs going out of business, um, our last days, all sorts of sales. And, uh, and I mentioned him that said this place is going out. It was, it was such a staple for, for the city and recovery and people even outside the city really is a destination store. People come and double park and we bring their stuff out to them. But, uh, so we did our shopping. We left.
And a couple hours later, my sponsee, who was a lawyer, not a practicing lawyer at the time, gave me a call. He says, you know, Jay, I called the owners of choices and they want to have a meeting with us and I went, what are you talking about, dude? And he says, yeah, yeah. He says, I think you'd be a good fit in there. So this came out of left field. So I said, you know, the money I got from the restaurant.
It wasn't that significant, so I want to save it. I don't want to put it into this new business. So he says, you know, I know a guy, he's a smart guy. I work for him now. And he says he likes to invest in people. So I said, okay, I'll meet him. I was in a company where I was selling data and voice services to other large companies. And this is a business I knew nothing about, nothing. It's very, very funny that I was even doing that.
So we met with this guy, we had lunch, and he says, what are you thinking? I says, well, I can't answer that question until I spend some time there. So I spent about a week here. We met again for lunch, and I said, I think I can turn that place around. I know it.
Was it the same exact store as the one as your store on 78th?
Oh no, I've made so many, many different changes. The store's bigger, it's more open, it has a glass front now where it had very small windows originally. So we made a lot of changes.
So, but I really wanna tell you this story because it's funny. So I met with this guy and he says, can you turn it around? I says, yes, I can turn this around. So he says, all right, give your current job two weeks notice. So I went back and it was happening so fast, I just couldn't believe it.
So I didn't give notice. So one day he calls me as it gets close to the two weeks and he goes, did you give two weeks notice? And I said, no, I'm saying, he says, put the phone down and go give him notice right now while I'm on the phone. So I went and gave notice, came back and I says, all right, I told them. And he's all right, good, cause I'm buying this and he was the financial equity and I was the sweat equity. Until I could pay him off with interest, which I did, you know, within, I think, four or five years. And I did well with that, with taking care of him. And it was difficult in the beginning. I was working here seven days a week, killing myself first because I had to learn about the business. And second, I had to build it to pay him back and to become the sole owner, which I now am today. That to me is what we call a God shot. That whole experience, how that happened, it like 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, 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, I think earlier you said, all you wanna do is help people. And that comes across so clearly upon meeting you. And then you learn that you run this store that's also committed to the same
mission and purpose. And yeah, so I'd love to hear a little bit more about the store. Obviously, it's dedicated to helping people with substance issues and those who are in recovery, but it feels so much more to that, more than that. It feels like wherever you are along the spectrum from drinking to being sober and everything in between, that there's just something there for everyone. So I'd love to hear.
Who does Choices Gifts help?
Yeah, no, another year. You're hitting me with great questions. So the store when I, I knew it is the 12 step recovery store, but as I got in and evolved, I realized that, you know, helping people in recovery was absolutely wonderful for me is one of the greatest things. I, another one of the greatest things helping others helps you. It's just that simple. You want to, you want to keep it. You've got to give it away. All things of that nature.
But I realized, you know, 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 made it more about all self-help and wellness is what the story is, though, you know, recovery is the basis that that's, that's the big thing we do here.
Being here is like, so let me tell you for instance, so I'm at the register, somebody will come in and ask for a coin or something of that nature and somebody else will come in and then somebody else. And they're not in from the same meeting, but they've all met and it's fantastic the way they hug and kiss. They have a little meeting even in the store. And I have customers that live right in the neighborhood and they'll run in and just, Jay, can I sit and talk with you a minute or stand here and just take in the peace because this place is different from the outside world. I guarantee that when you come in here, it's like, you know when you take a breath and you go. That's what this place does to everyone. And that's one of the things that I love about it most.
Where is the Choices Books and Gifts store located?
Yes, yes. So we're at 220 E 78th Street. That's between second and third Avenue. We've the store has actually been here for 34 years. Well, I've owned it for the last 21. And well, just in case, I'm sorry to interrupt Katherine, but you can also find us. We have a great web presence because we deal with people all over the world. So our website is choicesgifts.com. And everything we have in the store is right online for you to see as well.
Yeah, that's great to know. But what I was saying was like the physical shop, the retail store, really does, to your point, feel like a community. Like I've gotten the pleasure of spending time there and I've watched people come in and say hi to you and like you said to one another. And you mentioned earlier that, you know, people might come in for a coin.
