Sunday, Jun 24, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Marilou Johanek

Economy takes a toll on businesses that are local institutions

THE corner diner that used to be the pulse of my little community is dark. So is the vacant candle shop next to it that used to greet visitors with wonderfully rich, intoxicating fragrances. Another storefront, sitting barren on the other side of the town square, used to be a favorite of browsers shopping for gifts.

Businesses have come and gone before in the village but not like this. When the landmark greasy spoon, which boasted the best homemade meals in the Firelands, closed for good a few months ago, people were stunned. Word spread quickly among incredulous residents.

The local papers gave prominent attention to the restaurant's passing. That's what it felt like to the locals who had been eating and socializing at the unpretentious, come-as-you-are, meat-and-mashed-potatoes restaurant for more years than anyone could remember.

There was nothing fancy about the place but it was an institution in the area.

To walk in was to walk back in time, say the '50s. The noisy side-door entrance frequently made patrons glance up from their plates to briefly scrutinize newcomers as if they were unexpected guests.

Nobody waited to be seated if there was an open booth or table with plain armless chairs that could always squeeze in an extra friend. The dcor was functional vinyl with centerpiece condiments - a vintage diner like so many others in cities and towns and truck stops across America.

Ours had an old soda counter with a row of chrome stools perched in front.

Familiar waitresses, on a first-name basis with most of their customers, scurried behind the bar to grab coffee pots from stainless steel machines or ring up checks at the mammoth cash register at one end.

They poured fresh brew while swapping gossip with the regulars. And there were lots of regulars. Farmers arrived like clockwork when the restaurant opened at 6 a.m., followed by work crews, shop owners, traveling salesmen, young families, and old timers. The mayor was a morning fixture in his trademark cowboy hat.

Every day a virtual microcosm of the community could be found inside the popular diner. Even if it was just stopping in for a cup of decaf and slice of homemade pie, the restaurant was a dependable respite from the daily grind. It seemed to invite lively conversations, quiet discussions, shared news, and, of course, shared photographs.

It was a great spot for commiserating, planning, consoling, laughing, teasing, celebrating, remembering. After the morning rush was over, a previous owner would sometimes slide into a booth with regulars just to shoot the breeze or give the latest update about her son in medical school. She liked to talk.

It was that kind of place. But the shades are pulled down in the windows and the lights that once signaled a bustling atmosphere inside are off. The cars and pickup trucks that used to park off the road or on a slant in front of the restaurant are gone.

All that remains of the diner tradition are a handful of newsstands. Some are empty, others flash headlines above the fold that have become almost commonplace - more job losses, plant shutdowns, eliminated shifts, or deep, across-the-board wage cuts.

The federal stimulus money is supposed to help stem the economic hemorrhaging afflicting the country but the rescue plan came too late to save many businesses that couldn't wait for a recovery. Not with overhead costs and employees to pay and inventory that wasn't moving.

They held on for as long as possible, juggling fixed expenses with sharp downturns in customers and revenue, but couldn't survive on only hope. Conditions have been far worse than anyone imagined and the consequences are putting our immediate world out of business.

So besides experiencing pervasive apprehension about a scary economy while watching the other shoe drop in industry after industry, we mourn the steady disappearance of local establishments. They added flavor and distinct character to our communities.

Maybe they'll reopen some day. Maybe not. But for now, the bare storefronts and abandoned hometown businesses we see everywhere, stand as silent testaments to what used to be before the layoffs became routine.

Our corner diner was much more than the local greasy spoon. It was a vibrant beacon of rural life in a small town that has grown sadly dark.

Marilou Johanek is a Blade commentary writer.

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