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Keeping The 'Odd' Family Tool Business Sharp Through 3 Generations

During a StoryCorps interview last week, Joe Bianco, left, and his son Peter, reflected on their craft — one that's been honed in their Brooklyn tool shop for three generations.
During a StoryCorps interview last week, Joe Bianco, left, and his son Peter, reflected on their craft — one that's been honed in their Brooklyn tool shop for three generations.

Recently, Joe and Vinny Bianco have seen slow days at their tool shop in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The twin brothers took over Bianco Brothers Instruments from their father in 1992. Now, each of their own sons is working beside them, expertly sharpening knives and blades for a wide range of trades. They also manufacture instruments for a variety of different professions.

Despite the pandemic's impact on small businesses like theirs, the family looks forward to being in business well into the future.

"It's an odd place," Joe, 54, said in a remote StoryCorps interview last week with his son, Peter Bianco, 24. "It's odd that you walk in, you get to meet a sword swallower, and a plastic surgeon, and a gynecologist, or a dog groomer."

The family's business started in 1972 when Joe's father, John Bianco, purchased a small sharpening service. John passed away in 2009.

"My grandfather was handsome. He always smelled like he just got a haircut," Peter recalled. "He was the kind of guy that would like, if he knew your name was in a song, he would sing the song."

Joe Bianco works at the grinding wheel in the early years of his father's Brooklyn business.
/ Courtesy of Joe Bianco
Joe Bianco works at the grinding wheel in the early years of his father's Brooklyn business.

Joe described his father as a skilled craftsman with a magnetic personality.

"People just loved him. He would just help out anybody," he said. "And he was really tops in his game. Nobody else could do what he did."

And it's John's commitment to the craft that the family continues.

"People relied on his quality of work and that's what we built the business on," said Joe. "We don't put it down until it's absolutely perfect."

"Doin' it for the first time, you're always scared," Peter said. "There's a lot of sparks. Ya know, the metal gets red hot. You know, being 5 or 6 years old, it's intimidating."

Joe and Vinny have hung around the shop since they were about 5 years old. By age 16, Joe started working there part time.

"The hardest part of the craft is the feel of it. It's not through repetition, it's through guidance that you get the feel. Like, 'Lift up that elbow, turn that hand. Hold that file differently. Pick up your shoulders. You're gonna have to do this for 30 years, you can't be slouching,' " Joe explained, echoing words of his late father and other sharpeners, as well as the advice he's passed on to others.

Peter asked his father whether there was a particular moment when he fell in love with the job.

"I think the first time when a customer came in and asked for me rather than my father," Joe told him. "There'll be a time where they'll want you to do it rather than me, you know? It's passing of the torch Peter, and you're gettin' there, boy."

"Family businesses are few and far between nowadays," he told his son. "So I really do think that we're blessed."

Audio produced forMorning Edition by Eleanor Vassili and Kerrie Hillman. NPR's Emma Bowman adapted this interview for the Web.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org .

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