Omaha’s Northwest Radial Highway’s Small Box Businesses Fight the Good Fight By Being Themselves
The Omaha World-Herald assigned me to do a story a few years ago about some of the small box businesses hanging on and fighting the good fight along a section of the Northwest Radial Hwy in North Omaha. It’s a less than scenic strip for much of its length and most of the businesses found there, including the ones profiled here, are diamond-in-the-rough eccentrics in the way that small entrepreneurial endeavors tend to be. I feature a shoe repair store, a bartending school, a barber-beauty shop, a photography studio, a one-chair barber shop, and a barbecue joint. In most cases, it’s the people who run these businesses that make them interesting, and I trust you’ll find that to be true when you read these bits.
Omaha’s Northwest Radial Highway’s Small Box Businesses Fight the Good Fight By Being Themselves
©by Leo Adam Biga
A truncated version of this story appeared in the Omaha World-Herald
Traverse the winding arterial Northwest Radial Highway too fast and you may miss the small businesses dotting the landscape. Their tan or red brick facades bespeak nostalgia. Their intimate spaces reminders of an era before our supersized, homogenized franchise culture. Their personal, friendly, relaxed, pull-up-a-chair-and-let’s-talk customer service far removed from the get-em-in-and-get-em-out mode prevailing in many larger operations today.
A strip of the Radial extending from the eastern edge of the Benson business district to where the “highway” connects with Saddle Creek Road features a hodgepodge of classic Mom-and-Pop service providers. These small box businesses are the antithesis of big box stores. A shoe repairman, an old-style barber, a bartender’s school and floral shop in one, a photography studio, a beauty parlor.
Interspersed with these are service stations, a car wash, a print shop, a photo shop, a vacuum cleaner store, a heating-air conditioning business, another beauty salon, a tattoo parlor, a barbecue joint and a bar and grill called Nifty.
Then there’s the hybrid Quiktrip, a national convenience mart with country store service amid a gleaming, corporate layout of vast food and beverage choices, gourmet lattes included, and eight self-pump gas units. It’s not on the Radial per se but its footprint fronts both the Radial and Saddle Creek, mid-town thoroughfares linking the O’s four quadrants. Store manager John Shonka said serving people on the go means giving them what they want quickly. “If you’re not a one-stop shop then they’re going to one-stop shop somewhere else. Obviously, they don’t like to wait. Customer service and having everything they want conveniently and affordably and at their fingertips is what they’re looking for.”
Across the street, Dee N Dee Full Service Gas is a humble alternative. Its shacks and machines dispense, by comparison, meager snacks, beverages, supplies. The lack of amenities and choices is made up for by an attendant who pumps your gas, checks under your hood, puts air in your tires and washes your windows. Service.
The small entrepreneurs hang on against all odds. They do things their way. They keep their own hours. Their quirks and tastes come with the services they render. It’s part of their charm. It’s makes them irreplaceable. As Benson Shoe Repair owner John Schu said, “It’s the little guys that make the big guys go. If you take the little guys out, I guarantee you the big guys are right behind them.”
Benson Shoe Repair, 5725 NW Radial Hwy
Schu’s place is aged like the leather goods he mends. His sewing, nailing, finishing machines are older than his 45 years. The building he rents has been a shoe repair store its entire 74-year history. The original owner built the single-story brick shop as an extension of his house. Schu’s father, Mike Koory, took over the business in the 1970s. The younger Schu learned the craft from his pops.
When Schu went off to sew his wild oats as a young man, first in California and later in Texas, he never got far from the shoe repair trade, furthering his expertise by apprenticing under older craftsmen. After some hard times this rambler came home, rejoining his father in Benson, where Schu grew up and still lives today.
His dad retired recently, leaving Schu to carry on the tradition alone. He respects the legacy he’s part of.
“I’ve been honored to be around a lot of different tradesmen. I fell in love with this and because I fell in love with it I got pretty good at it and I trained with different professionals.”
Stiff competition in Texas, where he lived 16 years, forced him to step up his game. “You can’t half-step it there,” the T-shirt and jeans-clad Schu said.
He doesn’t think too highly of the work done by the few shoe repairmen still practicing in Omaha today.
“Most of them, their work isn’t what it should be just because they’ve never really been trained by old guys,” he said. “The old guys are gone. Those old guys, man, they’re the ones that knew it and passed it down. If you weren’t blessed enough to hang out with them when you were growing up then you missed out on a lot of stuff. That’s the way it works in my trade.”
He said his love for what he does motivates him to get better.
“I enjoy getting up and going to my job every morning. And if you love what you’re doing you’ll always keep trying to learn, and that’s where it’s at. I don’t think there’s anybody in this town that’s as good a shoe repairman but I’m still learning.”