And I think you should tell listeners like, what do you mean by come in for a coin?
So a coin is wonderful. It's great. It helped me during my time in program as well. And what they are, they're milestones and they're reminders of what you can accomplish with yourself. So say a gentleman comes in and says, my wife has two years, I'd like to buy her a coin and he'll design or make his own coin. We do bling them out with crystals.
He'll pick a color and whatnot. And it says in program that when you have one of these coins, it has two meanings to me at least. And 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 if it melts, you can drink a drug to your happiest desire. If it doesn't, you have to wait till it passes, remove that coin and put it in your pocket. And that was great for me. I mean, I never had to put it in my mouth, but just the concept itself was enough. And also, I reach in my pocket and I hold those coins and whatever I'm going through, and no matter what in life, you're gonna be thrown challenges, hardships, things, and I hold on to that coin.
The most difficult thing for me was getting sober. That was the toughest thing. And with help and people, it was terrific, but it's a reminder. It's like, okay, I had an argument with my boss or I just got fired. That's the small stuff. And they say, don't sweat the small stuff. 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. So that's what some of those, what that means to me with those points.
And yeah, you've said now a few times that it's so true that just if you're a human being you're gonna be familiar with suffering and that we all have challenges and go through hard things and so that anyone can benefit from having something symbolic of overcoming hardship or you know, like in a moment realizing that this too shall pass and I really like that and I like that the store caters to everyone and everyone's needs and challenges. And I think we should we should speak about that that, you know, we've mentioned alcohol but it's far beyond that.
How does the store cater to addictions far beyond alcohol?
Yes. Well, first of all, we're known as the 12 step store because we cover it all. So there there's every program out there:
- AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)
- OA (Overeaters Anonymous)
- SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous)
- Al-Anon (Help and hope for families and friends of alcoholics)
- NA (Narcotics Anonymous)
So we cover them all back behind me is all the different books we have for those programs. So you can come here and make your purchases. I just want to mention the coins real quick again. We also have them for everybody, because as you just mentioned life throws us challenges and we have coins with just amazing 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 absolutely wonderful and prevalent, very prevalent to the store.
And we all are, because we've been doing it for so many years, no real degrees, but how to guide people and help them. You know how many people came in here and they have sponsors and they have a program and all that and they go, you know, I came in here, I didn't know what I was doing. You told me. I used to even make the phone calls and give them a sponsor, man or woman. And I knew who to call and where to send them. And once again, as I said, that was fantastic.
You know, we have different things, like sometimes in sobriety, as you go along, you know, you should always stick with the program you have, but we want to discover everything and anything. So we have a wonderful section of crystals, and these crystals are very helpful, and they, you know, they represent so many different things, you know, healing, health, protection, and we have a large variety of just you know, wonderful self-help books that don't necessarily have to do with a program and how to get through life. Yeah, an addiction, but life.
It's almost like choices is a, it's just almost like a resource and support, not center, but just, you know, it has the community component and then almost anything you need to just kind of assist and aid the human being through getting through day to day life, which is really unique.
100 percent. You said that better than I ever could.
And so on that, you know, and I think coming to an end here, I would love to hear you personally.
What are the practices or tools or things that you include in your life that help Jay get through his day to day life?
Yes, I think that's great. So let me tell you, I start my day, every morning I wake up and I pray and I meditate 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 literally been doing it for so many years. That's one of the things I try to practice, you know, the basics in life, a good diet, exercise. I enjoy exercising so it's not a chore. And last but not least, giving back. You know, in all our affairs, when you're able to give back, your life just grows exponentially. It's amazing. So I try to practice the basics and if you're in or have a program that you're in your life, I would get involved with that community. I'd go as often as I could and I'd practice you know, the principles of that particular program and, 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 got to tell you, you know, I mean, the bombshells don't stop, you know, and life doesn't stop. It keeps coming at me. So I have to, you know, put up my shield to fight all that off. And the things I just mentioned are and is my shield.
Yeah, 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 personal challenges. And I think that that's what's so great about this podcast. And then having choices that the store and online presence to help everyone else who we don't get to speak to kind of be a human and get through every day. So it's been wonderful.
I do appreciate that. And yes, I'd like to say just one last thing is stay tuned because the guests and the people we're gonna have on this show will be just so 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.