Reflecting on E&J’s Legacy with Valarie Wornian

By Celia Bernhardt | [email protected]

E&J Cards and Gifts is a community institution in Ridgewood. For over fifty years, the store’s shelves have been lined with what seems like an infinitely diverse array of tchotskeys, gifts and hyper-specific cards. But its owners, Valarie and Alan Wornian, are getting ready to close up shop by the end of February. 

Valarie Wornian says she’s looking forward to her retirement — spending more time with her six grandchildren and no longer working long hours as the retail business gets tougher and tougher. But that doesn’t make the goodbyes any easier. 

“It’s really so emotional. A rollercoaster of emotions. […] I didn’t understand how many lives we’ve touched. You know it, but…” Wornian trails off mid-sentence, tears welling in her eyes, as customers poke around the store. “It’s been hard.”

Credit: Celia Bernhardt

A steady stream of customers come through the store on Monday morning, some who just read the news for the first time that day. 

“I just died a little bit,” one customer says, pointing to the poster on the door announcing E&J’s closure as he walks up to Wornian. Wornian leans in to hug him. 

“51 years. I think we’ve earned it,” she says. 

“Yeah. For me, it’s bittersweet,” the customer says. “This was my go-to place.” 

Wornian’s family has been in business in Ridgewood, in one way or another, for over a century. Her grandmother, born in 1900, spent her childhood pushing a fish cart down Myrtle Avenue on the very block that E&J now sits on. Wornian also remembers her grandmother’s stories about operating a few bars in the neighborhood with her husband before the Prohibition crackdowns.

“She remembers the cops coming through the house that I grew up in on Linden — between Fresh Pond and Traffic [Avenue] — the cops would come at night, bang on the back windows and come in to see if they had any liquor,” Wornian recounts. 

Alan Wornian’s parents, meanwhile, owned a soda fountain and candy store in Glendale—a tough business with long hours, selling cigarettes and newspapers at six in the morning for early risers and serving banana splits until midnight for couples on dates. 

Valarie and Alan were still dating when E&J’S first storefront became available. To scope it out, the two would stand outside and count the number of people who passed by the building, seeing if it was a viable place to start a business. 

All these years later, it’s clear they made a good choice. 

Valarie Wornian ringing up a customer. Credit: Celia Bernhardt

“We always had family helping us,” Wornian explains. “Nieces, nephews, grandsons, neighborhood kids. Now I have a boy that works with us whose father worked with us. We’ve gone through the generations, you know? I mean, we’ve really grown up here. We were teenagers when we [started].”

Many of the store’s employees throughout the years have gone on to rise the ranks in managerial positions at large corporations. “My husband jokes that they should’ve paid us to work here,” she laughs. 

After suffering a heart attack in the back room of the store six years ago, Alan has taken up the majority of the remote work involved in running the business while Valarie has worked in the shop most days of the week. She has also sat as Vice President of the Myrtle Avenue Business Improvement District for years, working to keep the neighborhood an enjoyable place to shop. 

Ted Renz, executive director of the BID, said Worian will be sorely missed. “[She] could always be counted on for any task the BID needed.”

Credit: Celia Bernhardt

The Wornians’ impact on the Ridgewood community can be felt in as many small, unique ways as there are items on their shelves. 

“I have little angels upfront which cancer patients have actually told me helped them, because they held it during their treatments and stuff, and just held on to it and rubbed it,” Wornian says. “Or they look for something for a baby shower — people have told me over the years that it’s really nice when they get a stuffed animal from here and they buy it before, so that the mom has it, and it starts to smell like the mom and then the baby attaches to it better. So those things I try to share with the customers… it means more than just a stuffed animal.”

Sharing tips, swapping recipes for Thanksgiving or the Super Bowl, giving local recommendations to newcomers or just spending time talking together — all these things can make customers feel like family, Wornian says. 

“Some people come for lotto four or five times a day — they don’t need lotto. They just really want to come talk.” 

Credit: Celia Bernhardt

Later, Wornian points out a case of addiction recovery medallions behind the check-out counter, placed next to related gifts and tchotskeys. She points out the “serenity rocks,” small stones with wise sayings engraved on them, as something she recommends as a gift for those in recovery. 

“I try to find things that speak to what they’re looking for,” Worian says. “So, you know, ‘Change, one day into today.’ That’s meaningful. I have to think when I’m buying things: ‘This will help.’ and then I try to also carry it in Spanish.”

Wornian is interested in the possibility of getting landmark status for the store in order to create some kind of public memory of its impact. 

“A recording of everything that’s happened here, of what we’ve done,” Wornian says. “It just came to mind for me—that would be awfully nice if our history would be marked down.” 

Another customer stops by on her way out to chat with Wornian. Stella Sinclair, a 61-year-old occupational therapist from North Richmond Hill, often visits E&J’s to purchase puzzles for the children with special needs who she works with. 

‘I’ll really miss this store,” Sinclair says. “It’s an icon of Ridgewood…beautiful, personable. You feel like you are at home.”

E&J’s items will be on sale until their last day in business, Feb. 29. Until then, patrons can come in for a good deal, a chat, and to sign a huge retirement card that yet another devoted customer left for the Wornians. 

Credit: Celia Bernhardt

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