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Kat Moser of Nouvelle Eve, A Life by Her Own Design

June 20, 2012 3 comments

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.

Moser is a Sioux City, Iowa native whose fashion sense made her aspire to a New York career. She lives a NY chic lifestyle, only in Omaha.

 

 

 

 

“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.

The man behind the voice of Husker football at Memorial Stadium

June 20, 2012 3 comments

There are many voices of University of Nebraska football.  Head Coach bo Pelini. Husker Sports Network play-by-play man Greg Sharpe.  Not to be forgotten though is Husker football’s Memorial Stadium public address announcer Patrick Combs, who lends his own signature personality to the goings-on inside that cathedral of college football without ever detracting from it.  I did the piece a few years ago about Combs and his dream role as “The Voice of Husker Football.”

Patrick Combs working the PA system, ©(JACOB HANNAH/Lincoln Journal Star)

 

 

The man behind the voice of Husker football at Memorial Stadium

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Patrick Combs, 41, lives a dream each Husker game day as the in-stadium announcer for Nebraska football. He grew up cheering Big Red at Memorial Stadium, where he and his late father, Lincoln, Neb. car dealer Woody Combs, bonded on Saturdays.

From age 13 on, he said, “it’s safe to say my dream was to be the Voice of the Huskers. I always thought how cool it would be someday to be that booming voice…”

When not living his dream he’s director of business development for NRG Media, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based company with 83 radio stations in seven states. Combs works out of the Omaha office, home to Waitt Radio Network. He loves radio, but despite a resonant voice he didn’t seek a career in broadcasting, it sought him.

Growing up he and his family were into horses. His father, whom Combs said “had a great voice,” announced area equestrian events, including those a young Pat rode in. Whenever his dad couldn’t do an event, Combs filled in. People would invariably tell him, “You should be an announcer.” Instead, he attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln intent on going into law or politics. He interned for then-Governor Bob Kerrey.

He ended up going to work for his dad. Recruited away by another dealer, he made general manager at 24. In 1993, he led a group of young American professionals to Taiwan for an international business summit and found a new calling.

“It was a life-changing month for me,” Combs said. “I realized very quickly how fortunate we are in this country with the freedoms we have and the abilties we have to be entrepeneurial. I came back idealistic and energized…and I decided to channel that by running for political office to try to make a difference.”

He entered the ‘94 U.S. Congressional race against Neb. Republican incumbant Doug Bereuter. Combs, a Democrat, was a 27-year-old unknown. But in a GOP-heavy state he managed 40 percent of the vote by campaigning every day and raising an unheard of $250,000 for his upstart bid. He failed to gain the same seat again in ‘96.

By then soured on selling cars and being denied a political career, he answered opportunity when KLIN in Lincoln asked him to co-host a talk show. The gig got in his blood and he learned the biz, laying the foundation for his 13-year radio career.

Life was good. He married, became a father of two, saw his career flourish at Waitt, which merged with NRG, and indulged his “passion” for riding Harleys. But two things were missing. The man he calls “my biggest idol and mentor” — his dad — died in 2001. And his dream job as Voice of Husker Nation seemed unattainable.

“I’d pretty much written off that job,” he said. Enter fate. In 2003 the job came open and Combs won it after auditioning, including calling that year’s Spring Game.

Going on his fifth year as the P.A. man, he said, “I’m still like a little kid in a candy store. I love it.” Though few know the name behind the voice, he said, “that’s OK. I’m just thrilled to be there. I’m humbled every day I walk into the stadium and to be part of such a storied program. There’s pressure to do a good job and I try very hard to do a good job. I do not want to let the fans down.” That’s why he preps hours before each contest. Calling a good game, he said, comes down “to being a facilitator of information and adding to the environment of the game.”

From the booth Combs imagines his dad, who got him started announcing, hearing him in the stands.

“I know he would be so proud his son is the Voice of the Huskers.”

Dream Police


Like a lot of folks I have a wary attitude when it comes to the police and I’d rather only see them when I need them but I must say that the few encounters I’ve had with them have been positive. They obviously do an important and often thankless job and it’s certainly one I wouldn’t want to do myself.  The following Omaha Magazine feature from the mid-2000s profiles some distinguished Omaha Police Department officers at the time.  Some of them have since moved onto new positions.  I recall being impressed by these law enforcement professionals as individuals and as a group.

 

 

police officer law enforcement picture and wallpaper

 

 

Dream Police

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Devotion. Desire. Duty. The men and women in uniform with the Omaha Police Department share these qualities in performing their public service mission. Each has his or her own story of what led them into law enforcement and what keeps them there. Some followed family legacies, others became the first in their family to carry the shield. Some worked different careers before coming to OPD, others joined right out of high school or college.

However they arrived at taking the oath to protect and to serve, they all regard their work in blue as a calling they can’t imagine their lives without.

Five OPD officers who’ve distinguished themselves on the job recently shared their stories. At a time when the department is still responding to last year’s sudden, massive wave of retired veterans, these five represent the current and future leadership of OPD. They are Omaha’s Dream Police.

Sgt. Anna SewellSgt. Anna Sewell

Dayton, Ohio native Sgt. Anna Sewell grew up an only child to a single mother who served as a volunteer neighborhood assistant officer with the Dayton police. Sewell cherished the close bonds of her small, cohesive family, whose ties she found the equivalent of in law enforcement.

“It was just something I was raised around and always knew,” she said. “Were there other options? I’m sure there were. Did I ever consider them? No.”

After high school she signed up for the law enforcement end of the Air Force. “I figured I would join the military and go see the world, and boy did I ever,” said Sewell, whose service career continues as a reservist.

The globe-trotter finally settled at Offutt Air Force Base. After giving the business world a whirl she applied with OPD, she said, “as a challenge to myself.” She passed with flying colors and joined the force in 1999. Being a cop felt right.

“We are in so many ways just like the military,” she said. “We have that brotherhood, that sense of family — territory I’m familiar with.”

About the time she entered the Omaha Police Training Academy she began accelerated studies at Bellevue University, where she made the Dean’s list and Who’s Who among college students. She graduated in 2000 with a bachelor’s in human resource management. Already the first in her family with a high school diploma she became the first with a college degree. She’s since earned a master’s in management and is now working on a second master’s in business.

The single Sewell is also an entrepreneur with her own security company.

“I’m basically breaking a whole lot of new ground in my family. In my mom’s eyes I am the example for my cousins to follow, which is fine.”

The Internal Affairs investigator reached the rank of sergeant in only six years. She learned of her promotion while in Iraq as a volunteer reserve medic.

The biracial Sewell said while her ethnicity has never been a barrier she feels she must work harder to stay competitive.

“As a minority I have to put my ethnicity and gender aside so that when you line me up I’m standing toe-to-toe right alongside everyone else,” she said. “You always have to prove yourself as a female in a predominantly male work field. It’s up to me to make sure I’m at the top of my game, that I’m not perceived as weak.”

She’s sampled many aspects of the department to prepare for her dream job. “Somewhere in my future there’s an office up on this floor that has lots of windows,” she said from the administrative suite. “It may not be top dog but it might not be too far. I’m thinking deputy chief.”

Officer Dawn Chizek
It’s easy for 24-year veteran Dawn Chizek to relate to the troubled kids she encounters as Millard South High School’s School Resource Officer (SRO). She grew up in a “pretty dysfunctional family.”

“I think the best police officers are people who’ve been a little on both sides. Empathy is probably one of the necessary requirements as a police officer. You’ve got to be able to put yourself in that situation and help effectively deal with that person and their need at that moment,” she said.