He points with pride to marquee customers, notably Husker legend Johnny Rodgers, whose framed-signed image adorns shop walls right next to photos of less well-known customers on fishing trips, graduations, weddings.
Doing a job right is Schu’s reward.
“I enjoy when I can make someone’s day. That’s when my day gets made. It should always be about the customer. Sometimes they need you for real because maybe there’s nobody else in this town qualified to fix that, and it may be something their great-grandfather’s left them that’s very sentimental to them.”
Two of his biggest customer segments are bikers and preachers. He does alterations to bikers’ vests and jackets, applying patches, zippers. Ministers’ patent leather shoes get a workout stepping for Christ. Schu can’t help cracking a joke: “We’re all in the same business — saving souls (soles).”
He disdains the shoddy footwear produced these days. Quality still exists but it costs a pretty penny. That’s why his expertise isn’t cheap.
“I buy the best thread — nylon, not cotton — because when I repair it I want it to last a lifetime. It’s expensive. I’m a craftsman and a professional, and you’ve got to pay for that, too.”
“See that?” he said, holding up a man’s dress shoe whose repaired bottom had the seamless “like factory new” appearance he strives to get. “That has love in it.”
He said he expects to be at this “until I die. I’ve got a pretty good business here. You can make a living — you ain’t going to become rich.”
Midwest Bartender’s School/Jo-Be Floral Sales, 4957 NW Radial Hwy
With its faux brick facade, distressed lawn and garden implements and handmade sign out front, the place doesn’t look like much. Inside, it’s not much either. Clutter, dust and grime collect everywhere. A narrow corridor, past the flowers and junk, leads you to the fully-outfitted mock bar, where nattily-dressed owner/instructor Bill Bade operates his “School of Drink.” When he opened 34 years ago, he said, his was the state’s only bartending school.
Bade didn’t enter the field after a long career behind a bar as you’d expect, but only eight months into it. Why a school?
“There was a need for it,” he said, “I looked at myself and I didn’t know anything. I was like any other bartender. I’d free pour. I’d give them what they wanted. Put me in some of whatever it was. I didn’t have any idea what a bartender should do.”
He did his homework.
“Before I even opened the school I did over six months research. I had to put the whole school in first and then the state sent five inspectors to OK it or not,” he said. “One of the five said, ‘Eh, why you gotta have a bartending school? You put a little dab of this and a little dab of that.’ And the other four, in unison almost, said, ‘That’s why we need a bartending school.’ And so they approved it.”
Being first meant Bade had the field to himself. Then competition arrived.
“There have been five different major chain outfits that have come over the 34 years,” he said, “and all five of them left with their tail between their legs. They can’t compete with the way I teach. I don’t mean to pat my own back but I devised a thing where I teach by word association fully.”
He tried rote memorization but found students “were losing too much.” “If you don’t use it within a two or three-week period you don’t have it anymore,” he said. “With the word association when you hear the name of the drink the name tells you.” Therefore, a Black Russian is Kahlua and vodka — Kahlua’s a dark, coffee-flavored Mexican liqueur; Russians are known to fancy vodka. Thus, a White Russian is Kahlua and vodka with cream floated on top.
“That’s the way I teach,” said Bade, who first made his living as a barber and beauty operator. His wife of 57 years runs a beauty parlor from home. Their family pitches in with the flower sales on Valentine’s Day.
Bade’s students study his training manual and watch his videos but they largely learn by doing — mixing (fake) drinks and running the bar.
“You can’t ever learn to be a bartender by watching,” he said. “You have to have hands-on experience.”
He does the watching. “They call me Eagle Eye because I see everything,” he said.
He estimates he’s graduated 25,000 bartenders. Most, he said, earn $40,000-plus annually.
As the sole owner, his days are his own.
“It’s like being retired. I do what I want to when I want to. I don’t have anybody to answer to. I enjoy it. I’m going to die here.”
What’s the deal with the flowers? He originally sold them, he said, to help pay his wife’s medical bills. The flowers “took off like wildfire” and he’s kept on selling them. He said folks who only see his floral sign “don’t even know the school’s here. Once in a while they’ll walk in and go, ‘Man, I didn’t know you had a bar in here.’”
Bade hears his share of jokes in his trade. He said a Reader’s Digest editor called once asking if he knew any bartending gags. He complied with a clean one that made it in print. He hears tales, too, usually of his students’ relationship woes. He’s heard it all. After 77 years, the ex-Army paratrooper’s lived it all, too.
“I’m a priest. I give advice, mostly about marriages and girlfriends. You have to.”
