The Old Market in Omaha is a both major attraction and a laidback state of mind that’s made up of the places and personalities, past and present, expressed there. Two of this historic arts and culture district’s longest sustained restaurants, M’s Pub and Vivace, share the same owners and executive chef, and in 2013 these each of these eateries celebrates a milestone anniversary. M’s Pub is 40 years old and Vivace 20 years old. Owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson discuss their successful enterprises in the following story I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com) and along with Old Market pioneer Roger duRand they look back at the force of nature who started M’s, Mary Vogel, and who personified the visionaries and characters that have made the Market the singular destination and experience that it is.
Two Old Market Fixtures Celebrate Milestones
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Signature Old Market spot M’s Pub celebrates 40 years in business this year. It’s a milestone for any independently owned restaurant. But reaching four decades takes on added meaning because when M’s opened in 1973 (a planned 1972 opening was delayed), the fledgling Market’s survival looked unsure.
The Market though went from counter culture social experiment to mixed use success story. M’s owners Ann Mellen and Ron Samuelson doubly appreciate a thriving Market as their highly reviewed eatery is a fixture along with a second respected restaurant they own there, Vivace, which marks its 20th anniversary this fall. The establishments are emblems of the district’s sustainability and growth.
The well-connected woman who founded “M’s” and was its namesake, the late Mary Vogel, wanted to be part of the emerging Market scene. She commissioned architect John Morford from the Omaha firm headed by Cedric Hartman, who designed the French Cafe, to transform the former Sortino Fruit Company warehouse into a sophisticated, cozy environs inspired by her favorite dining-drinking nooks from around the globe, particularly the pubs of England and Washington DC. Some argue M’s is more bistro than pub but whatever it is M’s owns a reputation for quality food, superior service and laid-back charm that’s both cosmopolitan chic and homespun Midwest.
The small space is dominated by a three-sided green marble topped bar, exposed white brick work, a high ceiling, large mirrors, which make the room seem bigger, and picture windows that provide a glimpse of 11th Street on the east and peer into Nouvelle Eve on the south. The open kitchen is about the size and shape of a train’s dining car and overflows with activity, though the culinary action mostly happens in the downstairs prep rooms.
“It’s just a great open plan,” says Samuelson. “Timeless. And that’s why we don’t change anything about it because we see a lot of fads come and go and as tempting as you might be to say, ‘Well, it seems like that’s what everybody’s doing today – maybe we should try that,’ it’s not going to work here.”
M’s is indelibly of the Old Market. Like its neighbor shops it resides in a historic, 19th century building that exudes character earned with age. It adheres to tradition. It pays attention to detail. Its personality can’t be replicated or franchised.
“I don’t think we could take our sign and throw it in a place out west or anywhere else really,” Samuelson says. “I just don’t think it would transfer.”
The affable, attentive, knowledgable wait staff wear crisp white and black uniforms with none of the attendant starch.
Samuelson says, “We’ve worked really hard for a really long time to position ourselves as a place where you can come sit by side with the table that has a $150 bottle of wine and a couple steaks and you can have a beer and a Greek sandwich and not be treated any differently by the waiter. A lot of our people have been around here for a really long time. We have people that we trust.”
When Vogel sold M’s in 1979 to Mellen’s parents Floyd and Kate Mellen she stayed on as hostess and matriarch. Ann Mellen began working there around then and she soon grew fond of this force of nature.
“She would sit at the bar every day after lunch and count how many drinks we sold,” Mellen says of Vogel. “She was a trip. A very energetic lady, very world traveled, very knowledgable, very opinionated. But very helpful – when things went wrong here she knew who to call.
“She had a passion for this place. She knew exactly what she wanted it to be and she did it right. She totally designed M’s after her favorite places all over the world. She was like the mother of M’s pub. It was her baby.”
Market pioneer Roger duRand writes:
“Mary Vogel was a dame, A socialite with a heart of brass (polished). Mary was equal parts Mayflower pedigree, finishing school gloss and ribald cocktail raconteur. When she courageously cast her lot with the Old Market demimonde of 1972, she found a welcoming environment among the artists and adventurers. Her vision of a tearoom for ‘ladies who lunch’ that doubled as a bistro for ‘lads who lust’ became the elegant and reliably satisfying M’s Pub that remains little changed from its first days.”
Samuelson, who went to work there in 1986 after restaurant experience in Omaha, Texas and Colorado and then quickly partnered with Mellen, admired Vogel’s “indomitable spirit,” adding, “I think she was way ahead of her time. I think that’s probably why she got along with the Mercers so well. They needed people like that to incubate ideas and to establish a core of anchor businesses.”
Mellen’s parents, who’d never operated a restaurant before, bought it with the intent of their restauranteur son Joe running it but when he passed Ann stepped in to lend her folks a hand. Her passion for the business bloomed.
“I liked working for myself basically,” says Mellen, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism grad who worked as a reporter and advertising copywriter before M’s. “Then I came here and never left.”
She and Samuelson pride themselves on being hands-on owners. One or the other or both are at their restaurants most days. A tunnel connects the two sites.
Though an institution today, M’s first decade was a struggle.
“Times were hard,” she says. “The Old Market was a totally different place then.
The Omaha (homeless) mission was just up the street. A lot of people were afraid of the Old Market. But even then it had a family, neighborhood feeling and I liked that a lot.”
“It gets under your skin,” Samuelson says of the Market.
By the early ’80s, Mellen determined the Market was here to stay.
“It just got busier and busier and we saw more tourists coming to the area. You could just tell it was an exciting, upcoming area.”
She and Samuelson, both Omaha natives, make a good team.