“I tell kids all the time, whatever that situation is they’re in, no matter how shitty it is, they can use it as an excuse to fail or as a reason to succeed. That’s my mantra, it truly is. It’s definitely about personal choice.”

Chizek’s hard times influenced her interest in being a cop. Why? “I think I saw a lot of injustice and unfairness in what I was dealt,” she said. Being a cop meant she could “go out and kick butt, take names and save the world.”

The Bellevue East High School grad attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha and applied with OPD. She made the grade and joined the force at 19.

“All the studies say I should been a high school drop out, but I wanted more. I wanted better than the surroundings and the situation I was thrust into,” she said.

Proving herself was another thing.

“It was not easy,” she said. “You talk about three strikes against you, try being a blond, female 19-year-old recruit in 1984. But they didn’t know my story. I was much older than my years. I had a lot of real life experience.”

She jumped at the chance to be Millard South’s SRO, a job she calls “the most rewarding and fulfilling” of her career.

“This is where I live, this is where my kids go to school. I want to work in my community, where I have a stake in what happens. I want to have an impact where it means the most,” said Chizek, who’s married with two children.

Officially there to dismantle barriers between youth and police, she said she can be kids’ best buddy, but “if they cross the line they know dang well I’m going to hold them accountable. I do make arrests. Just like in the real world we spend 90 percent of our time dealing with 10 percent of the population.”

“I take very seriously my role here. I am very much in tune with what’s going on out in the community because the kids talk to me and tell me what goes on on the weekends, and what happens on the weekends carries over to school.”

 

 

 

 

Capt. Mark Martinez
Police work is a family inheritance for Mark Martinez. His father Al retired after 33 years with OPD. An uncle was a cop. His brothers Al and John are cops. Four cousins as well. Yet he said it was not a foregone conclusion he would be, too.

“I really didn’t know until I went to UNO and decided to study criminal justice,” he said.

He acknowledges this lineage in blue gave him a valuable perspective.

“My father was always community-oriented, civic-minded, always a contributor. So I think I had an idea I wanted to be a public servant, which is much more than arresting bad guys,” he said. “That attracted me.”

The South High grad only entered law enforcement after getting his degree at UNO. He was a Douglas County Sheriff’s Office crime lab technician before joining OPD in 1984. That same year he and wife Cindy got married. They have four children. “She’s the rock,” he said.

He terms his present duty as Southeast Precinct Captain “a dream job. I grew up in this precinct. I have family and friends here.” He said his “passion and ownership for the area” allows him to “get more done. I know the importance of building a relationship between the police and the community. It’s critical.”

Being a Latino in a predominantly Latino district helps.

“I think it goes a long way when the captain has a Spanish surname. I think it’s good for the people of our community. It’s good for our youth. I think I have the advantage of being able to reach out and do some things to build that bridge. I think we’re doing that.”

Martinez is proud of being a trailblazer.

“When I first came on I think the highest ranking Latino was a sergeant. I really felt the need to set some goals and to try to achieve those goals and one of them was to get promoted,” he said.

As the department’s first Latino captain consider that mission accomplished. Along the way he earned a master’s degreee. The Omaha Public School board member emphasizes school-police cooperation.

Retirement was an option last year but he stayed on for a reason.

“There’s at least one other goal I want to achieve here,” he said. “I applied to be chief and I didn’t make the final cut but I’m still in line for promotion to deputy chief. We’ll see what happens.”

 

 

Officer Jonathan Gorden
Following the footsteps of a father (Michael Gorden) who logged 30 years with OPD, Jonathan Gorden felt the pull of police duty.

“Needless to say I grew up around the badge,” he said. “It was in my blood and it never left me.”

The 24-year-old just passed his first anniversary on the job.

“If you’re signing up for the gunfights, chases and wild and crazy things, this isn’t that,” he said. “I found out real quick you’re going to make a reputation for yourself more with a pen and paper than you are anything else. No investigation, no arrest is worth anything unless you know how to write a good report. It’s absolutely crucial to every part of the judicial system.”

The Creighton Prep-Creighton University grad draws on his education every day.

He tested the waters in the business world but a cop’s life called to him. “I just knew in my heart it was something I had to try. Until I did try it I would never be satisfied.”

His dad’s experiences told him “it’s not a normal 9-to-5. It’s a lifestyle. You’re a cop 24 hours a day and you’re held to a higher standard by your employer, by your city, and because of that you have to hold yourself to a higher standard. It takes a complete commitment from your family” he said.

Every day on the job he learns something.

“The biggest thing as a young officer is learning to be patient,” he said. “I’ve picked up from the veteran officers you have to let people vent a little bit. Emotions are usually pretty high and by just listening it does wonders.”

He can attest that rookies are scrutinized.

“You’re not immediately accepted into your crew and the job,” he said. “You’re definitely watched. Little by little, day by day, your skin gets a little bit thicker, you get a little more comfortable. It is a powerful bond being with ordinary men and women doing an extraordinary job. We’re trusting each other with our lives and that’s something you hold very dearly.”

Commendations are nice, he said, but the real rewards come from proving one’s self in the line of duty.

“Having your crew believe you’re capable really builds confidence,” he said.

Gorden has designs on one day teaching at the academy like his dad. He’s also “intrigued by” the detective bureau.

Lt. Tim Carmody
Going from a broken home to successful husband, father and commander of OPD’s Emergency Response Unit, Tim Carmody is proof one can overcome challenges.

“Even those negative environments can have a positive effect if you focus in the right direction,” he said.

He feels his background gives him insights into people and their issues. Said Carmody, “It helps me understand things.”

His path to law enforcement came via retail loss prevention work, which saw him identify and apprehend shoplifters for discount chain stores.

“I’ve always felt like serving people. I don’t like people being victimized.”

He studied criminal justice at UNO and Bellevue University. He first wore the badge at 22 as a deputy sheriff with the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office. He joined OPD in 1988. It’s where he feels he’s meant to serve.

“I know the city, I’m a home grown kid. I love serving this community. I believe in this place. It’s a passion for me.”

His OPD career has been everything and more he thought it could be.

“I’ve been blessed with some of the best jobs this department has to offer.”

Today, as Emergency Response Unit commander, he oversees the SWAT, bomb response, canine explosives detection and Homeland Security teams. Much of his work involves collaborating with other agencies and disciplines. Cooperation is key. That goes for police-community relations as well.

“We can’t do this alone as a department,” he said. “Neighborhood associations, precinct committees — they are the key role players that help us understand what’s going on and what needs to be done.”

In the wake of so many OPD senior officers retiring he’s preparing young officers for future leadership roles. “I’m trying to mentor and lead people more,” he said, “and to share that knowledge to help them grow faster.” He enjoys teaching, which he’s also done away from work as a Boy Scouts Master and lay leader at his church. Faith and family are the anchors of his life.

“Spending time with my family and friends has a tremendous value in renergizing my batteries,” he said, “and in just staying grounded. It makes a huge difference.”

He needed that support after the Von Maur shooting last year. His command post was called to the scene and in the melee, he said, “everything’s on auto-pilot — you’re just functioning. Then, when I finally took a breath it all hit me, the reality of it all, and the people that died that day.”

“Those are the things that you’ll never forget.”

He calls the special fraternity he’s a part of “very fulfilling and rewarding. There’s nothing that compares to it.”