Felicia’s Beauty & Barber, 4802 NW Radial Hwy
You don’t just get your hair done by Felicia James, you get your soul cleansed. A self-described “very spiritual person,” James is on a mission of faith and self-discovery that she’s sure is responsible for her salon’s very existence. After years running a hairdressing business out of her home she felt the urge to move one day. She packed, without a new site in mind, but within short order found the former pharmacy building she’s in now. It needed an overhaul.
“It was awful,” she said. But she felt called there so strongly she bought it. Its location — fast off where the Radial and Fontenelle Blvd. merge — was “perfect.” It makes for a diverse clientele. “We do everybody. All ethnicities. It works,” she said.
She spent some $30,000 addressing the floors, plumbing, lighting, painting, you name it. She did much of the work herself alongside friends and family.
Today it’s a chic salon of warm-hued, calming yellows and reds, a white and black tile floor, African-inspired artwork tastefully arranged about, a photo collage of her large family on one wall and a large candy/snacks display up front. Religious and inspirational messages displayed here and there.
“To me, your surroundings should be a reflection of who you are. It all started with a picture,” she said.
She acquired a small painting of a black hairdresser doing a woman’s hair. She pined for a similar, larger work. On her last day doing hair from home a client gave her a big, jazzy, expressionistic rendering of a colorful, this-joint-is-jumping black beauty shop with the words, “You’re Next, Sugar,” at the bottom.
Once in her shop James hung the picture, only later realizing the resemblance.
“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, is it possible?’ I actually started crying. The set-up in the picture was almost identical to the shop. The floor pattern. Even the colors of the walls. You see the yellows? It’s right there,” she said to a visitor. “It’s like the vision was already there and I didn’t see it. It’s almost like the law of attraction.”
She feels her shop is a gift from on high, one of many she ascribes to being reborn.
“I have a story. I’m walking by faith. You know, life is a journey and when things have tested you you learn to appreciate things and people and who you are. My life could have been so much different but He chose to put me here. I’m so grateful for this but I’ll be the first to tell you I did not want this, I’m accepting it.
I would have been happy just being that housewife with those kids and a dog.”
She married young and moved to Houston. Things didn’t work out, except for her son, who still lives there. Missing her family, she moved back home a few years ago. She’s back to making people feel beautiful.
“I’ve done it my entire life. It’s something I love to do. I like to make people feel good about themselves on the outside. But I’ve learned to make them feel good on the inside, too, by the things I say. I’ve learned to be an encourager.”
She’s poured out her life lessons in a testimony she shares with customers. Its Biblical passages remind what really matters — “time, health and relationships.”
The fuchsia T-shirt she sometimes wears under her black smock spells out “LOVE” in silver letters. “God’s love. It’s all about love,” she said.
In her station she keeps a gift-wrapped cardboard box atop a stack of plastic bins. There’s a slit in the box. “I write down the things that I want and I stick them in there,” she said, “and they’ve been coming to pass.” Her wish box may soon contain a vision for the building’s empty second story. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do but I’m going to eventually build it up somehow, someday.” Amen.
Paparazzi By Appointment, 4871 NW Radial Hwy
Lumir Photography Studio was a Radial fixture for decades. The late Lumir Malimanek was known for the sublime way he lit subjects, including nudes. In 2004 his widow and assistant, Bernadette, sold the building housing the studio to a young professional photography couple, Laura and Gustave von Roenn.
“It was like the perfect studio space we were looking for,” Laura said.
The von Roenns were not the only ones bidding on the building but Laura said Bernadette “chose us” over the others. “I think she said we reminded her of them back in the day when they bought the building. Very sweet.” Even though they never met Lumir the couple feel a kinship. They wish to one day host an exhibit of Lumir’s work in the art gallery they’ve created there as a homage to him.
Two new gallery spaces are among the $80,000 in renovations the von Roenns made to the building, which they said was in ruinous condition. Other improvements included the addition of built-in wood benches, the installation of new wood floors and the removal of a drop ceiling to reveal an original tin ceiling. Their distinctive tin logo of slinky, silhouetted male and female paparazzi with cameras in hand, adorn the front and sides of the 1926 brick building.
The building’s extensive work, much of it done by the couple, took many months. The result is a showplace with walls featuring photographs and paintings. Ironically, the pair seldom photograph at their studio, using it instead as an office, production facility and conference space. Their commercial picture-taking is done on location.
They make their living in photography but neither majored in it at school. Her degree’s in marketing and his in anthropology. Their movie-movie meeting presaged their future careers. She was scouting subjects for a Creighton University photography class when she spotted Gustave reading a book on campus. After chatting him up she took his picture. It turned out he was an amateur shutterbug. They had a chemistry but after the shoot they went their separate ways. Fast forward a few years later to the two Creighton grads meeting by chance and embarking on a personal and professional collaboration.
