I think about it every time I’m caught by the light at Market and Central as I stare at the side of what is now Carpenters Local 372. The old painted signage on the bricks tells me a different story. Once upon a time, it was The Holiday House, an enterprise of Weixelbaum Brothers Company that sold postcards, novelties and specialty advertising.
For me, that brick wall is like a whisper of a bygone era in Lima’s history. The downtown area, The Square and the surrounding streets that formed the grids pulsated with businesses.
I’ve seen enough old black-and-white pictures of pre-1965 downtown Lima to see cars aligned in parking slots and considerable pedestrian traffic up and down the sidewalks. They were Lima’s citizens doing their shopping and enjoying seeing others and being seen.
Because I make frequent use of the newspaper microfilm at the library while researching nostalgia-based stories, especially for “Our Generation’s Magazine,” I’m constantly reminded of the variety of businesses that were there, back when Lima’s population was more than 50,000, not the fewer than 39,000 of today.
Some ads, like for the department store Blattner and Sons at 221 North Main, I don’t remember. However, I do recall many from the late 1950s and early 1960s trips with my mom when it was time to shop or check out a matinee at the Ohio, the Sigma or the Quilna, the latter two theaters occupying the Square.
The Square also was home to both Montgomery Ward and Sears before the American Mall claimed Wards in ’65 and Sears headed there shortly after.
I remember the full-service shoe stores like Morris Shoes on North Main, where my dad headed when he needed a new pair of wingtips for his job as a traveling salesman for Central Steel and Wire Corporation.
Of course, I remember the department stores: The Leader before the Holstine family moved it to the Lima Mall and eventually sold it to Elder-Beerman, and Gregg’s, one of the most tenacious of Lima’s now-defunct downtown businesses, which remained on North Main long enough for me to take my little girls Shannon and Katie to breakfasts with Santa in the 1980s.
And I remember stores I had far more interest in, those with toys and candy, like Kresge’s and Woolworth, stores which also featured lunch counters with short round stools anchored in front of the Formica surface of the counters.
If I was really good, which would have been far less often had my dear sweet mother not graded that day’s performance on the curve, these were the counters where I was served chocolate milkshakes in real fluted glasses with pedestals accompanied by the bonus remains of the shake in the shiny stainless mixing containers.
By the time both malls opened in 1965, the downtown area just wasn’t the same for me. On the few occasions I would get downtown, I saw so little that I remember from my youth.
As far as landmarks, at least I always have been able to count on Hofeller, Hiatt and Clark, where my father bought his suits, the same as men have been doing since 1925 in that exact same building. And, of course, there's the Kewpee on Elizabeth Street, which has been serving its iconic burgers right there since 1928.
I am gratified some businesses now are willing to take a chance on the downtown area. In addition to a first-rate civic center and hotel, the Wingate, and a parking garage, all of which have been in place for quite some time, new places have recently opened, with another highly anticipated one coming.
Sure, there are no more restaurants like the Hudson, Milano’s downtown or Andy’s, where the steaks would come out sizzling on a metal platter encased by a wooden serving dish and an accompanying admonition not to touch the very hot metal, but we have seen development.
Thanks to Rob Nelson, we have The Met, a combination wine shop-bar-restaurant, and a business off to a very promising start. In the very building that once housed the Tip Top, where you could walk away from the window with a big old brown paper bag, darkly saturated at the bottom, loaded with fresh-cut fries for a quarter, there is now a place called Fat Cat Diner, where award-winning Lima chef Alisa McPheron serves outstanding breakfasts and lunches during the work week.
And, by this fall, John Heaphy will show he’s willing to take a chance on downtown Lima when his upscale steakhouse, Old City Prime, will throw open its doors.
Perhaps there is a wave of momentum for our downtown area, a wave I hope will sweep up others who’ll look to redevelop what once was so vital to Lima and show they believe what many do: A city, in many respects, is only as strong as its downtown district.