“We’re a good fit personality-wise and professionally,” he says. “We share the same passion for the Old Market and the same visions and goals for M’s and Vivace. It’s rare we have a disagreement about and when we do we do it respectfully.”
“I don’t want to seem like an old married couple but a lot of people think we’re married. We’re not,” says Mellen.
She does all the books. An acknowledged foodie, he deals more with the culinary side. Both partners enjoy engaging with people.
“We feel the same way about how to treat people – our clientele as well as our employees,” he says.
The fierce devotion of M’s regulars is appreciated but it can be too much.
“Somebody who’s been coming here for awhile may have an opinion about what you’re doing and if you don’t take their advice you can ruffle some feathers that way,” says Samuelson. “We listen to people a lot and we always end up making decisions based on the good of the whole, which I think is responsible ownership.”
He says that with M’s “in good hands” he and Mellen decided to launch Vivace in 1993 ” to fill a gap we saw in the landscape of the restaurant scene in Omaha for Mediterranean-influenced Italian food. We wanted to fill a niche for the community but also complement what we do at M’s.” He’s proud of its pasta and pizza.
Vivace’s larger space is perhaps warmer than M’s but not as intimate.
Executive chef Bobby Mekiney is in charge of both kitchens. “He’s young and kind of bridges the generation gap for us in a lot of ways,” says Samuelson. “He’s as talented a guy as we’ve ever had here. He makes it work.”
Samuelson’s proud that M’s Pub and Vivace express the same “meticulously adhered-to, single-minded vision of passionate, locally-owned” venues that make the Market “a community treasure.”
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- OmahaNightOutGuide.com Announces its Arrival as Omaha’s New Internet Directory for Dining, Entertainment and Night Life; Making it Easy to find something to do in Omaha. (prweb.com)
- The Troy Davis Story: From Beyond the Fringe to Fringes Salon (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Hair designer Troy Davis of Omaha was amazingly forthcoming and transparent in a recent interview he did with me for this Encounter Magazine profle I wrote about him. As a fellow 12-stepper I know something of what he speaks. I know the courage and conviction it requires to be this honest about the hurt and the healing. His words and his story are bound to help someone else.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
Leading Omaha hair dresser Troy Davis long ago showed an educational and entrepreneurial knack for his craft and for building the Edgeworthy brand at Fringes Salon & Spa in the Old Market. Now that his mentor and longtime business partner, Fringes founder Carol Cole, has sold her interest in the location, he has a new partner and a new focus on managing costs. The result is record profitability.
“Fringes of the Old Market is the busiest and healthiest it’s ever been,” says Davis, who’s made Fringes an Omaha Fashion Week fixture.
“Troy and Fringes have been a very important part of Omaha Fashion Week, as they style many of our veteran designers and constantly impress with their ability to interpret the latest hair and makeup trends on our runway,” says OFW producer Brook Hudson.
Davis is glad to share in the success. He’s lately seen members of the Fringes team represent well in a recent competition and awards show. Never content to stay put, his Clear Salon Services business is a new generation, grassroots distributorship for independent hair care brands.
These professional triumphs have been happening as Davis addresses personal problems that “came to a head” last August but that have their roots in the past. Growing up in Blair, Neb., he began drinking and using drugs to mask the sexual identity issues he confronted as a gay teen in an environment devoid of alternative lifestyles.
“I felt so completely isolated. I lived in fear so badly that I hid it with drinking and weed,” he says.
A healthier form of self-expression he excelled in, speech and drama, seemed a likely direction to pursue out of high school. But first he moved to Omaha to experience the diversity he craved back home. He briefly attended Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, even landing the lead in the school’s fall production, before dropping out to attend beauty school in Omaha.
From their first meeting Davis and Cole knew they’d found a new best friend they could grow in their chosen field alongside. She says she immediately responded to his “passion and energy and drive,” adding, “Troy Davis has definitely made me a better person and stylist and leader.”
Within four years he’d proven to be such a trusted asset that Cole partnered with him in opening the Old Market shop.
“He earned that,” she says. “He just really wanted to be downtown. His heart was there. I finally said, ‘Look, if you want to be a partner, I’ll do it, but you’re going to have to step it up and find a location.’ And he did. I have to give him a lot of credit because he put a lot of grunt work into it to get it started.”
The rest is history, as Fringes became a presence in the Old Market for its ultra-contemporary, urban styles and high-end hair care and beauty services. Cole let him run things there so she could concentrate on the West Dodge site.
For Davis, Cole’s been more than just a business partner.
“Carol and I are so close. We just absolutely click,” he says. “She’s a very intelligent, very professional business woman. There’s not a lot of partnerships that make it. In a lot of ways our relationship is like a marriage, only platonic. I think it’s healthier or better than most marriages I know of. We are able to communicate in a way that most people are not. We can say anything to each other and even if it’s something that ends up hurting each other, we know that’s not our intention. Usually it’s one of us misunderstanding something and we’re always able to go back and clean it up.”
Davis has moved fast in the industry. While still in his 20s he became one of 10 international creative team members for Rusk, a role that saw him flown all over the world to teach other hair dressers the use of the international distributor’s products. He worked in the Omaha salon during the week and jetted around on weekends.
It gave him the stage, the lights, the theatrics he felt called to. It also meant lots of money and partying.
All the while, his addictions progressed.
He was prepping for the always stressful Omaha Fashion Week last summer when he and his life partner split for good. Amidst the breakup, the all-nighters, running his businesses, and leading an online advocacy campaign for a Fringes team that showed well in the national Battle of the Strands competition, Davis crashed.
“By the time I hit bottom I was drinking every day and drinking to black out three days a week and, you know, it just had to end. I finally realized I am an alcoholic. It was a real wake up call.”