Their first paying gig was a friend’s wedding. Gustave said, “We bought an arsenal of equipment, gearing up like this is going to start something.” It did. Their photos were a hit and they soon established themselves as wedding photographers. He said, “It wasn’t a stretch of the imagination for us to say, ‘Hey, why don’t we try it?’” They did, joining the ranks of today’s young creative class.
They still do wedding jobs. But as they’ve honed their craft their assignments have grown to include corporate and publication work.
“We’ve always kind of seen ourselves as more documentarians. We land new clients that force us to do new things all the time and that’s the neat part of the business,” Gustave said. “We’re never doing the same thing.”
Their interest in art led them to create a gallery hosting shows by local and national artists.
They live near their studio. They love the older neighborhoods the Radial intersects. They said the area’s turning over to include more young professionals drawn by the urban lifestyle and large stock of affordable homes.
“We hope to stay here awhile, especially with everything that’s happening in the Benson area. We’d like to see more of the economic development this way,” Laura said. They’re also hedging their bets. “We’re still testing whether or not this occupation is relatively recession proof,” Gustave said. To survive, he added, they’ll need to be “resourceful” and to “diversify.” Just how they like it.
Bob Beck’s Barbery, 5101 NW Radial Hwy
Not much changes in the barber business and that’s just fine with Bob Beck. “That’s the nice thing about the business,” he said. “You don’t know exactly how much you’re going to make every day but at the end of the month it’s all going to balance out about the same. So you really know where you’re at all the time.”
The barbershop banter tends to center on perennial subjects — sports, politics, war, women, the high cost of living, taxes.
He bought out the tidy, spare, itty-bitty barbershop’s previous owner, Al Thompson. He shared the shop with Thompson a couple years. It was a barbershop for decades before then, too. Beck’s had it to himself 24 years now. He did some touchups but otherwise the shop’s unchanged from when he got it. He’s considering some new countertops and a paint job but not much beyond that.
“You can only go so far with some of these retired guys. You can’t get too foo-foo. You’ve got to keep a certain amount of masculinity about the place,” he said.
Most of his customers are regulars whose hair he’s been cutting for years. “I don’t even ask them what they want, I just cut their hair. I give the same haircuts I gave 40 years ago.” His multi-generational business means he cuts the hair of children whose fathers’ hair he’s cut since they were young. “You establish relationships with these guys. You know their kids. You know everything about them. You get invited to graduations and weddings and all kinds of things,” he said.
He sometimes hears more than he should.
“Oh, yeah, you’re kind of like a bartender, you hear all the problems. Eh, it’s part of the trade, I guess.”
It’s such an intimate space that regulars there surely know the tragedy that befell Beck and his wife Jennifer when their daughter Katie died of cancer. This reticent man probably kept his anguish inside but he proudly points to a photo of her up on a wall that pictures a beaming Katie and her fellow junior women’s curl team members celebrating the world championship they won.
Pushing 60, Beck plans to give it another 10 years.
“I could probably retire before then but what are you going to do? I’ll stick it out until I know I don’t want to cut hair anymore and then walk out the door.”
Besides, he said, “It’s a good little place. It’s been good to me. I can’t complain.”
Being his own boss means anytime he and Jennifer want to scratch the itch they can hop on the Honda motorcycle he parks in front of the shop and roar off on one of their road trips. “We’re motorcycle fanatics,” he said. “We enjoy it. We’re doing the four corners of the United States on the bike. We’ve been to San Diego, up to Maine and Canada and in the Pacific Northwest, on up into Victoria on Vancouver Island. So we’ve got one left — going down to Key West.”
Hartland Bar-B-Que, 5402 NW Radial Hwy
They aren’t kidding when they say you can taste the smoke at Hartland Bar-B-Que, a popular new eatery on a site that used to be a donut shop. You can certainly smell the hickory aroma for blocks, too. Owners Tim Hart and Yvette Lanouette go against the grain in Nebraska with barbecue that derives its flavor, not from the application of sauce, but from a secret dry rub and long smoking process.
Business has been brisk since the joint opened last November. Unlike most startup restaurants Hartland already had a following due to a catering business Tim ran out of his home and a monthly gig where he’d set up shop at nearby Louis Market.
Things are going so well, said Tim’s sister, Charlene Howell, who works there with another brother, that Hartland plans expanding this summer. The smoker will be enclosed and a cooler added. There’s talk of adding a second site.
Her family grew up in Benson and many members still live there, herself included. She feels the historic district’s recent resurgence makes the area a good place to do business in. “I think my brother timed it very well,” she said.
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