Thursday, July 08, 2010

Keeping the Good Stuff

Otsego, Michigan, and Tomahawk, Wisconsin, have several things in common.

The lynchpin of Otsego’s economy is a paper mill, a reminder of bygone days when mills dotted the Kalamazoo River. When I was growing up in Tomahawk, the paper mill provided most of the desirable jobs, and it still is a major employer. There is a location difference. Otsego’s mill, now a U.S. Gypsum operation, is just a couple of blocks from downtown. Tomahawk’s is a couple of miles outside the city limits.

Otsego (population 3,900) has an unusually wide main street because years ago the city fathers thought the town would grow into a large center of commerce. That never happened. The width of the main drag in Tomahawk (population 3,800) is nearly identical. That’s because the lumber baron who hired an architect to develop the city layout assumed the settlement would eventually hold tens of thousands of residents. That never happened.

Small-town living has its drawbacks. One often cited is that everybody knows everybody else’s business. Another is the lack of diversified shopping opportunities. And a high school band concert is unlikely to satisfy the entertainment needs of some folks the way a night with a symphony orchestra does.

Among my memories of growing up in Tomahawk 60 years ago is that most people didn’t have a lot of money. A few coins, however, went a long way. For a long time, a good-sized ice cream cone cost a nickel. A glass of beer went for a dime, and astute bartenders made sure their customers stayed happy by pouring a free one occasionally. You actually could buy things for a nickel or a dime at the “five and dime store.” Some of those prices prevailed when we made rare visits to the state’s big city, Milwaukee, but a lot of things cost more there.

The retail landscape has changed across America, in big and small cities. The big-box stores and chains have forced many mom-and-pop operations to close. Selections have improved a lot, but convenience and service often have declined, and the changes aren’t always as cost-effective as we tend to think. Occasionally, some of the good things of the past are preserved in small towns.

A few days ago I needed just one finishing nail of a certain size to complete a small project. I couldn’t foresee any future use for that size nail, and didn’t want a box of them adding to the clutter in my already overly extensive collection of miscellaneous hardware. An attempt to find the needed nail in my son’s even bigger collection failed. I was resigned to paying a few dollars for a whole box or package of unwanted nails to get the one I had to have. We must do that nowadays in most big-box hardware stores, and other stores that carry basic household supplies.

I stopped at Bob’s True Value hardware store on the main street of Otsego. I thought I’d get a laugh: “Big deal today. I only need one nail. Can we do that?”

“Sure we can,” said the clerk who had asked about a minute after I entered the store if she could help me. “We have nail bins. Follow me and we’ll look.”

In the lower bin on the far right was a good supply of the perfect finishing nails. I took three, assuming I would louse the project up at least twice before I got it right, as usual. When I asked the cashier what the charge was, she asked, “You got a nickel?”

Looking for a nail was somewhat incidental to my main mission. I was in Otsego on a Tuesday for a haircut. A real barbershop is located right across the street from Bob’s hardware. It even has a barber pole near the entrance. Four barbers, all men, were busy shaping and snipping the locks of a bunch of mature adult men. Business was booming because on weekdays the geezers get a one-dollar discount. Even without it, a haircut there costs $11, not $16 or more as it does in today’s phony barber shops, where the chairs are lightweight metal tubing and the snippers mostly are female.

In the Otsego shop, the talk is of things like football, hockey, guns, fishing, and cars—guy things and big boys’ toys. I firmly believe that is the way God intended barber shops to be, but it’s the only one I’ve found in the past ten years that fits the bill.

The Otsego shop is a good place to feel important in a real barber chair, and the barbers, several of whom are fully mature, are very good at their craft. They’re good in another way.

The senior discount day is supposed to be Wednesday. The first time I forgot and showed up on Thursday, I chuckled about missing my chance to save a buck. The barber told me I had no problem; they give the discount every weekday anyway. Perhaps this is in deference to the geezer customers, some of whom might occasionally have a bit of trouble remembering what day it was when they arrived assisted by their canes and walkers.

By happenstance, wife Sandy and I returned to Otsego the very same day. Judy’s Restaurant is right next door to the barbershop. We had spotted an ad for a lunch special featuring a sandwich we both love and have trouble finding in restaurants. It was our first trip to Judy’s.

Judy’s is not part of a chain, or any other type of arrangement to apply the name to a place you can find anywhere else. It is unique. The restaurant has been in business for 44 years. The real Judy seats patrons, and takes the time for a little chit-chat with them if they want. The place is not elegant, but it was neat, clean, and busy. The décor features historic photos of Otsego scenes and individual pictures of many area natives. The service was excellent during our visit.

Our waitress offered a half-dozen variations in the components of the special. I kept asking, “Is that included?” It was. The portions were more than adequate, but so good I finished everything put before me. I skipped dinner that night.

Costs weren’t bad either. A three-item lunch for two including drinks (mine was accompanied by a pot of coffee left at the table) and tip totaled a whopping $14.00. We checked the complete menu. It had a fair amount of variety and was chock full of down-home items not a whole lot pricier than the daily lunch special. We’ll go back.

In small towns, some things still are the real deal.


Anonymous said...

Well done! I enjoyed it.

Dick Klade said...

Malcolm Furniss, retired U.S. Forest Service research entomologist, has published many words in the scientific literature and more popular venues. He commented on this post via e-mail, showing that he still can be quick to put the right words together into a quip worth sharing.

After observing that I seem to be in need of his guidance on major life issues, Mal wrote:

"Don't go to one of those lady barbers for a shave without first asking if she follows your Blog. If she says yes, you say no. If she says no, you can say yes."