He’s now actively working a 12-step program.
“It’s definitely helped me get sober. I definitely thank my Higher Power for the strength I’ve had to get where I am today.”
He’s not shy sharing his ups and downs.
“I’ve always been a very honest and open person. I’ve actually shared publicly via Facebook some of my bottoms and what I’ve learned in my treatment. In order to achieve something you need support in your life and there is a connection through Facebook with family and friends that I think is very useful. I see it as an opportunity to share with them what I’m going through and the choices I’m making for myself.”
He calls his 12-step group “a new addition to my family,” adding, “They’re great people.” Like many addicts he’s replaced his former addictions for a couple new, blessedly benign ones – Twitter and tattoos.
As his recovery’s progressed he’s grown in other ways, too, including taking charge of his Fringes store’s finances.
“It’s absolutely the best thing that could have happened for this business. It’s given me a whole new level of accountability. I see things more clearly and because of that we’ve broken through a plateau we were never able to get past.”
He credits new business partner Sarah Pithan, a former assistant, for helping increase business by more than $4,000 a week. He also credits the “amazing team” he and Pithan have cultivated, including Omar Rodriguez, Kristina Lee and Teresa Chaffin, for taking Fringes and Clear Salon Services to new levels.
- Old Market Pioneer Roger duRand (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Entrepreneur and Craftsman John Hargiss Invests in North Omaha: Stringed Instrument Maker Envisons Ambitious Plans for his New Hargissville Digs (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Omaha, my Omaha. I have something of a love-hate relationship with my city, which is to say I have strong feelings about it and I always want it to be better than it thinks it can, though the attitude problem or more specifically inferiority complex it suffered from for so long has been largely replaced by a bold new, I-can-do confidence. That metamorphosis is part of what drew me to a documentary some years back that took the measure of Omaha by charting the changing face ofrcityscape since World War II, and what a marked difference a half-century has made. In truth, and as the doc makes clear, the most dramatic changes have only occurred in the last decade or two, when the city poured immense dollars into transforming parts of downtown, the riverfront, midtown, and South Omaha. Left mostly untouched has been North Omaha, where the city’s major revitalization focus is now aimed. The film also deals with one of the city’s biggest missteps – the razing of the Jobbers Canyon warehouse district to appease a corporate fat cat who wanted to put his headquarters there in place of what he called the area’s “big ugly red brick buildings.” Those buildings were historic treasures dating back a century and today they would be home to well-established retail, residential, commercial developments that would be employing people and generating commerce, thus pouring money back into the city’s coffers.
Documentary Considers Omaha’s Changing Face Since World War II
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Omaha’s evolution into a homey yet cosmo metropolis that’s discarded, for better or worse, its gritty industrial-frontier heritage is the subject of a new documentary premiering statewide on the NETV network. Omaha Since World War II — The Changing Face of the City is a UNO Television production and a companion piece to UNO-TV’s popular 1994 If These Walls Could Speak.
What the new film does particularly well is frame the growth of Omaha over the past 60 years within a social, cultural and political context. Instead of settling for a Chamber of Commerce paean to development, the film makes a balanced effort at showing not only the dynamic explosion in Omaha’s ever-expanding boundaries and emerging 21st century cityscape but also some of the real tensions and costs that have come with that change. Using soaring, sweeping aerial footage shot from a helicopter video mount, the film provides insightful glimpses of Omaha’s famous sprawl and, even more tellingly, of the riverfront renaissance that’s remaking the city’s traditional gateway into a stunning new vista. Like the fits-and-starts pace of most Omaha development, major pieces in the Return to the River movement have taken decades to coalesce, but now that the new riverfront is emerging, it’s shaping up as a dramatic statement about the sleek, modern Omaha of the future.
While most of this period has seen real progress, valid concerns are raised about one neglected area and a pattern of disregarding history. For example, the film focuses on the decline of north Omaha in the wake of the devastating 1960s riots there and the equally hurtful severing of that community by the North Freeway several years later. News footage of burning stores and marching civil rights demonstrators, along with residents’ personal anecdotes of urban ruin, reveal a community in upheaval.
The late Preston Love Sr., ex-Omaha educator Wilda Stephenson and Omaha World-Herald photographer Rudy Smith paint vivid pictures of the jumping place that once was North 24th Street and of the despairing symbol it came to represent. As the $1.8 billion in downtown-riverfront revival continues (development dollars spent in the last six years, according to Omaha Chamber of Commerce figures), it’s apparent north Omaha’s been left behind. Unlike South Omaha, which remakes itself every few decades as an immigrant haven and finds new uses for old landmarks like the former stockyards site, North Omaha still searches for a new identity.
The film also examines how city/state leaders sacrificed the nationally historic Jobber’s Canyon district to the whims of corporate giant ConAgra in the 1980s. A man-made canyon of 22 massive, architecturally unique warehouse buildings closely tied to early Omaha’s booming river-rail economy, all but one Jobbers structure — the former McKesson-Robbins Building, now the Greenhouse Apartments — was razed when ConAgra decided the “eye-sore” must go if it was to keep its headquarters downtown. After seeing homegrown Enron uproot to Houston, Omaha caved to ConAgra’s demands rather than lose another Fortune 1000 company. The canyon was an incalculable loss but, as the film makes clear, the resulting corporate campus served as a catalyst for development.
The filmmakers rightly reference Omaha’s penchant for tearing down its history, as in the old post office, the original Woodmen of the World building, the Fontenelle Hotel and the Indian Hills Theater. Spinning the story in all its permutations are, notably, former Omaha city planning directors Alden Aust and Marty Shukert, architect and preservationist George Haecker, historians Harl Dalstrom, Thomas Kuhlman, Bill Pratt and Garneth Peterson, developers Sam and Mark Mercer and entrepreneur Frankie Pane.