George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha’s Old Market never grows old

June 19, 2012 4 comments

One of the biggest champions of Omaha’s Old Market and the history of the place has died.  George Eisenberg devoted much of his life to the historic warehouse district.  As boys and young men he and his brother Hymie worked alongside their father, Benjamin, manning a fruit and vegetable stand when the area was home to the Omaha Wholesale Produce Market.  Later, the brothers revolutionized the family business to become niche suppliers of potatoes and onions to major food processors, operating out of offices in the commercial center.  When the wholesale district declined and largely disbanded altogether the area was transformed into an arts-culture haven and George, who never left and owned substantial property there, became a landlord and an active Old Market Association member.  In his later years he was advocate and amateur historian for the Old Market and proudly led an effort to get decorative street lamps installed and other improvements made. He contributed some anecdotes to a section I wrote on the history of the Old Market for a recent book, Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores published by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  An excerpt with that section can be found on this blog.  George was one of the last of the go-to sources who personally worked in the Omaha City Market.  He enjoyed reliving that history and as he saw it educating the public about a way of commerce and life that is largely no more.  His enthusiasm for the subject will be missed.  I did the following short profile of George about five years ago for Omaha Magazine and now as fate would have it I will soon be writing an in-memoriam piece about him for the same publication.  That rememberance will join one I wrote about another Old Market legend who died recently, Joe Vitale.  You can find the Vitale story on this blog.

George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha‘s Old Market never grows old

@by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

Old Market icon George Eisenberg has more than the usual attachment to the historic warehouse district that once was the area’s nexus for produce dealers, buyers and transporters. His late father Benjamin was a peddler in what used to be called the City Market. As boys Eisenberg and his brother Hymie worked alongside their dad in the leased open air sidewalk stalls whose overhead metal canopies still adorn many of the 19th century-era buildings preserved there. Once home to wholesellers and outfitters, the brick structures now house the Old Market’s mix of condos, restaurants, shops, artist studios and galleries.

After serving in the U.S. Army in World War II Eisenberg rejoined his father, delivering items by truck, and by the early ‘60s he’d modernized and expanded the enterprise and bought out papa. In 1972 his brother Hymie partnered with him. Innovations gave the company such a competitive advantage that the brothers were dubbed “the potato and onion kings of the United States” supplying millions of pounds a week to commercial customers across America and into Canada. They made their fortune and retired in 1983. Hymie died in ‘91.

The 83-year-old is proud to be a peddler’s son. He’s also proud of his continuing relationship with the district. He’s a property owner and an active volunteer with the Old Market Business Association and Downtown Omaha Inc.. Eisenberg secured the authentic lamp posts that lend such a distinctive design element to the 10th Street Bridge. He played a key role, too, in making the 11th and Jackson Street parking garage a reality. Downtown Omaha Inc. honored him with its 2007 Economic Development Award.

He’s a model landlord for the tasteful restoration he’s done and solid tenants he’s brought to his 414-418 South 10th Street buildings, properties originally owned by his father for wholesale storage, distribution and offices.

Generous with advice, he’s given counsel to many Old Market entrepreneurs, including Nouvelle Eve/Jackson Artworks owner Kat Moser.

As much as he’s involved in the “new” Old Market’s destination place identity and as much as he supports the emerging SoMa and NoDo developments, he enjoys looking back to the Market’s past. Back when ethnic blue collar produce vendors pitched their wares in the ancient tradition of the open air market. When pockets took the place of cash registers and vendors took a break from 14-hour days by reclining on bales of hay or overturned crates. It was a boisterous, press-the-flesh carnival of men, women and children using sing-song chants to hawk fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers and plants. Shoppers hailed from all walks of life.

A chorus of Eisenberg shouting, “Get your watermelon — red, ripe and sweet watermelon,” blended with the pitch, dicker and banter of hundreds of merchants-customers. Accents were common among the mostly Jewish, Italian and Syrian vendors. “English was the primary language spoken,” he said, but many foreign-born merchants, like his Russian immigrant father, “conversed among themselves in their native tongues. Every ethnic group was represented in one way or another.”

All those peddlers packed in a small space shouting to get customers’ attention created quite a racket. “Our advertisement was our voice,” he said. “It was noisy, yeah.” But that noise was sweet “music.”” Besides, he said, the ruckus and color “were part of the charm of the market.”

Hawking’s not for wallflowers. “If you’re shy you don’t belong in marketing,” he said. Things only quieted down, he said, after a warning from the market master, whose job was to collect monthly fees from vendors and mediate disputes among them. Once gone, the din began again. It was a special time and place.

“It was fun,” Eisenberg said. “There was excitement.”

He said his father steeped him in the market’s history. Ben Eisenberg got into the trade through his father-in-law Solomon Silverman, whose daughter Elsie became Ben’s wife and George and Hymie’s mother. Just as Silverman began as a door-to-door peddler with a horse and wagon, Ben followed suit. Just as Solomon leased stalls in the market, so did Ben. In the early 1900s, Eisenberg learned, a bidding process divvied up the stalls. Some locations were better than others. Getting outbid caused sore feelings and fistfights broke out. The bidding system was disbanded, he said, and exisiting stalls grandfathered in. Ben had four choice spots at the northeast corner of 11th and Jackson as well as his own wholesale house.

In an era before “Thanks for shopping…come again,” he said many vendors lacked good customer relation skills. His dad, though, had a gift with people.

“My dad was a really good salesman and he separated himself from everybody else because he was very polite, businesslike, and his word was his bond. If my dad said, ‘You got it,’ you didn’t need a contract — that’s it.” Eisenberg said.

He said his father “bought and sold in big quantities,” a practice Eisenberg continued. Many of Ben’s grocery-supermarket customers were former peddlers like himself. “My dad knew all the peddlers, so when he got in the wholesale business all the peddlers came to do business with dad. They knew he was going to give them the right price and not insult them.”

Like his father before him, Eisenberg served as vice president of the Omaha Wholesale Fruit Dealers Association, a predecessor of the Old Market Business Association. In some ways he’s still hawking, still looking after the best interests of his beloved Old Market. “I love business. I love marketing. I welcome anybody who wants to hang up their shingle and start their business.” He embraces the growing community there. “That’s the district’s salvation — it’s a neighborhood now.”

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

June 19, 2012 6 comments

The Omaha art cinema Film Streams is making a habit of saluting prominent American screen actresses.  The way it works is a guest star comes for a special evening in which Film Streams board member and world acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne interviews her live on stage, ala Inside the Actors Studio.  A repertory series of her work is part of the deal.  Laura Dern got the treatment the first time.  Debra Winger came next.  Jane Fonda is this year’s feted subject. Depending on your age or aesthetic or political affiliation Fonda means different things to different people.  For some, she’s an enduring star.  For others, a faded one.  Depending on your tastes, she boasts an impressive body of stand-the-test-of-time work or else a decidedly uneven euvre outside a few notable exceptions.  Many still find unforgivable her anti-war protests and vilify her every move.  Many more feel affectionate and nostalgic about her as the daughter of Henry Fonda and as one of the 1960s and 1970s biggest stars.  She’s prettty much done it all as a cinema diva – from ingenue to sex symbol to serious Method actress, the star of box office hits and critically acclaimed prestige pics, gobs of Golden Globe and Oscar nominations, two Academy Award wins for Best Actress, an Emmy for Best Lead Actress.  Retiring from the screen at age 50 and making a comeback at nearly 70.  Now, of course, as a woman of a certain age (74) she’s a supporting player or character actress who brings a rich persona and background to any role she takes.  Part of the context of Jane Fonda today is that her adventurous personal life informs her work.  Her boarding school and debutant upbringing.  Her early modeling career.  Studying under Lee Strasberg.  Her marriages to Roger Vadim, Tom Hayden, and Ted Turner.  Her activist years.  Becoming a Hollywood Player as a producer.  Making herself a fitness guru.  Her forever strained relationship with her famous father.  And her identity today as a healthy aging advocate and author.  You’ll find plenty of film stories by me on this blog.  Many happy cinema returns.

