Friday, December 23, 2011

“Christmas at Kresse’s”

c. 2011 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: Each holiday season seems to spotlight a different Christmas memory for this writer. Two things happened during the year that made what follows here inevitable. First - I discovered a group called ‘Chardon Kresse’s Survivors’ on the social networking site facebook. It reminded me that working at the supermarket was an experience with lasting value. Second - I was contacted by a former co-worker from the store, Wayne Goebelt, who said he had been reading my columns in the Maple Leaf. Though I had not seen him in twenty years, we remained connected through this newspaper. I was humbled by his message.

Kresse’s Bi-Rite in Chardon was the sort of small-town grocery store that has all but disappeared from northeastern Ohio. This local business operated in what had once been an A & P location, and carried some leftover signage and fixtures from that company. The market offered butcher-shop meats, prepared on-site by traditional methods. It also provided fresh produce products that were hand-selected and trucked to Geauga County by our own driver. And bakery delights made from scratch by a talented crew. All of this was delivered in an atmosphere of old-fashioned, face-to-face customer service. In modern terms, such a store would be deemed as upscale, and out of the industry mainstream. Yet twenty years ago, these qualities were considered the norm for patrons on Water Street.

The business was owned by Frank Tainer, a local entrepreneur who also operated the Tanglewood Bi-Rite location. His focus was clear and unapologetic – to provide complete customer satisfaction. Excuses were unacceptable.

The store was supervised by a team of retail veterans. Store Manager Bob Herron had grown up in Pennsylvania, and learned his craft while rising through the ranks. Assistant Manager Mike Kelly had worked for A & P, as did Relief Manager John Raby.
I joined the crew in April of 1986, after working for American Seaway Foods, and Fisher’s Big Wheel. My knowledge of retailing remained undeniably limited.

But school was about to begin.

Kresse’s offered the kind of retail education that I could never have discovered in a classroom setting. I was able to work in close quarters with talented people from Fazio’s, Kroger, Pick-n-Pay, and many other Cleveland-area supermarket chains. This on-the-salesfloor interaction would provide the foundation for my own retail career, in years to come.

For this, I owe Mr. Tainer a lasting debt of gratitude. One which I can never repay.

Customers at Kresse’s often spoke about raising their children, while shopping at the store. Indeed, generations of families passed through our automatic doors. Trust and kinship were important. They kept coming back not just to find value, but to catch up with friends, and get advice for their dinner table.

Christmas of 1991 found us celebrating the holiday rush with typical enthusiasm. The store was nearly bursting with seasonal goodies. Every register was open, and a bagger stood ready to serve, at the end of each lane. Clerks were busy, everywhere. The shelves were full. Decorations dangled and spun. Genuine holiday cheer was in abundance. We worked frantically, like a re-assigned bunch of Santa’s elves.
The parcel-pickup drive, in front of our store, witnessed an endless stream of automobiles. Orders were loaded carefully, and glad tidings were repeated.

Christmas Eve brought all of this to a fever pitch. It was as if the entire place had become a community center. Last-minute purchases made our registers ring. We ran to find empty carts for waiting customers. And called out greetings across aisles of people.

Everyone felt blessed to be part of the team. It was our mission to serve, while celebrating with neighbors and friends.

We glad to be there. It was more than a job. In a real sense, it felt like home.
No one could have imagined that in only a few months, the store would close.

Postscript: Kresse’s Bi-Rite went out of business in March of 1992. The building at 425 Water Street in Chardon is currently occupied by a MARC’S location.

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Saturday, December 10, 2011

“Return of the Elf”

c. 2011 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

A recent drive doing day-off chores yielded one of my favorite seasonal sights: the magical hut of ‘Christmas Tree Lady’ Paula Horbay.

Paula’s stand is located in the parking lot of Maple Leaf Plaza, in Chardon.

As a former retail manager in the county, I had many holiday encounters with this enduring local figure. Her good cheer and warm personality always made me glad to experience the Christmas season in Geauga. Indeed, her presence helped to attract extra customers for the business that I represented. It was the sort of useful partnership between local entrepreneurs that made our county strong.

When I stopped to take photographs for this newspaper, just before sunset, a local couple appeared in their conversion van. A woman inside asked if the elf-in-charge was present.

“Looks like she’s gone home for the day,” I answered. “Must’ve just gotten a shipment from the North Pole!”

The woman smiled. “We’ve bought Paula’s trees for over a dozen years.”

I nodded with reverence. “She’s part of the holiday experience… like Santa and Rudolph. Even on the hottest days of summer, people still call her the ‘Christmas Tree Lady.’ But at this time of year, it seems most proper to write something about her in my column.”

“Yes it does,” she agreed.

I fumbled with my digital camera. “Just need a picture to run with the story… if only Elf Paula was here in person!”

The woman smiled again. “We’ll come back tomorrow. Gotta have a tree for our family!”
I waved goodbye as she and her husband drove away.

Later, over a cup of coffee, I remembered this chance encounter. Reflecting on past issues of the Maple Leaf, I remembered that Paula had once sent a Yuletide poem to my mailbox. It was written in response to the suggestion that she was actually one of Santa’s elves, working in our county.