The Jobbers Canyon debacle came at a time when downtown was reeling and in danger of being an empty shell. If not for major investments by a few key players. it may never have come back from the mass retail exodus to the suburbs it witnessed in the 1960s and ‘70s. In a real coup, the film features Old Market pioneers Sam and Mark Mercer, who describe the organic growth of this historic district into a cultural oasis — one that’s served as an anchor of stability.
The longest ongoing story of Omaha’s growth is its westward push. The film explains how this has been achieved by a liberal annexation policy that’s added subdivisions and even entire small communities to the tax rolls. The film touches on the fact that, outside a few developments, this sprawl has created a formless, characterless prairie of concrete and glass. The film also alludes to Omaha’s old neighborhoods, but only highlights one, Dundee, as an example of design and lifestyle merging.
Where the film doesn’t fare so well is in offering any real sense for the personality of the city. To be fair, filmmakers B.J. Huchtemann and Carl Milone didn’t intend to do that. Still, it would have been useful to try and take the measure of Omaha beyond its physical landscape. The only hint we get of this is via the many on-camera commentators who weigh in with their perspectives on Omaha’s changing face. And, to producer-director Huchtemann’s and co-producer-editor Milone’s credit, they’ve chosen these interpretive figures well. They’re an eclectic, eloquent, opinionated bunch and, as such, they reflect Omahans’ fierce independence and intelligence, which is at odds with the boring, white bread image the city often engenders. They are the film’s engaging storytellers.
Still, a film about the city’s changing face begs for an analysis of Omaha’s identity crisis. Mention the name, and outsiders draw a blank or recall a creaky remnant from its past or ascribe a boring blandness to it all. That’s before it had any “Wow” features. Now, with its gleaming new facade, Omaha’s poised to spark postcard worthy images in people’s minds. What is Omaha? What do we project to the world? The answers all converge on the riverfront. That’s where Omaha began and that’s where its makeover is unfolding. The monumental, sculptural pedestrian bridge may be the coup de grace. Interestingly, the film explains how much of what’s taking place was envisioned by planners 30 years ago. It’s all come together, in piecemeal fashion, to make the water’s edge development Omaha’s new signature and face.
So, what does it say about us? It speaks to Omahans’ desire to forge ahead and be counted as a premier Midwest city. No mention’s made of Hal Daub, the former mayor whose assertive energy drove Omaha, kicking and screaming, into the big time. He gave Omaha attitude. The film suggests this bold new city is here to stay.
- From the Archives: An Ode to the Omaha Stockyards (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Book Explores University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Rich History (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- In Memory of a Omaha Old Market Original, Fruit and Vegetable Peddler Joe Vitale (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha’s Old Market Never Grows Old (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Remembering the Virginia Cafe and the Restauranter Family Legacy of Filmmaker Alexander Payne (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Synergy in North Omaha Harkens a New Arts-Culture District for the City (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Everything Old is Newly Restored Again at Historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Where Community, Neighborhood and Representative Democracy Meet (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Jane Fonda Comes Home (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest Brings Writers, Artists and Readers Together in Celebration of the Written Word (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The Cincinnati native lived in Calif. then. The fresh-from-art-school bohemian came to see an Omaha friend and soon got swept up by Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman and their experimental Omaha Magic Theatre.
“Creating the installation pieces in the theater is really altering a space. Sometimes I see that influence come out in my sculpture work,” she said, referring to her small bronze figures in self-contained environments and convergent, theater-like installations.
Her work often depicts flowing figures interacting with the spaces they inhabit. The figures’ charged presence alters the lived environment around them.
“The moving image, the kinetic part of it, has been a strong piece of who I am going way back to art school,” she said. “My painting has always been more on the expressionistic side, so from the very beginning I was intrigued about the energy of people.”
A new series of paintings captures the ephemeral, effervescent figure in motion.
“It’s kind of a continual inspiration for me, this very kinetic energy, and that basically at our core we’re real electrical beings. I love that, I find it endlessly fascinating.”
She enjoys the physical, tactile experience of making art. Each medium she works in, she said, gives her “a different fuel” for what she wants to express.
On one level or another her work reveals narrative.
“We are the stories written on us and we’re the stories that we give off in that energy,” she said. “If it’s not a tattoo, it’s something else, a scar or something we say or the way we move, it’s something distinct about us. We all have these amazing stories that are kind of intrinsic to who we are. It’s always in flux.”
The tension of seeking permanence amid life’s fluidity is a new theme of her work.
“I’m really interested right now in the juxtaposition of the things that we think are really lasting in our lives with the impermanence of it all. It’s that thing about, Where are we all going? We take things so seriously sometimes.”
Kimberlain said a work is only truly finished “when somebody engages with it, somebody wants to live with it,” adding, “When they buy it and take it home, the work is complete now, it’s got its home.”
She’s exhibited locally at the Bemis and the RNG Gallery and farther afield in San Francisco, Sicily and Bali.
“A huge passion is seeing other parts of the world,” she said. “Whenever I get that opportunity or luxury, I’m off. I get such inspiration from other cultures.”
As much as she loves “going in and out” of Omaha, what keeps her rooted here is “a lot of great friends,” including her interior design life partner. The longtime downtown resident is “content” with her neighborhood in the shadow of the 10th Street Bridge. She has a studio in her “perfect place” apartment at the historic Bull
Durham Building in the Old Market and a second studio a couple blocks away.