Jane Fonda

Jane Fonda Takes Center Stage at Film Streams, Where Her Life in Film is Celebrated this Summer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appeared in the July issue of Metro Magazine

 

The Fonda Legacy

This summer Film Streams celebrates the many faces of actress Jane Fonda.

She and one of her biggest fans, Alexander Payne, converse live on stage July 22 at the Holland Performing Arts Center for Feature Event IV, the art cinema’s annual fundraiser. A Fonda repertory series runs through August 30.

The Fonda legacy in Nebraska looms large. Her late iconic father Henry Fonda was born here. He started acting at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where Jane and brother Peter trod the boards. Henry retained deep ties to the state and the Playhouse. He once brought the entire production of his Broadway triumph Mister Roberts to town. In 1955 he, fellow Playhouse alum Dorothy McGuire and 17-year-old Jane appeared in a benefit production of The Country Girl directed by Joshua Logan.

Peter, who attended the University of Omaha, occasionally visits the Playhouse.

When the only film pairing the famous father and daughter, On Golden Pond, made its Midwest premiere at the Orpheum she came.

Unlike her father’s beloved public persona, Jane’s is complex.

Incarnations

For much of the 1960s she was a spirited ingenue and sometime vixen plying her cover girl looks and wiles more than her acting chops in cinema trifles. Her comedic work in Cat Ballou and Barefoot in the Park hinted at star potential.

Film Streams founder-director Rachel Jacobson, an admirer, says Fonda “always had a deeper, more introspective quality even when playing the lighter roles.”

When Fonda’s French filmmaker husband Roger Vadim exploited her sex symbol status in Barbarella she could have been typecast. Instead, she did a makeover from vapid party girl and blonde bimbo to social activist and serious actress.

She earned acclaim for her dramatic turns in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969) and Klute (1971), the latter earning her the Best Actress Oscar. That’s when “she came out from behind the shadow of both her father and brother” (Peter made it big with Easy Rider), says film historian Bruce Crawford of Omaha.

She also drew ire for her anti-war comments and protests. By the time she divorced Vadim and married activist Tom Hayden she was branded “political.” Fonda made socially conscious projects in Julia (1977), Coming Home (1978) (another Best Actress Oscar) and The China Syndrome (1979).

Her career peaked in the late ’70s-early ’80’s with Nine to Five, On Golden Pond and her Emmy-winning performance in TV’s The Dollmaker (1984). By then she’d morphed into a home workout video diva. After divorcing Hayden she surprised many by marrying media tycoon Ted Turner and promptly retiring from the screen at age 50. Her recent return to movies comes on the heels of her best-selling memoirs and healthy aging advocacy.

“She’s continually reinvented herself and her image,” says Jacobson. “She’s just very deliberate about how she thinks about herself and her own evolution. She’s a fascinating person.”

Payne curates the Feature Event and in Fonda, 74, he’s once more chosen a dynamic figure to talk cinema shop, following Steven Soderbergh, Debra Winger and Laura Dern. Jacobson says, “The people he’s interested in having conversations with are really strong artists with great careers.” She says Payne won Fonda over by saying her appearance would support the arts in Omaha. “That’s why she’s coming.”

 

 As the title character in Cat Ballou
As the title character in Barbarella
As Gloria in They Shoot Horses Don’t They? 
As Bree Daniels in Klute 
As Lillian Hellman in Julia 
As Sally Hyde in Coming Home 
As Kimberly Wells in The China Syndrome 
As Judy Bernly in Nine to Five 
As Chelsea Thayer Wayne in On Golden Pond 

 

 

The series:

Cat Ballou

She hits all the right notes as an aspiring schoolmarm turned outlaw seeking to avenge her father’s death. Lee Marvin steals the show in the dual roles of killer Tim Strawn and gunman Kid Shelleen.

Barbarella

She fearlessly plays an over-the-top sex object in highly suggestive scenes bordering on soft-core porn in this tripped-out fantasy directed by Vadim.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They?

Her transformation began with this unadorned portrayal of a desperate, ill-fated dance marathoner under the direction of Sydney Pollack.

Klute

As high end call girl Bree Daniels she’s a raw-nerved neurotic mixed up in a dangerous liaison with small town detective Donald Sutherland in the big city.

Julia 

Fonda plays the kind of strong woman, Lillian Hellman, she clearly emulates. Her playwright character embarks on a dangerous mission abroad for a friend, Julia (Vanessa Redgrave), opposing the Nazis.

Coming Home

She makes believable the evolution from naive war bride to anti-war sympathizer who falls for paraplegic activist vet Jon Voight. The fictional awakening reverberates with Fonda’s own coming-of-age.

The China Syndrome

Playing an ambitious TV reporter fighting to cover a nuclear reactor accident the authorities want suppressed Fonda is in her element. Her subdued conviction is a welcome contrast to high-strung Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas.

Nine to Five

Sardonic Lily Tomlin and sassy Dolly Parton are long-suffering office workers harassed by womanizing boss Dabney Coleman. Pert Jane is the innocent newbie. The women execute a militant plan to turn the tables in this feminist farce.

On Golden Pond

Jane plays out real life issues with her dad in this tale of an estranged daughter starving for affection from a father who has trouble giving it. Katharine Hepburn co-stars in the poignant drama.

Tickets for the 6:30 p.m. Feature Event are $35. For pre and post-event party tickets and for series screening dates-times, visit www.filmstreams.org.

Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest brings writers, artists and readers together in celebration of the written word

June 19, 2012 7 comments

Why I post what I post when I post it is sometimes a mystery even to myself.  The subject of this story, the Omaha Lit Fest, doesn’t happen again until the fall and in this case the piece is about the very first fest from several years ago.  But that’s precisely the point of my quirky blog: to get my work out there regardless of when I wrote it because, well, I feel like it.  Besides, a good read is a good read no matter whether its story currency is in the here and now or in the past.  All that’s relevant is whether the story holds your interest or not.  I trust this will.  Anyway, I’m quite partial to the festival and its founder-director, novelist Timothy Schaffert, and his offbeat sensibilities.  From the start, his fest has found exceedingly clever ways to consider literature in panels, readings, exhibitions, and performances.  I look forward to writing about this year’s event and you can be sure I’ll be posting that story in the fall.

 

 

 

 

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Litniks Unite! The Downtown Omaha Lit Fest brings writers, artists and readers yogether in celebration of the written word

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

When the inaugural Downtown Omaha Lit Fest “turns the pages” for the first time September 16 and 17 in the Old Market, it will unloose a roster of star scribes discoursing their work and offer a whimsical schedule of events, some predictable, some not, in celebration of the written word.

Recognizing the breadth of written expression, the festival does not play favorites, except for a preponderance of Nebraska writers, by embracing a sampler format exploring literature in all its variegated forms, minus such distinctions as “high” or “low” lit. When all is said and done, the event may just help unassuming Omaha finally shake off the last vestiges of the “aw-shucks” mentality dogging it all these years to assert its claim as a genuine cultural hotbed.

