GRAND RAPIDS, OHIO — It was late afternoon when I asked Dave LaRoe what was going on in Grand Rapids that brought so many cars downtown.
Mr. LaRoe pretty much knows the comings and goings in the village on the Maumee River, 30 miles southwest from Toledo, because he has operated the most popular restaurant there for 37 years. “People like to park here on Front Street and then walk along the canal and river,” he said.
The next day I followed suit. I parked and walked down Lincoln Street, which is a short cut through the village square from Front Street to the canal between LaRoe’s and the Happy Historian and Library House Gallery bookstore. Sure enough, there were walkers, celebrants posing for prom and engagement photos, and a couple relaxing on a riverbank bench.
Blue bells and crocuses add color to the early spring setting and soon merchants will plant annuals along the canal and in front of the stores. The annual Spring Fling on Saturday is the annual flower-planting day downtown.
This is the scene the Grand Rapids shopkeepers want everyone to be aware of. The mighty Maumee may have put fear in the most courageous when the winter ice was on the move, but now the sandbags are gone and thousands of pieces of merchandise are back in place on squeaky clean shelves and floors in the stores, and it’s business as usual.
Imagine having to pack up an entire store full of stock knowing that in a month it would have to be unpacked and displayed as it was before the move to attract customers.
Mary Poole packed up her Mary’s Apple Orchard gift store and moved out on Feb. 22, “the same day the fire department and the Town Hall moved,” she said.
Ms. Poole has no regrets for all that work and the loss of business when the flood didn’t happen.
“I’m not sorry. It’s better to be safe than sorry, and the conditions of the river when we moved were the same as they were during the big floods.”
At a Drop of Honey, customers are invited to taste several flavored honeys. In addition to the usual liquid honey, its many uses in beeswax, candles, lotions, and balms are also sold. Store owners Emily and Ronald Householder operate beehives at about 50 farms that supply honey throughout Ohio. Mrs. Householder also suggests that honey is beneficial for arthritis and sleeping.
On the other side of the street from Mary’s and a Drop of Honey, two shops show no signs of the winter hardship that left them empty for a month.
Karen Kingston opened Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow in Grand Rapids seven years ago after having a similar store in Waterville. Ms. Kingston packed up everything but the clothing to put in storage. She took the clothing home for safekeeping. “Only the fixtures were left. I cried when I came back,” she said and then added a happy note to the return. “Mopping was sure a lot better than mud would have been.”
The business hiatus gave Ms. Kingston a chance to visit her daughter, Crystal Spencer, in Jacksonville. Ms. Kingston is vice president of the Grand Rapids city council and is credited for initiating Ladies Night Out that began last Thursday for this season. Every Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. the merchants entice women shoppers with sales and treats that range from cookies to wine.
Karen Secory and Erika Stoner are the mother-and-daughter team who love being in business in downtown Grand Rapids, even if there is a flood warning. They are known for their friendly hugs and hellos at the Cottage on the River, where they specialize in unusual home décor.
Ms. Secory will never forget when someone came into the store and told her she had better move fast because the water would soon be as high as her waist. The fire department also warned her of a possible flash flood. Those warnings were enough for Ms. Secory and Ms. Stoner to start packing and with the help of family and even strangers load a 27-foot trailer with the entire contents of the store, including large pieces of furniture that Kay Shondel, a Deshler, Ohio, artist refurbishes and hand paints in stunning designs.
Flower boxes of pansies have replaced the sandbags that a few weeks ago banked the building that houses Dr. Dorinda Shelley’s three businesses. The Library House Bookstore and the Happy Historian, also a bookstore, are on the first floor. The Library House Gallery is on the second floor.
It may have been slim shopping during the flooding scare with most of the stores closed, but it was good eating at LaRoe’s and Miss Lily’s, the anchor restaurants that stayed open. Now, the outdoor patio at LaRoe’s that overlooks the river is open for the season. LaRoe’s is a full-service lunch and dinner restaurant and a Sunday buffet. It shouldn’t be long before customers can buy Mr. LaRoe’s prize-winning poppy seed dressing at the restaurant along with bottles of his original spiced wine.
Therese Frey, who opened Miss Lily’s two years ago in the building that was formerly the Canal Market, also gambled that a flash flood was a false rumor. She did raise some of the furniture off the floor just in case, but otherwise she continued to serve three meals a day and make the pies and beef and noodles she is known for.
Steve Sweede, Ken Reed, and Dr. Shelley, partners at Antiques on Front, also remained open. “We stayed and fought the elements,” Mr. Sweede said. “But, we worried about our friends who had large investments to protect.”
One neighbor, Paul Chamberlain, brought a tractor load of sandbags. Mr. Chamberlain knows the value of sandbags. In 1982 his furniture store flooded with 16 inches of water. With that record well documented, the owners of Savvy Avenue, a consignment business and the present occupants of Mr. Chamberlain’s building, moved everything out.
Considering the sizes and numbers of consignment pieces it was an amazing feat to move everything out and back in again. But now manager Tina Hohenberger is all smiles. “It was worth it. This town is awesome.”
A day trip to Grand Rapids should also include a stop at the Garden Gate flower shop, Fernando’s ice cream store, and the new Blueberry Bakery that is said to have divine chocolate chip cookies.
And there’s a new downtown business on the way. According to Glen Baron of Otsego, Knucklehead’s should be up and running by midsummer. Mr. Baron rescued the abandoned 1896 Grand Rapids post office. He and a work crew are converting it into a bar and grill with a southwestern theme. So far the name Knucklehead’s, the turquoise beading on the bar, and a coral front door tell us to expect something to smile about.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor. Contact her at: email@example.com
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