The growing Omaha arts community pleases her. While she doesn’t make much of an income from art, she said, “I try to live true to what I am.”
Visit Sora’s website at www.sorakimberlain.com.
Men are generally credited with shaping Omaha’s Old Market arts-culture hub but women have more than made their mark on the National Historic District, including Ree Kaneko, Catherine Ferguson, Vera Mercer, Lucile Schaaf, and Susan Clement Toberer. Another is Kat Moser, whose high-end Nouvelle Eve contemporary women’s clothing store has been a bastion of cutting-edge fashion for many years. She and her husband Jim Moser also had the Jackson Artworks gallery for a couple decades before closing it in 2010. She’s one of those persons who integrates her appreciation for art and design and beauty in every aspect of her life, from her work to her home to her clothes, et cetera. Moser’s own keen sense of style has helped make the Old Market a destination place for discerning people. I did this profile on her for Encounter Magazine in 2007, when she still had the art gallery, though it had recently suffered major damage in a storm.
Kat Moser, A Life by Her Own Design
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in Encounter Magazine
A visit to the Old Market condo of Nouvelle Eve and Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser and her husband Jim Moser reveals the couple’s sophisticated aesthetic. The street level entry opens onto a grand space with a soaring second-story loft. The 3,400 square-foot dwelling is rich in contemporary art and sleek furnishings.
Some of the art is by the Mosers themselves. She makes infrared photographs of female nudes in ethereal nature settings. He makes abstract metal sculptures. Also displayed are pieces by such artists as Jun Kaneko and Littleton Alston.
Painted white walls and ceilings are “the canvas” for the many black, gray and glass design accents and earth-fire-water elements adorning the posh home’s 9-rooms. Exposed wood beams, brick work and cement blocks lend a rough-hewn, historic, urban charm that expresses the building’s 19th century character and contrasts with the modern updates throughout.
Reminiscent of Moser’s ethereal imagery is the filtered sunlight that banks of windows and skylights let in. A sweeping living room fireplace serves as a welcome hearth to gather round. A small, southern exposure room up front has a built-in ledge that Moser grows plants in. Adjoining it is a sauna/steamroom.
The second-story kitchen, which overlooks the living room, is a spacious area of stainless steel appliances and glass-fronted cabinets. An atrium off the kitchen is where Moser, a yoga practitioner, begins her day. The large skylight above basks the room and its many plants in the glow of natural light. The atrium leads to the roof-top deck, where, weather-allowing, the Mosers spend time lounging in patio sofas and cooking on the built-in electric grill, complete with bright, tiled-counter.
A den, master bedroom, guest bedroom, office and bathroom complete the condo, which she calls her and Jim’s “sanctuary.” The pair enjoy quiet evenings reading.
“It’s right here for me. I really don’t have to go anywhere. I can have everything I want and probably much easier and more economically than if we moved to New York and tried to do the same thing,” she said.
First with Nouvelle Eve in ‘73, and then Jackson Artworks in ‘95, she’s made herself a major player in the Old Market’s vital cultural scene. The Mosers bought their building in ‘85 and after two years renovating it, moved in. Twenty years as Market dwellers make them newcomers in some circles but pioneers to the historic district’s newer residents. The couple welcome the growing downtown community.
Just as she likes it, the condo is situated right in the heart of things. A block away is her own high end women’s apparel store and literally next door to her home is Jackson, now one of the Market’s longest-lived galleries.
She didn’t intend to be an entrepreneur. Trained in textile/clothing merchandising at Iowa State University, she worked as a buyer with Dayton-Hudson, whose first independent boutique she ran, and Nebraska Clothing. Jim, an attorney by training and the owner of Omaha Standard, is the one who encouraged her to go in business for herself. She made the shop, which visiting celebs like Laura Dern and Sheryl Crow buy from, an edgy, contemporary place where lingerie is right out front.
“I’ve been really blessed with really great teachers,” she said. “And I’ve always had this wonderful guidance from people. My ability was just to listen, which is really important. I’ve always been very intuitive.”
Her intuition, she said, told her the Market “is where I wanted to be, and I was OK to…develop my business knowing I wasn’t going to make a huge killing, but this would give me time to show my skills and to really get my feet on the ground and then go with it. It just felt really good there. I liked the Mercers’ concept of bringing a little bit of Paris — my other favorite place in the world — to Omaha. Creatively, it was very exciting to me to be involved in that.”
“Vera (Mercer, the wife of Old Market visionary Mark Mercer) was a really big inspiration to me then,” she said. “I can remember seeing her in the Market photographing. I loved what she represented.”
The Mercers’ caution in leasing to tenants meant a long wait for the Mosers. “It took us almost a year to negotiate our lease, “ she said, “which involved going to the French Cafe for many, many dinners and then going to their apartment. It was a big process. It was very intensive those early years. I mean, they were picking their neighbors and they wanted only people who had the same concept they did.”
Fashion and art are Moser’s lifelong calling.
“It was always there. I really feel blessed that I never had that feeling of, Oh my God, what am I going to do? I always knew exactly what I wanted to do,” she said. “I don’t know where it came from. I never had to question it. I’m 61 in July and I still loving going to work every day.”
Since a May 5 storm-related roof collapse at Jackson, she’s had more than the usual hectic summer. She can’t afford to stop or look back while repairs continue. She’s trying to get it ready for a grand reopening while planning Nouvelle Eve’s 35th anniversary next year. That’s on top of the renovation slated for her and Jim’s condo. Like the new woman of her shop’s name, Moser is always reinventing herself.