To the casual eye, Nebraska may lack the cache of a hip, plugged-in literary hub. But as even a cursory reading of festival participants’ credits reveals, there is a confluence of literary work connected to this place, by writers born or transplanted here or moved away, penning across a wide range of media and genres and, in many cases, writing about Nebraska, that compares favorably with any region’s collective body of work. The novelists, poets, essayists, journalists, scenarists, playwrights and so forth scheduled to give readings and participate in panel discussions represent some of the best contemporary practitioners of literary writing, period.

Then there’s the fact Nebraska writers are hot right now. Natives Michael Rips (The Face of a Naked Lady), Sean Doolittle (Burn) and Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan) are just killing it with their new works. Former Omaha radio DJ Otis Twelve is riding high after winning Britain’s Lit Idol contest for his novel On the Albino Farm and a Kurt Vonnegut prize for one of his short stories. Alexander Payne shared an Oscar for scripting his critical-commercial hit Sideways. Gerald Shapiro’s published collection Bad Jews and Other Stories served as the basis for the well-received film King of the Corner, whose screenplay he adapted with actor-director Peter Riegert. Ted Kooser is the reigning U.S. Poet Laureate and a Pulitzer Prize winner to boot. They’re joined by stalwarts Richard Dooling (White Man’s Grave), Ron Hansen (Mariette in Ecstasy), Kurt Andersen (Turn of the Century), Brent Spencer (Are We Not Men?), Susan Aizenberg (Peru) and many others in creating a vibrant literary pulse here.

Fest founder Timothy Schaffert is himself a major new voice on the national lit front between his first published novel The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters (2003), which earned high praise, and his forthcoming The Singing and Dancing Daughters of God (2005).

”It just seems there’s something about the writing of people in and from Nebraska that’s entering the national consciousness in a way that’s pretty huge. Alexander Payne won his award for writing Sideways, a movie that’s shaped pop culture and continues to do so. Conor Oberst has won a great deal of attention for his songwriting, as have other songwriters from here. There’s a fantastic poetry scene here. And there’s Ted Kooser, of course. So, there’s definitely some energy and some excitement about proclaiming Omaha as a cultural center. And it’s organic, too,” Schaffert said, rather than some glommed-on movement imported here or some fabricated event dreamed up by pricey consultants.

To be sure, this grassroots deal grew out of Omaha’s own literary community with a “Let’s-put-on-a-show” zeal for showcasing some of its best and brightest talents.

 

 

 

 

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No less a cultural observer than Kurt Andersen, the Omaha born, New York-based satirist behind Spy magazine and public radio’s Studio 360, sees a rich lit stew brewing from his vantage point a coast away, where he’s coming from for the fest.

”It’s always been clear to me a youth spent in Nebraska correlates strongly with good writing later on, i.e. Willa Cather, Weldon Kees, Ron Hansen, Meghan Daum, Michael Rips, et cetera. However, when I was a kid in the ‘60s in Omaha, and former Nebraskan Ted Sorenson infamously said, more or less, Nebraska was a place to leave or a place to die, I took note, and left. But today with novelists like Richard Dooling and Timothy Schaffert doing their great work in Omaha, it seems to me it’s become a place for writers to live and not necessarily leave. In other words, from 1500 miles away the literary culture looks fairly healthy to me.”

Schaffert feels the props coming native writers way speak well for the area’s cultural currency and confirms, as Andersen said, this is a place where one can make it happen. “Each and every one of them are bringing great prestige to Omaha as a city of writers, which is what I think it’s becoming,” said Schaffert.

Omaha Public Library director Rivkah Sass applauds “the model” Schaffert’s come up with for the fest. “It’s quirky and edgy and fun and interesting and will open people’s eyes to what’s going on here, which is a literary scene that’s alive and wonderful, and I find that very exciting,” she said. She sees the event as a “convergence” of the arts that posits the library as a major cultural access point and center. “There’s every reason why Omaha should have a great library and why the library should be part of any number of great cultural events,” Schaffert said. “It’s been a great fit.”

The fest’s design of readings and panels interspersed with mixed media performances and exhibits interpreting literary works, all held in the center of the arts community, is the kind of Bohemian street fair once only associated with more cosmo burgs like Denver, Minneapolis or Chicago. But as more and more Omahans have begun saying — If they do it there, then why not here? — there’s a growing synergy underway that sees cool, indigenous developments, some already in place and others on the drawing board, breaking out on the local music, film, theater, art and literary scenes. These are the very elements that will help sustain and enliven the 24/7 downtown/riverfront lifestyle environment soon to take shape via Omaha’s planned urban condo, mixed-use neighborhoods.

 

 

 

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The Lit Fest is right in line with the homegrown indie music phenomenon, led by Saddle Creek Records, making Omaha a pop culture reference point and pilgrimage stop. It’s part of the emerging cinema colony that has new film projects popping up every few weeks, the inaugural Omaha Film Festival slated for March and the Film Streams art movie house coming to No Do next summer. It complements the wide art experience available at the Hot Shops, Bemis, Kaneko, Joslyn and the town’s many diverse galleries. It spins off the lively theater scene, where funky new works, Broadway road shows and the classics can be had. Ambitious new theater projects in the offing promise bringing artists of national stature to area stages. That’s not to mention the new Holland Performing Arts Center and the leap it represents in local music hall aesthetics.

All this has traditionally self-effacing Omaha coming out of its shell. As large as area contributions are to jazz, blues, R & B, soul, gospel and indie folk/rock, Nebraska’s impact on the literary world is far greater. Such giants as John Neihardt, Willa Cather, Mari Sandoz, Wright Morris, Karl Shapiro, Loren Eiseley and Ron Hansen called Nebraska home. The Prairie Schooner published by the University of Nebraska is one of the oldest, most prestigious literary journals in the world. The creative writing and English programs at UNL, UNO and Creighton are well-regarded and staffed by leading literary figures in their own right.

The fest’s lineup of active writers with Nebraska ties is a who’s-who of the state’s deep talent pool. ”Nebraska’s always had a strong literary heritage,” Schaffert said, “but it seems like it’s at its strongest perhaps since Willa Cather’s time. It may be even stronger.”

Some of Nebraska’s finest writers will miss the event, such as writer-director Payne, who’s off in Paris shooting a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, and novelist Ron Hansen, whose book The Assassination of Jesse James By the Coward Robert Ford is being filmed as a big screen western starring Brad Pitt. Regrettable as their absence is, the fest is bringing passionate writers and readers together in what should be an intimate, invigorating forum that’s all about sharing the love.

”It’s definitely a celebration of the written word and the writing process,” Schaffert said. “But with sort of a central focus on writers with some Nebraska or Midwestern connection. And I always want it to be kind of that way, you know. I want writers that speak to the voice of the Midwest or the Great Plains or the Greater Plains, or whatever we’re in.”

Future fests may add workshops and venues and run an entire weekend, he said. He’s steering the event free of the elitist imprimatur of, say, a university-museum sponsored conference or the drab propriety of a school or rotary reading, while still making it a serious gathering of litniks.

”I wanted to create an opportunity for writers to meet their readership in a way that is a little more festive, a little more sophisticated. So many times when you’re asked to read someplace, you’ll be reading under fluorescent lights in classrooms. I mean, to have any opportunity to present your work is great, but I thought it’d be cool to do it in the Old Market, in the gallery spaces, and to be able to have something to eat and to make it a more casual atmosphere. As well as great writers, Omaha has great resources and spaces to do that sort of thing in.”

