‘I’m right here’3/4/2015
Just a goodbye is what she asked. Write a farewell. Nothing more. Certainly nothing rude. Nothing getting even. Nothing to settle old scores. Just goodbye to old friends, old enemies, and all the in-between. And, most importantly, goodbye to the neighborhood. To the East Village, a simple goodbye.
The past few weeks have not been easy. Holding down a spot in East Village for so many years, Marsha Steele’s time is out. Her lease is dried up. Her spot on Grand Avenue is done. No hard feelings. But the reality is that her small business is soon to be a business no more.
For 25 years, Marsha successfully worked in the insurance world. But in 2005, she turned her back on that world and opened a vintage shop in East Village — Found Things. A dream come true.
“How do you make your dream? You moonlight. I painted house interiors on the side so I could support the store. I went to a small business administration class at night. They gave you a business plan boiler plate. Eventually I was able to be open five days a week. And before long, I was open six days a week. I then moved to this bigger space in 2008.” Marsha smiles proudly as she looks around her store on Grand Avenue.
Let’s just take a turn around Marsha’s dream. Go through the large glass door and up a step. See that old mortar and pestle on the counter? It’s Marsha’s favorite item in her store today. The wooden handle of the pestle is worn smooth by the palm of some long-forgotten person grinding and crushing spices into powder. Marsha will tell you about the pestle. She’ll ask about the space you want to decorate, ask about your wants and needs, and suggest other items that might work.
Then she’ll ask about you.
I’m not kidding. She is going to connect with you. Sorry. You don’t even have to buy that crazy mortar and pestle. She is all about her customers — as she looks directly at you with eyes slightly magnified by the perfectly rounded vintage glasses and a wry smile dancing across her lips. This is who she is.
Let’s take a turn to the west wall. Past the mason jars and bowls and cupboards. Yup, that is a deer head on the wall. You’re right, there are a lot of points on the antlers. Of course it is dead as a vintage door nail. Stuffed. Exactly what you’d expect to find in your grandpa’s attic next to his tuba and your grandma’s old phonograph. Come on, here’s your chance to be politically incorrect. Buy it. And you might as well also buy that used fur coat since you’re on that slippery slope anyway.
And while you’re browsing, Marsha will tell you about the other great stores in East Village. You like her vintage glasses? Well, go to the optometry shop down a few blocks. You want men’s clothing? Just go over to that bridal shop and they have a great men’s line of clothing in the back. You want soap? You want spices? You want painted furniture? You want fresh tea? You want a latte? Marsha will point the way. All in the East Village.
“All the small businesses in the East Village adapt. We keep ourself viable. It is something to be proud of. And look at all the women entrepreneurs: Sarah Grant, Amy Hassebrock, Jen at Eden, Teresa at Kitchen Collage, they’re all still here. There’s a great camaraderie of female business owners.”
Yup, she’s about you, but she’s also all about these women, these small businesses.
Now we are toward the back of the store. If you look up, you’ll see a wooden canoe hanging from the ceiling. Old as Moses. A future decoration for some modern downtown loft is my guess. Perhaps a conversation piece that will float above the cocktails. Although I don’t see any paddle.
Speaking of no paddle…
“There was a vacuum in the board of East Village. Six or seven of us were appointed new. The president resigned 13 months earlier. At that meeting, seven new people were voted on the board and they said, ‘OK, we need a president.’ And somebody said, ‘Marsha, you be president.’ They voted on it, and I became president.”
And it might be an understatement to say Marsha became a very vocal member of the East Village Neighborhood Association.
“A lot of detractors will say I was the bitch on Grand. That hurts my feelings. I’m a very direct person, and half the population doesn’t want someone to ask them a direct question. Another portion doesn’t want you to re-ask it because of no response. I always called myself a pusher.”
Marsha was passionate about East Village. She loved all the festivals that the City put in East Village, but hated that all their businesses would be virtually shut down during these two-day events. She railed against noise coming from the bars. She argued for planters and sidewalks. She didn’t want drunks out on the street. And on and on and on.
Marsha circles back to the front of the store. Customers need her attention. A hipster is piling items on the counter, wanting to know their back stories. Two fashionable women have questions about some funky furniture they saw in the back.
Next to me are old suitcases stacked on shelves. The kind of suitcases you’d imagine a silent screen star having in hand on a train ride in the 1920s, perhaps on the slow train to Paris. Or the kind you pack up to leave home.
“I want to leave good energy behind for the people I’ve worked with, and leave good energy for my fellow business owners. I don’t want to give a teary send off — I want to say, ‘Keep being great downtown retail, keep being the hottest retail district in the state, keep redefining yourself’ — because I’m watching.”
Marsha’s eyes glisten. Her heart is broken. Her love for East Village, her love for small businesses, her love for her customers, is too much for her today.
She sets a compass on the table in front of me, unable to make eye contact.
“I carry this old thing with me. And, not being a boy scout, and not knowing my way, I pull this out. And whenever I wonder where I am, I’m right here.” CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, he writes about the frequently overlooked people, places and events in Des Moines on his blog: www.joesneighborhood.com.