- Artist Claudia Alvarez’s New Exhibition Considers Immigration (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- George Eisenberg’s Love for Omaha’s Old Market Never Grows Old (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
‘Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores, Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa’
I contributed to a new book out by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society that is an appreciation of the Jewish Mom and Pop grocery stores that once dominated the landscape in Omaha. From time to time I am posting an excerpt from the book to give provide a sample of the robust story it tells. For this post I chose a front section essay I wrote about the long defunct wholesale market that operated just southeast of downtown and that today is home to the popular historic cultural district known as the Old Market. While the market didn’t contain grocery stores, its many wholsalers serviced grocers. It was a bustling center of commerce abd characters that is no more.
For additional information or to order a copy of the book, contact Renee Ratner-Corcoran by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 402.334.6442.
Excerpt from the book-
The Old Market: Then and Now
©by Leo Adam Biga
Omaha’s Old Market is a National Register of Historic Places district abuzz with activity. Bounded by 10th Street on the east, 13th Street on the west, and extending from Leavenworth Street on the south end to Howard Street on the north end, the character-rich area is an arts and entertainment hub. Restaurants. Speciality shops. Art galleries. Performance spaces. Many venues housed in late 19th and early 20th century warehouse buildings.
Street performers and vendors “set up shop” there. Horse-drawn carriages transport fares over cobblestone streets. Streams of shoppers, diners, bar patrons, art lovers, theatergoers, sightseers, and residents file in and out, back and forth, all day long, through the wee hours of night. Summertime finds folks relaxing at restaurant and bar patios. Fresh flowers adorn planters arranged all about the Market.
Fifty years ago and for a half-century or more before that these same streets and warehouses were equally busy, the commerce transacted there just as brisk. Only instead of trendy eateries, boutiques, galleries, and studios, the urban environs contained Omaha’s wholesale center for fresh fruit and vegetables. Whatever was in season and sellers could lay their mitts on, the market carried it. Now and then, owing to untimely droughts or freezes in prime growing areas, certain items were in short supply. During wartime, rationing made much produce scarce. But most of the time the Market offered a great variety of fresh produce at reasonable prices.
In an earlier era, the Market, along with the Jobbers Canyon complex of wholesale and mercantile warehouses, meat packers, and outfitters a bit further to the east, supplied surveyors, land agents, speculators, railroad workers, steamboat crews, military personnel, trappers, and pioneers with the stores needed for settling the West. Jobbers Canyon, however, went the way of the wrecking ball, a fate that could have easily befallen the Market if not for a few interventionists.
The Way It Was
The Omaha Wholesale Produce Market House Company was an officially incorporated consortium of wholesalers and the Omaha City Market the city designated marketplace where the local produce industry concentrated. This American equivalent of the Middle Eastern bazaar or Old World farmer’s market consisted of two fundamental parts.
Multi-story brick buildings housing warehouses, mercantiles, and offices were where the major produce wholesalers and brokers did high volume, bulk business with major buyers. A single wholesale deal might have moved 40,000 pounds of watermelons, for example. At street level, the warehouses featured a system of docks and bays where trucks carting loads of produce parked, their contents emptied out onto sidewalk pallets for immediate resell to buyers or into storage for later resell.
Perhaps the biggest Jewish wholesaler in terms of volume handled was Gilinsky Fruit Company, whose two-story warehouse and offices became home to the French Cafe. When Sam Gilinsky’s business closed in 1941 several former employees, many of them Jews, opened their own wholesale businesses and wrote their own chapters as successful Market entrepreneurs. One of Omaha’s most recognizable and nationally branded businesses, Omaha Steaks, owned by another Jewish family, the Simons, did business in the Market when still known as Table Supply Meat Company.
An open air market located in a paved lot at 11th and Jackson Street saw vendors and peddlers doing business with neighborhood grocers and retail consumers. The merchants selling there rented stalls, where they displayed their wares in bushel baskets, barrels, crates, boxes, and bags arranged on benches. The hawkers benefited from a sheet metal canopy overhead. Tarps were stretched out for additional protection. Old-timers who worked there will tell you the conditions made for long days during the heat of summer, when the canopy and tarp would get burning hot to the touch and make it like a sauna underneath. Standing on the hard cement was tough on shoes and feet.
Across from these vendors were local truck gardeners and farmers, who turned an alleyway into a market of their own, selling bed loads of produce.
These were small family businesses. Men made up the vast majority of Market workers, but some women and children worked there, too. For most, it was a humble living, but more than a few sons of immigrant vendors and peddlers went on to become doctors, lawyers, educators, and to enter many other professions. In this way, the Market was an avenue to the American Dream for first and second generation families here.
The marketplace attracted a small army of workers and customers. Suppliers included farmers, gardeners, and greenhouse owners. Wholesale produce dealers ranged from giant operators buying and selling in train car lots or truckloads to smaller operators. The middle men included brokers, jobbers, and distributors.
Most of the vendors and peddlers were immigrants, including Jews from Russia, Poland, and Germany, along with Syrians and Italians. Yiddish was among the many languages heard wafting through the Market. The foreign-born merchants’ raised, heavily-accented voices mixed with various American accents to create a music all their own. Then there was the sonorous strain of the district’s very own Italian tenor, “Celery John” (Distefano), who would serenade the marketplace when the mood struck.
Veteran produce marketer Sam Epstein said Celery John “had a voice like you’d hear in an opera house,” adding, “It was absolutely marvelous to hear him.” Epstein said he would stand outside Celery John’s place and kibbitz as the erstwhile Caruso made up “soup bunches” and “plant boxes.” “His personality and his demeanor were just the same as his voice,” said Epstein “Just a wonderful human being.”