Schaffert is a regular at the Nebraska Book Festival, a rather dowdy affair held mostly in back water venues long on scholarly rigor and short on impromptu charm, and while he appreciates the event, it’s a drag and it largely ignores contemporary fiction writers in favor of literary ghosts.

“Its focus has always seemed to me to be literary history. Willa Cather and Wright Morris…which is all extremely important, but I think sometimes the contemporary fiction writers end up kind of like afterthoughts. So that was something that after last year’s event novelist John McNally (The Book of Ralph) and I talked about. There was some conversation about how there could be a different kind of, maybe more urban event that was actually in more the heart of the city as opposed to a university campus. I wanted something that incorporated a variety of genres, that was relaxed and that was in my favorite part of the city, which is a lot of people’s favorite part of the city,” Schaffert said.

Another motivation, he added, was to provide a forum for fiction writers free of the hidebound, institutional restraints that make readings an awkward affair for writers and audiences alike. “Where poetry is very conducive to being read aloud, fiction reading — at the very mention of it — has this sort of feeling of having to sit through something and pay attention and show appreciation.”

Making it a folksy, communal gig will hopefully overturn notions of cranky, head-in-the-clouds writers reciting things beyond the reach of mortals.

”In reality, the stereotype of the crabby, solitary writer does not fit most of the people I know,” he said. “They’re gregarious, interesting, lively, charming, witty people that are great to hang out with. And they’ll all be reading and discussing their work in sessions that I’m sure will really sort of pop as people have the opportunity to come out behind their typewriters and go into the nuts and bolts.”

It’s not hard for him to imagine aspiring writers in the crowd hanging on their literary icons’ every word, as it wasn’t long ago he was an acolyte himself.

“I know when I was starting out writing at UNL in the writing program, they would bring writers in and we would literally sit at their feet. We’d go to their readings and then we’d see them in the classroom and then we might hang out with them at a party afterwards. You wanted every opportunity to soak up their presence and get a sense of the literary life. I don’t know if young writers are still like that, but it sure seems to make sense that an event like this could be a great opportunity to feel a little closer to the process and to the literary world in a way you don’t often get the opportunity to experience.”

New York author Liza Ward, who will read from her Outside Valentine, a novel about the Starkweather killing spree that claimed, among others, her grandparents, said even established writers like herself benefit from the interaction. “There is always something to learn from other writers, and because we tend to work alone, it is hard to connect with other people who understand what it’s like to face the blank screen every day — to invent something out of nothing and call it a job. It’s also nice to be around people who think books are important,” she said.

Gerald Shapiro, who teaches at UNL, said, “On the whole, being a writer is a lonely business. You don’t get to talk to people about what you’re doing and you certainly don’t get to hear people’s reactions to your work, so it’s a wonderful thing Timothy’s doing.”

It’s not only a chance for writers to interact with each other and the public, but for readers to discover writers and works for the first time.

“I’ve heard from a few people that they’ve been using the list of participants as like a summer reading list, and that’s exactly the point of the whole thing — all of us getting together and just letting people know that these writers and artists and works are out there for the taking. I love hearing that,” Schaffert said.

As for writers, it’s a chance to catch up or meet for the first time. Doug Wesselmann, better known as Otis Twelve, looks forward to renewing ties with Ward, Kava and Rips and getting to know  “a favorite” — Andersen. O.T. is enough of a rising star to be an invited panelist on the crime writing panel, Criminal Behavior, and enough of a beginner that he’ll be an eager fly on the wall.

”I hope I can reveal just how amusing a book about crime can be and how deadly serious humor is at its heart. It will be good to hook up with writers working in my genre. Crime writers are, in my experience, a collegial lot. But, listen…I’m a rookie in this game, and I expect to pick up a few pointers – read: ‘steal stuff’. I expect I’ll learn more than I’ll impart”.

Andersen will read from his just finished Wonderstruck, a period novel partially set in what is now Omaha. He’ll also expound on writing funny for the panel Drink and Be Merry. His advice to would-be satirists?

”If you’re funny, let yourself be funny in your writing sometimes. But if you’re not, don’t force it. And writing doesn’t have to be either funny or very serious,” Andersen said. “My favorite things tend to be both.”

What does a lit fest really have to do with anything? Ward said, “A literary festival speaks to the fact the book will never die. There will always be loyalists who support good writing, who understand that it is fundamentally important. It will be wonderful and encouraging to be around so many people who make literature a part of their lives.” Andersen views it as a kind of rally for the lit crowd. “People who fever for good writing need to come together and celebrate that fever now and then, especially in places where there are fewer writers-per-capita than in, say, New York City. And I feel eager enough to be part of this iteration of that group hurrah to buy an airplane ticket and come.”

Out-of-town headliners like Andersen and Ward are coming on their own dime, too, as Schaffert’s “just above zero budget” precludes any air fare, lodging or honorarium support. If they can do it, then locals have no excuse not to show. Besides, there are cool opening and closing night parties to make like F. Scott and Zelda at. It’s a good cause, too, So, c’mon down and get your lit groove on.

Check out the full schedule of events and list of participants at www.omahalitfest.com.

 

Omaha Lit Fest: In praise of writers and their words: Jami Attenberg and Will Clarke among featured authors

June 19, 2012 1 comment

You’ll find several stories on this blog that I’ve written about the Omaha Lit Fest.  I’ve been covering the fall event since its inception in the mid-2000s.  This is a piece I did on the eve of Lit Fest II.  I feature two of the featured authors from that year’s event, Jami Attenberg (Instant Love, The Kept Man) and Will Clarke (The Worthy).  The founder and primary organizer of the festival is Timothy Schaffert, who also happens to be one of America’s finest novelists (The Phantom Limbs of the Rollow Sisters, The Coffins of Little Hope).  I expect I’ll be writing about Lit Fest 2012 come the fall.

 

Omaha Lit Fest, In praise of writers and their words:

Jami Attenberg and Will Clarke among featured authors 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

The Sepember 15-16 (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest will offer the literati such bookish delights as readings, panel discussions, an altered book exhibition and the performance of a play. Guest writers from near and far will talk craft. Artists will pay homage to the written word. This second annual fest is the brainchild of Omaha author Timothy Schaffert. He promises a “whoopdeedoo” both more streamlined and expanded than 2005’s version.

Held at venues in and around the Old Market, the festival emulates the kind of hip, bohemian salon happening that Schaffert, a former editor of The Reader, said one expects to find in a cosmo city with a lively underground press and lit scene.

“In some ways, the festival has become an extension of the alt weeklies I’ve worked on, conveying some of the same sensibilities,” he said. “I take all of this very seriously, but I don’t want the event to feel at all stuffy. As a matter of fact, I want it to seem almost dangerously informal. Events often want to appeal to the biggest number of people imaginable, and homogenization ultimately results. It’s not my mission to convert non-readers into readers. My mission is to give the small cult of passionate booklovers a chance to meet writers, and to learn about other writers.”

For this year’s shindig, Schaffert said “we have loosely applied a theme: the literary fringe, with panels on small-press publishing, blogging, literary sex, death on the plains and stretching the truth in memoir, among others. We also salute the vanished poet, cult figure and Nebraska native Weldon Kees, and show his rarely screened experimental short film, Hotel Apex.”

Schaffert said the fringe is an apt theme for a gathering of writers whose work doesn’t “quite fit in the mainstream” and who make “speaking the truth, speaking their minds” a priority. “Very few of us on the list are best-selling authors,” with the exception of Omahan Alex Kava, whom he said “nonetheless writes some grisly, edgy stuff. So we know well the experience of trying to balance expressing ourselves honestly and getting published and promoted.”