A quick search through my home archives produced her manuscript:

“Twas three weeks ‘til Christmas and all thru the North Pole; All the elves were getting their orders about when and where they should go. Santa sent one elf to make all the toys; ‘Ho Ho Ho!’ he said, ‘Make sure they're just right for all the good girls and good boys.’ Then he sat and he pondered what the next elf should do, you know it's a big job and he had no time to lose. With a twinkle in his eye and a grin on his face, he knew he had to send this next elf to a very special place. The destination he sees is clearly surrounded by trees, and the elf that he chose can be identified by her clothes! Santa was chuckling not naughty, but nice, Cuz he just solved the riddle for that writer Rod Ice.”

After reading Paula’s elfin rhyme, I felt inspired with a fresh burst of holiday cheer. Half-awake in my office chair, I began to dream… and compose:

A frosty breeze
And Christmas trees
As far as eyes can see
Yes Paula’s back
With her Yuletide sack
Stuffed full of peppermint treats

December cold
Is crisp and bold
With hues of red and green
Thanks to the elf
Who works by herself
We’ll celebrate and dream

On the hill
Winds can chill
But her hut is warm and safe
Ringed by trees
And pine boughs to keep
She’ll work till Christmas Day

At this special time
Kids wait in line
To choose an evergreen
Then off they go
With bells and bows
To make their centerpiece

Flakes of snow
Bring a winter show
We expect this time of year
And Paula’s trees
Make memories
Filled with holiday cheer

The first Noel
Old stories foretell
The coming of this season
In Geauga, near
With families, dear
Love is the reason

Perhaps Paula’s best-kept secret is that she also operates the Story Book Ranch and Bunk House, on Chardon Windsor Road. The family business was established in 1951 and offers visitors a chance to experience Geauga County in a friendly, rural setting.

Contact Paula at:

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Friday, December 02, 2011

“Geauga: Unoccupied”

c. 2011 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

It was a beautiful day on the Chardon Square. Unseasonably warm and satisfying, despite the approach of winter. Quietly, I walked by myself, fiddling with a notebook and digital camera. My mission was clear – to find some local news wrinkle of note for my next column. Yet no inspiration appeared during my stroll. Instead, the cackle of school children echoed from Park Elementary. A lone musician plucked out notes on her guitar, while sitting on a park bench. And a city crew busied themselves with the chore of erecting seasonal decorations.

I paused at the gazebo, and opened a cup of coffee from Get Go. But before I could take a sip, a familiar voice called out from beyond the trees.

“Rodneyyy!” it sang with excitement.

I spun around to find my long-time friend Carrie Hamglaze, brimming with satisfaction. She was dressed in an overcoat and hat, colored Irish green.

“It is so good to see you!” she exclaimed.

I nodded respectfully. “We haven’t crossed paths in a long time…”

“A long, long time!” she said. “How are things in Thompson?”

My voice was dry. “Going well, thank you. Lots of school pride with the Ledgemont football team. And fall colors everywhere…”

She smiled to herself. “I was busy with the election. Helping to offer advice and attend local meetings. Trying to stay involved as someone not running for office.”

“Of course,” I replied.

“So, what do you have coming up in the Leaf?” she asked with curiosity.

I took a long breath. “Perhaps another installment of ‘Geauga in Print.’ Readers seem to enjoy getting a glimpse of our county in yonder days.”

“Ah,” she whispered. “Stories from the newspaper archives. There must be thousands of those available online.”

“More than you might think,” I confessed. “Even from the venerable New York Times. It seems that Geauga has always been a point of interest for journalists, throughout history.”

“Okay, what else?” she said quizzically.

“Not much,” I answered. “Today was so warm that it seemed like a perfect opportunity to walk around the square and ponder a bit. So here I am… looking for a story.”

Carrie held her breath. “Everyone seems to have an angle on the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests at the moment. What about you?”

Her interjection brought surprise. I gestured around the square, for emphasis. “Is that relevant here?”

“A point to ponder,” she reflected.

I thought carefully before speaking. “One friend has been sending messages about OWS for several weeks now. Everything references being part of the 99 percent.”

She laughed out loud. “Yes, that’s their mantra.”

“At first, it sounded like familiar political rhetoric,” I said. “But then, I noticed a fellow appeared in one of the photographs with a sign that said ‘End the Fed.’ And I wondered… hadn’t Ron Paul been saying that for many years?”

Carrie snorted. “Michael Moore, Keith Olbermann, labor leaders from around the country… they’ve all been attracted to sit in with the ‘occupiers.’ Even Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. Not exactly a conservative crowd.”

“No,” I admitted. “But consider the message itself. Unhappiness about the bank bailouts. Loud dissent over foreign wars draining our treasury. A feeling that we are ruled not by elected leaders, but a privileged class of lobbyists. Where have you heard those sentiments before?”

She hesitated to answer.

“Journalists have been taking sides on this phenomenon,” I said. “But maybe they should look more closely. Isn’t this the other side of the same coin?”

My esteemed friend was speechless.

“We’ve said it for many years,” I declared. “Voters have developed a natural distrust for the system. We may express that rowdiness in unique ways. But the feeling is no different.”

Carrie sighed forcefully. “I don’t know what to say!”

“Public debate is healthy,” I continued. “Whether it is Tea Party activism or union protests to maintain the right of collective bargaining. People need to be involved in democracy for it to survive. Honest disagreement doesn’t make me afraid. What I fear is silence.”

“Silence doesn’t make a good story,” she said with a grin.

“Not at all,” I agreed.

She rubbed her eyes. “Okay… so back to your original point. Is OWS relevant in Geauga?”

My coffee had gone cold. “As a journalist, I can only ask that question. The answer will come not from pundits and professors… but from our readers.”

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