Don Greenberg, whose family’s wholesale Greenberg Fruit Company had a decades-long run in the Market, recalled Celery John once leading a group of workers in a rendition of the “Happy Birthday” song. The occasion celebrated the birthday of a veteran, well-liked merchant. The guys even got up enough dough to go in on purchasing a rather extravagant gift then — a television set.
It was a place where men in smocks, aprons, overalls, or dungarees and with nicknames like Dago Pete, Crowbar Mike, Montana, Shoes, Red Wolfson, and Popeye rubbed shoulders with men in suits. Brothers George and Hymie Eisenberg became known as the Potato and Onion Kings for the considerable nationwide market share they held supplying spuds and onions to large food processors.
The Eisenbergs had a much humbler beginning though as a family of produce peddlers. Many immigrants had established routes in neighborhoods around Omaha and on back country roads, where in the early days they traveled by horse and wagon before modernizing to trucks. Peddlers often operated stalls in the Market, too. Some peddlers and vendors, like the Eisenbergs, eventually became wholesalers.
The primary buyers at the Market were grocers, restaurants, hotels, institutions, and major food processors. Just like today’s Omaha Farmers Market, the general public went to get their pick of fresh produce during the summer from the open air market that operated there. Day in, day out, the Market saw a flow of people, trucks, and goods. George Eisenberg can attest to “a lot of hustle and bustle, a lot of competition” that went on.
The Market thrived as a produce center from at least the first decade of the 20th century, when it was incorporated and a city appointed superintendent of markets or market master put in place to collect rent, enforce rules, and settle disputes, through the late 1950s. By the early ‘60s the Market declined as wholesalers either disbanded or moved west, the peddler trade disappeared, and many neighborhood and country grocers went belly up. The emergence of supermarket chains had a ripple effect that drove the small independents out of business, thereby eating into the Market’s trade.
But the real death knell came when large grocers pooled their resources together to form their own wholesale cooperatives. The combined purchasing power of coops let them buy in huge quantities at bargain rates that smaller wholesalers and coops could not match. Grocers or supermarkets naturally bought from their own coop because they owned shares in it and any profits were returned as dividends.
The same few blocks comprising that wild and woolly marketplace then and that make up the more cultivated Old Market today were, by comparison, virtually barren of people by the mid-1960s, the huge warehouse structures largely abandoned and fallen into disrepair. The open air City Market was closed by the City of Omaha in 1964.
The overall Market district was saved from the wreckage heap by the vision and action of a family with longstanding business and property interests in the area, the Mercers, and by other enterprising sorts who despaired losing this vital swath of Omaha history.
During the late ‘60s-early ‘70s what was once the produce center of Omaha began undergoing a transformation, building by building, block by block. The renovations continued to take hold over the better part of a decade. The labor intensive, working man’s market that revolved around fruit and vegetable sales gave way to head shops, galleries, theaters, and restaurants that appealed to the counter culture and sophisticated set. What is known now as the Old Market emerged and the area gained landmark preservation and historic status designations in 1979.
By the late ‘70s, people began moving into loft-style living spaces above storefronts, an update on an old tradition that increasingly gained new traction. So many Old Market buildings have since been converted into mixed uses, with apartments and condos on the upper floors and businesses on the ground floor, that today the district is more than just a commercial center and tourist destination, but a urban residential neighborhood as well.
Not every remnant of the early Market disappeared. At least one old-line vendor, Joe Vitale, hung on through the 1990s.
Character and Characters
Old-time sellers were usually loud, animated, sometimes gruff, and by any measure assertive in trying to reel buyers in for themselves and thus steer sales away from competitors. If a vendor thought a rival was out of line or infringing on his turf or undercutting prices or, God forbid, stealing sales, there might be heated words, even fisticuffs. Customers did not always get off easy either. Some old-time vendors took exception if someone fussily handled the merchandise without purchasing or questioned the quality or price of the goods.
Sam Epstein recalled the time that Independent Fruit Company partners Sam “Red” Wolfson and Louie Siporin had just unloaded a batch of tomatoes when Tony Rotollo walked up to pick over the goods.
“Old Man Rotollo apparently asked Sam the price of tomatoes and he told Sam it was too high. Sam, who was loud and had a temper, started raving. He had a voice you could hear from miles away. Sam yelled, ‘Too high, you SOB I’m treating you right. You get out of here and don’t ever come back.’ And Louie, the refined guy of the business, came running out and said, ‘For God’s sakes, Sam, don’t talk like that out here. You gotta call him an SOB, take him in the back room.’ And Sam said, ‘He’s an SOB out here, he’s an SOB in the back room.’ Well, Old Man Rotollo went on his way and about a half hour later was back buying tomatoes from Sam, the two of them getting along just fine.”
Another hot head Epstein treaded lightly around was a banana house operator known to chase out persons he disliked with a sharp, curved banana knife.
Vendors had to be more brazen then because: (1) for most of them this was their single livelihood and so every sale mattered; and (2) most merchants followed the tradition practiced back in the Old Country, where markets were more expressive, the competition more cut throat, where decorum was put aside and survival meant outshining and outshouting the vendor next to you or across from you. You had to have some chutzpah and some get-and-up-and-go initiative in order to make it.
The give-and-take haggling, bartering, and bickering, good-natured or not, that was part and parcel of the classic marketplace is largely a thing of the past these days. For the most part, people today pay whatever price is set for goods without making a fuss. It’s all very polite, all very pleasant, all very banal.
George Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked with their father Ben in the Omaha City Market in the years before, during, and after World War II. The brothers’ father went into the wholesale business with Harry Roitstein and the Eisenberg and Roitstein Fruit Company survived into the 1950s and beyond.