How does Schaffert define the fringe? “Writers writing about things that move them, rather than what the marketplace demands. Writers working in different forms, genres, stepping along the margins,” he said. “Several of our fiction and nonfiction writers, and our poets, are published by small presses; and even those writers published by commercial presses often have to struggle to get word out about their work, while also asserting an original voice. I think most of us at the literary festival are inspired by the notion of creating work that is challenging and intriguing to the reader, rather than just spoon-feeding readers more of the same.”

He said if there’s a lesson to be gleaned from those who toil on the fringe “trying to make their work fit into a publisher’s marketing scheme,” it is that these “writers take their own direction, deal with the frustration and keep writing.”

Festival web site musings showcase Schaffert’s satiric style and include a send-up of the proverbial product “warning” list: “Do not attend Lit Fest if you’re hemorrhaging, cranky, prone to touching strangers inappropriately without an invitation or wear large view-obstructing hats; Lit Fest has not been approved by the FDA, and may cause drowsiness in small children; enjoy in moderation, but overindulge freely.” Gentle readers welcomed.

Most fest events are free. For more details, go to www.omahalitfest.com.

Profiled here are two of the writers featured at this year’s Lit Fest:

Jami Attenberg

 

 

Jami Attenberg

Brooklyn-based Jami Attenberg travels to “out of the way places” to write. It’s no surprise then she’s spent the last few weeks in a residency program at Art Farm, a rural retreat for artists near Marquette, Neb., where she’s enjoyed her first real break from a recent book tour. Her debut collection of stories, Instant Love, charts with humor and candor the light-dark love journeys of three women, sisters Holly and Maggie and little girl lost Sarah Lee, over a two-decade period of experimentation, commitment, entanglement and self-realization.

Her soon-to-be-out new novel, The Kept Man, tells the story of a married woman whose artist husband is in a coma, the crucible that causes her to sell off his paintings one-by-one in order to keep him alive. In the process of elimination, the wife realizes her marriage isn’t what she thought it to be.

Attenberg feels she has something to say about the whole love trip. “I tend to fall in love in a sort of very temporary way very easily,” she said, “and I think that comes from living in New York and traveling, which I do.” With Instant Love “I guess I wanted to talk about the instant connection people can have and how each one of those connections is valuable, even if it’s fleeting.”

The author, whose work has appeared in Salon, Nylon, Print, the San Francisco Chronicle and Time Out New York, doesn’t pretend to dish out advice, but her own experiences in the game inform her very personal first book.

“When I think about love I think about an accumulation of things,” she said. “When I think about the person I might fall in love with there’s all these different qualities and all these different moments…and all those things are going to add up one day to just one person. So I guess I just wanted to kind of burrow a little bit into that.”

At readings she’s often asked what she’s learned about love. “What I can tell you,” she says, “is I understand what it takes to fall in love, but I have no understanding of what it takes to make a relationship work after that. The one thing I do know about making a relationship work is that it’s all about compromise. I’m terrible at compromise. I’ve certainly been in love and had good relationships and everything like that, but the book is not about how to make it work.”

She said men ask her, “Am I going to like this book as a guy?” She tells them, “No one gets off easy in this book. The women don’t get off easy and the men don’t get off easy. It’s honest about everybody.” She added, “It’s not like a I-Hate-Men book. I don’t think I would even say I’m cynical about love.”

The title is a wink and nod at people’s “tendency” to “fall in and out of love really quickly,” she said. In this disposable era of immediate gratification, lovers are dumped and replaced like old socks. She said we enter-exit trysts with the expectation “there’s always something better around the corner. And then, you know, with e-mail and IM and all these things to distract you from focusing on love, it’s amazing people can sort of work around it or integrate it to their lives.”

She can “definitely” imagine doing a book “in about 10 years” in which she checks back with Instant Love’s three female characters to “see how they’re doing.”

The book was originally a zine series and she expects to do a zine again next year. She touts the “many great small presses out there doing really cool things.” She said fringe publishers focus on authors “without having to worry about best-seller lists or large print runs. They know who their audience is.” The goal of Attenberg is to one day “work only on stuff I really enjoy…but you have to earn it, you have to constantly be working to get to that point, and I still have a long ways to go.”

Check out her blog at www.whatever-whenever.net or her web site at www.jamiattenberg.com.

Will Clarke

 

Will Clarke

Dallas, Texas-based author Will Clarke skewers the college Greek fraternity system in his second novel The Worthy: A Ghost’s Story. For his narrator Clarke uses the dispossessed soul of a frat boy killed in a hazing fit of rage. It is through the eyes of Conrad, the dead Louisiana State University pledge, we witness the excesses of a tradition grown as corrupt as the humid air in Baton Rouge.

As an LSU grad who pledged Gamma Chi Clarke is well-schooled in the cruelties of frat life. As a Shreveport native he’s well-qualified to describe the clashes that result when the state’s jambalaya of cultures — the north half Pentecostal and dry, the south half Catholic and wet — collide on campus. “Those two worlds do not really jive and that makes for a really interesting mystical satire,” said Clarke, whose first novel, the originally self-published Lord Vishnu’s Love Handles, is a genre-busting foray into good old boy magic realism. Both novels are being adapted into feature films.

Clarke, who said “I always knew I wanted to be a writer,” recognized even as his college experience unfolded that he was getting fertile storytelling material. “I just remember paying very close attention and thinking this could be a book,” he said. He made a kind of running commentary in his head. “I’ve always found myself giving narration to events going on around me,” he said. “Even as I was going through all that stuff I was a bit detached, not unlike a ghost.”

He wrote The Worthy not long after leaving LSU and Louisiana for Dallas, the closest oasis he could make in his Ford Festiva. Again, not unlike his ghost protagonist who pines for his physical self, Clarke was “longing for a life that was left behind.”

Hazing baffled him then and continues to now. “Hazing always perplexed me,” he said. “I never understood why there was a baptism of fire that had to occur.” But he contends the tenets of this practice are widespread. “I think in any fraternity, in any place you have pledgeship, where you have to prove you’re worthy, there’s hazing. You can say there’s not, you can hope there’s not, but there is.”

Pranks that may seem like harmless fun, he said, can “turn out to be phenomenally dangerous” when performed by “hormonally-challenged” young men fueled by “binge drinking.” Clarke reserves his greatest disdain for Ryan, Conrad’s killer and a symbol of the alpha male type.

“He represents that idea of All-American malehood,” Clarke said. “On the outside he’s the male ideal…athletic, handsome, the big man on campus, but on the inside there’s something really dark and crazy going on. It’s very hidden. That’s kind of what goes on with a lot of fraternities. On the outside it looks like the golden handshake, but on the inside there’s something really dead and morbid. It makes all of these golden promises to guys but to get there you have to undergo abuse.

“I think sometimes the shinier the facade, the less trusting I am of things. This forced image of perfection Ryan has makes him scarier to me. It’s amazing to see what these respectable, perfect people do in those circumstances. It turns Lord-of-the-Flies pretty fast.”

Clarke, who sees the characters in his books as extensions of “the imaginary friends” he cultivated long past when “it was age-appropriate,” is at work on a new novel about a man who doesn’t sleep. No insomniac — the guy just doesn’t need to. After the grind of a recent book tour, which Clarke found too much “like selling Amway,” he’s found himself contemplating the nature of sleep or the lack of it.

Visit his web site at www.willclarke.com or www.booktourvirgin.com.

