When you look around the city of Yonkers for mainstays that never change, places that were there when we were kids and now we bring our kids to, generally speaking, it’s a restaurant, a building, an ice skating rink, a train station on the Hudson or any number of places we like to label as landmarks.
Life-long Yonkers resident Bill Borelli is a landmark in his own right, not even for the years he has lived near Sacred Heart and the love he has for the city but for the five decades of service he has provided at Edward J. Murray Memorial Skating Center, or “Murray’s” as locals call it.
If you have ever skated at Murray’s…as in ever…since the day it opened on January 16th 1960, and rented skates, chances are you’ve met Bill or his father who started the Varsity Skate Shop back on the day when the rink opened for business. 54 Years later, you can still find Bill in the same place, performing the same labor of love for kids and adults of all ages and at age 78, plans of retirement are as distant to him as the day he started.
Just like you, I have memories of years of going to Murray’s on a Friday or Saturday night to skate, meet girls, have food, meet girls, rent skates, meet girls and if I was lucky, meet girls. And whether it’s the early to mid nineties or the early to mid sixties, Bill was there to see it all in one form or another and to ask you the all important question, “what size skate do you need?”
When I caught up with him on a Friday at Murray’s, he had just finished servicing two bus loads full of students from a school in Mt.Vernon, happily dealing with their impatience, the volume of their voices and eagerly wanting to make sure that each and every skater received the best pair of skates they could rent.
That in a nutshell is Bill Borelli. He is simply, irreplaceable and a throw back to what many would agree is a bygone era, where quality trumps quantity, where work is valued upon the quality of service given and where little things matter just as much as big things.
Little things like making sure each pair of skates are wiped down clean and looking as good as new for the next renter. That the skates are sharpened to the highest quality, using a machine that could be considered outdated to say the least, made not too far away by a Long Island man and you would probably have to drive to 100 other skating rinks before seeing it again.
Little things such as writing down the skate number for the 8 year-old girl who is learning to figure skate that way every time she comes back to rent her skates, she can learn and practice on the same exact pair each time.
Sitting down to interview him, he told me about the litany of memories he has collected from behind the counter over the years and I was quick to remind him of the memories he has provided for all of us on the other side of the counter as well.
One of the things I miss the most from childhood is how it felt being 13,14,15 years-old and going to Murray’s on a Friday night, something that can never be re-created in adulthood and certainly something that was taken for granted at the time.
So if you’re like me and can still hear the music, feel the ice and want to take a trip down memory lane via Murray’s Skating Rink, here’s the MyYonkers Conversation with Varsity Skate Shop owner Bill Borelli.
MyYonkers: So I have to ask, did you ever meet Edward J. Murray?
Bill Borelli: No, he died before the rink was built but was a guy that did an awful lot for the city of Yonkers as a contractor and politician.
MyYonkers: Have you lived in Yonkers all your life?
Bill Borelli: Born and raised, growing up down by Sullivan’s Oval. I remember when they were selling lots on Central Ave. for homes and businesses and many other things people wouldn’t even believe. Here’s one, there was a lake where Spruce St. meets Rumsey Rd. called “Devil’s Lake” and I learned to ice skate on it. Now it’s all homes.
MyYonkers: So what was here before they built the rink?
Bill Borelli: St. Nick’s Oval, it was a ball field and a nice place to have a picnic or cook out on a Sunday and at the bottom of the hill was a florist, a driving range and a bakery from the Troznick Family that you can buy homemade pies for literally $1.25.
MyYonkers: Why did your Father decide to open the skate shop?
Bill Borelli: He got a job in the Mills working for a man named John Flynn who eventually became Mayor of the city of Yonkers. After serving in WWII, Flynn was one of the guys who pushed to make the skating rink happen since the Oval wasn’t used as much due to the construction of the Thruway and such. Once the Mill closed, Flynn asked my father if he would bid on the skate shop in the new rink and he got it and we’ve had it in the family ever since.
MyYonkers: What was opening day like back in January of 1960?
Bill Borelli: There were 7,000 people in attendance! Needless to say we were a bit unprepared. It was an all-day session and we only had about 300 pairs of skates on hand for rentals. The lines stretched around the rink and from then on, the rink always made money. Despite recessions or whatnot, every year Murray’s has been profitable and there’s a reason for that. Back then the rental was $0.25 and even the Parks commissioner came down and said to us at the end of the day that “I never want to hear that you don’t have enough skates again.” Now we have about 2,000 pairs of skates or so on hand.
MyYonkers: How have the crowds changed over the years?
Bill Borelli: Well we had more public sessions in the 60’s and 70’s. In the 80’s and so on, the rink began cutting back on the sessions and more and more just privately renting out the ice to groups and teams. There are about 14 sessions per week now and double that years ago.
MyYonkers: What sets Murray’s apart and even more importantly, Varsity Skate Shop?
Bill Borelli: I’m always buying skates, always trying to find the kind of skates people seem to like but also that the skates are kept in as good a condition as possible. Some places mix skates up, two rights, two lefts, and that’s something that doesn’t happen here. Each pair we rent lasts about a year and a half on average.
MyYonkers: Has this always been a side job for you?
Bill Borelli: My Dad passed away in 1999 and my “day job” was working for NASA, working in aerospace but I always worked part-time here and when he passed, I decided to take the business over full-time. My wife and family always just simply put up with me working the two jobs and you know I missed a good deal of things with my kids growing up. But one thing I have noticed over the years is that there is a relationship between the customers and the staff here, a special kind of family style relationship. Having been through 6 managers here, I’ve seen many many people come and go but the staff and even the customers create their own family atmosphere here.
MyYonkers: Do people remember you from their time as a kid skating at Murray’s?
Bill Borelli: Every week that happens, people can’t believe I’m still here but nothing has changed at Murray’s, nothing and people who now come here as adults with their own kids get a kick out of how everything is the same.
MyYonkers: Do you still get the same joy out of servicing the 8 year-old girl’s skates now as you did perhaps when you started over five decades ago? Is it still enjoyable?
Bill Borelli: Still love doing this and always trying to improve each year. I have a system for the new skaters in the lesson program where they get the same pair of skates each time to learn on. I’ll even come out and measure a skater’s foot for a public session nowadays because you want people to have a good session and have skates that fit well.
MyYonkers: Any future plans on retirement or another endeavor?
Bill Borelli: No plans…no plans. You know as long as I can keep my health I love doing this and I’ll simply keep doing it.
For more information on public skating sessions at Murray’s, click here and remember to say “hi” to Bill next time you rent your skates from Varsity Skate Shop!