One of the few other Jewish wholesalers to last that long was Greenberg Fruit Company. Don Greenberg joined his father Elmer in the family business in 1959. He said when he got involved most of the company’s buyers were small independent grocers, many of them Jewish and Italian. Even as late as ’59, Greenberg recalled, “parking places were at a premium” in the Market. Over time, the traffic trailed off, so much so that Greenberg Fruit left to build a new warehouse, in tandem with another Jewish wholesaler, Nogg Fruit Company, in southwest Omaha.
“When we moved out of the Market,” said Greenberg, “parking spaces were no longer at a premium and there were very few independent grocers left.”
The Eisenberg family’s produce dealings nearly spanned the arc of the Market, as the patriarch, Ben, went from peddler to vendor to wholesaler. Son George then took the business into an entirely new realm by specializing in the wholesale potato and onion field. He found a lucrative niche selling directly to food processors. But it all began with Ben and his horse and wagon, later his truck, and then the stalls on 11th and Jackson Street.
“My dad didn’t speak really sharp English because he came from the Ukraine. He didn’t speak any English when he got here, but he learned to speak survival English. Either you spoke the language or you starved to death. You had to make a living,” said George. “My dad was a really good salesman. He was very polite, businesslike, very fair. His word was his bond. He used to tell us when we were kids, ‘Don’t lie, cheat or steal.’ It pays off — people are happy to do business with you.”
Legacy, Heritage, History, Memories
As the proud son of a successful immigrant, Eisenberg is glad to see his old stomping grounds active again, filled with people jabbering, jostling, buying, and selling. But you cannot blame him for being a little wistful at the loss of the colorful, boisterous characters and antics that populated the Market back in the old days.
With sellers noisily touting their goods like carnival barkers, all packed tightly together in a kind of vendors row, each vying for the same finite customer base, there was an every-man-for-himself urgency to the proceedings. There was no place Eisenberg would have rather been.
“I felt that’s where all the action in Omaha was — in the Market,” he said. “I mean, people were shouting like, ‘Watermelon, watermelon, get your red, ripe and sweet watermelon.’ ‘Strawberries, strawberries, get your strawberries.’ ‘We’ve got Idaho potatoes here, 25 cents a basket.’ It was fun. They were all shouting to people walking in the Market to bring attention to their location. That was our advertisement — our voice.”
Occasionally, things would get a little too rambunctious for some tastes.
“The city had a market inspector, and he’d come down and tell us, ‘You guys are going to have it to hold it down. People are complaining that you’re making too much noise hawking the merchandise.’ Some people used to say that was the charm of the Market, yet some complained.
“So we’d tell him, ‘Well, we can’t sell the stuff unless they hear what we got to sell.’ And he’d say, ‘I know, but just keep it down.’”
Eisenberg said he and his mates would then talk in muted tones, at least while the inspector was still around, but once he went on his way they would go right back to shouting. It was the only way to be heard above the din.
A typical day on the Market was not your average 9-to-5 proposition. Most vendors arrived by 4 or 5 a.m. to sell to commercial buyers seeking the best, freshest picks of the day. “If we thought we were going to be busy we might open the doors at 3 a.m.,” said Don Greenberg. “It was not unusual to work until 5 or 6 in the evening.” Some wholesalers and vendors stayed even later if business was good or if they had an excess of product they wanted to turn over before the next business day.
Greenberg remembers card and dice games as popular distractions among some Market workers, who had their favorite hangouts in surrounding cafes and other creature comfort joints. Sam Epstein, whose family bought Nogg Fruit Company from Leo Nogg, recalled that the owner of Louie’s Market often sat in on a standing card game, leaving instructions that anyone who called the Market inquiring after him be told he had not been seen. Epstein recounted how a broker known to have dalliances with women at work worked out a system whereby a friend would “pound like hell” on a metal pole downstairs as a signal someone was coming to interrupt his latest conquest.
Epstein’s business dealings in the Market began as a supermarket buyer. He made the rounds down there selecting and buying quantities of produce from truck gardeners or farmers, including a Jewish man named Herman Millman. Epstein worked for Nogg for a time and later became a part owner, eventually buying him out. Epstein said he and his family kept the Nogg Fruit Company name intact because “it had 60 years of name recognition.”
He said in a market the size of Omaha’s word got around fast about who you could and could not trust in business dealings.
“There’s no secrets around the Market,” Epstein said.
Everything was done on a handshake and verbal basis then. All the transactions figured in ledger books or in people’s heads.
As the independent grocers were dying off, Nogg Fruit got into the food service and frozen food business and flourished in this new niche.
The Market’s band of brothers hung on as long as they could before the business faded away. As the big operators and small entrepreneurs left, one by one, and then all together, soon only photographs, articles, and memories remained.
The brawny Industrial Era buildings that survive in new guises today are physical testament to what once went on there. But aside from a few signs on building walls, some produce scales, and maybe some hooks for hanging bunches of bananas, tangible evidence is hard to see.
If you just close your eyes, though, perhaps you can imagine it all: the dance and ritual of shipments coming and going out; displays of produce being loaded, unloaded, handled, and haggled over; the jabbering commerce playing out from pre-dawn to past dusk between men in jaunty hats, their cigarettes, cigars or pipes ablaze. It was a colorful, lively place to work in and to shop at.
And maybe, just maybe, if you happen by the Omaha Farmers Market some Saturday, in your mind’s eye you can picture an earlier scene that unfolded there, and know that all of it, past and present, is part of an unbroken line. Just like it has always been, it remains a place where people come together to buy and sell, bargain, and trade. The memory of what once was and what still is brings a smile to George Eisenberg’s face.
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