Remembering Omaha Old Market original, fruit and vegetable peddler Joe Vitale

June 19, 2012 4 comments

The Old Market.  Make that Omaha’s Old Market.  Sure, it’s a place, in this case a historic warehouse district that’s been gentrified into an arts-cultural hub and destination stop for locals and tourists alike.  But like any place worth it’s salt, it’s the people that make it.  One of the real holdover characters there from when the Old Market was still a wholesale produce center was Joe Vitale.  As the area transformed from industrial to retail consumer mecca he stayed on with his fruit and vegetable stand , still doing his thing amidst head shops, galleries, restaurants, bars, and live music spots.  When Joe passed away a couple years ago a little piece of the Old Market passed with him.  The following story for Omaha Magazine is a kind of homage to Joe and the slice of Old World commerce he kept alive.

 

 

photo
Vitale Corner

 

 

Remembering Omaha Old Market original, fruit and vegetable peddler Joe Vitale 

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine

 

The late Joe Vitale was the last of the old-time produce vendors plying his trade in the Old Market. Long after the Omaha City Market closed, Joe stayed on.

The World War II combat veteran made a good living back in the day, first working for his parents Angelo and Lucia, and then with his business partner, Sam Monaco. By the time the Old Market took off, Vitale was set for life and well past retirement age, but he hung on there, wintering in Las Vegas.

Why keep at it, even into his 80s?

“He did it because of the love of doing business, being self employed, selling to new customers and former customers who wanted to buy something from the historic Old Market,” says George Eisenberg, a former wholesaler who did business with Joe.

“He was not only a throwback but he was the only one of the original market vendors that lasted that long.”

“I guess he enjoyed being down there with the people and doing his work,” says Tootsie Bonofede, who grew up with Joe. “You know, when you enjoy something you don’t want to give it up.”

Joe stayed through the area’s transformation from a wholesale-retail produce center to its rebirth as a cultural district. Manning the corner of 11th and Howard, he and his stand were fixtures before the modern Omaha Farmers Market started up.

Vitale, who died March 29 at age 92, was a popular figure among tourists, business owners and residents, who viewed him as a vital, living remnant of what used to be.

“He brightened up that corner,” says Mary Thompson, whose mother, Lucile Schaaf, was an Old Market entrepreneur and favorite of Joe’s. “He was a super guy. He was an energetic, happy person, and he always had a good word to everybody. He had been there for so many years, you could say he was almost the last of the originals.”

More than a merchant dealing in fruits and vegetables, Vitale was an engaging presence. “He had a lot of personality,” says Bonofede.

Douglas Country Commissioner and former Omaha mayor Mike Boyle, a longtime Old Market resident, recalls helping Joe out with an insurance claim once and being repaid with a basket of plums.

“That was about the lowest fee I’ve ever collected,” says Boyle. “Joe was really one of life’s great characters. He had a wonderful sense of humor and added a lot of color to that corner.”

Samuel Troia recalls he and his brothers going to Joe for business advice, not expecting much, but getting more than they bargained for.

“It was a great meeting and he helped us out tremendously, and with nothing to gain, other than to help these young kids, because we were in our 20s. He sat us down and said, ‘OK, this is who to talk to, and I’ll make a phone call for you.’ He told us about delivering what you promise. Joe talked to us just like he was our father.”

From that time on, says Troia, “every time he saw me he’d holler, ‘Troia,’ and my wife and I would walk over and buy fruit, and he’d wash it for us. It was so nice and refreshing to see him. It was just like having a family member down there in the Old Market.”

Joe treated everyone like a family member or friend.

“He was one of the most down to earth guys you’d ever want to meet,” says Troia.

“Everybody knew him and everybody loved him,” says Bonofede. “They can’t say anything bad about Joe. He was so kind to everybody.”

Customer-first philosophy makes family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare stand out from the crowd

June 18, 2012 3 comments

Not just another family business.  That’s the case with a venerable Omaha pharmacy business that’s been in the Kohll family for generations and maintained its relevancy in an age of mega corporate pharmacy chains by having laser focus on customer needs and anticipating what the next big things are in the field.  In the case of Kohll’s, the business has become a leader in delivering homecare services and products for a population of aging parents and adult caregivers.  My story from a half dozen years ago or so originally appeared in the Jewish Press.

Customer-first philosophy makes family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare stand out from the crowd

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

A peek inside a family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare in Omaha soon reveals this is not the drug store of your mother’s or father’s nostalgia. Sure, pharmacists in white coats still dispense prescription medicines from behind a counter, but mostly gone are the sundry retail items associated with a traditional drug store — greeting cards, stationary, magazines, household goods, candy, alcohol and soft drinks. In their place is an array of home medical equipment and service stations dedicated to meeting the health care needs of clients, particularly seniors or anyone coping with chronic illnesses.

The biggest changes, however, can’t be seen on site, as they encompass a wide range of services that help Kohll’s respond more quickly and comprehensively to individual client needs. For example, health care professionals on staff, such as occupational and respiratory therapists and a dietitian, make home visits to do assessments and devise strategies that foster greater independence. A call/future-orders center tracks what medical supplies clients are low on and gets new shipments out to their homes before they run out. A pharmacy benefits division supplies discounted meds to employees of subscriber-employers. Homecare products may be ordered online or via mail-order. A compounding division prepares custom meds for human and animal patients. An age-management section provides hormone replacement therapy to participating seniors. A contracting unit installs stair glides in people’s homes and renovates residential bathrooms to enhance accessibility and safety.

The company’s come a long way since Louis and Leona Kohll opened the original store in 1948 at 29th and Leavenworth. Back then the store was open 8:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. every single day of the year. The couple’s sons, Marvin and Jerry, followed them in the business. Founder Louis Kohll died at age 49 following a heart attack he suffered in the store. Marvin was his only partner at the time and Jerry later joined him. Marvin and Jerry later split the business, with Jerry building up a nursing home supply division. Jerry eventually sold his interests to a national company. What made the then-small company a success all those years ago is the same thing that keeps Kohll’s successful now as a much larger organization — customer service. Today, a pair of third generation pharmacist brothers, David and Justin Kohll, Marvin’s two surviving sons, maintain the customer-first policy.

“For me, the satisfaction is taking care of the patients. It’s working with our health care team to come up with a solution and to know that we made a difference. It also helps you to feel good. It’s the thing that gets you to work the next day,” said David, whose oldest brother, Louis, died recently, but not before making his own mark in the business as a pharmacist and manager.

Lessons learned have been passed down from one generation to the next. It all comes down to hard work, fair play and treating people right.

“Our father taught by example,” David said. “His example was the basics like beingpolite, honest, follow through, et cetera. He’s worked hard his whole life.”

Just as Louis Kohll taught his sons Marvin and Jerry the trade, Marvin taught his boys the ins-and-outs. Pharmacists all, they built the foundation for an enterprise that’s gone from a single mom-and-pop store to a multi-faceted, seven-location corporation. Kohll’s stays competitive in an era when national franchises dominate the market and drive most other family-owned independents out of business.

To survive, the family found what Justin calls “a niche” that separates what they do from the pack. With a nursing homes supplies division already in place and the senior health care market ever growing, they gradually hit upon senior homecare as their specialization. As David’s fond of saying, “There’s a lot of opportunities. There’s just so many things out there.”

It’s the one-stop-shopping model applied to health care. But saying you’re one-stop and doing it are two different things.

“Everybody tried to promote they were doing one-stop-shopping, but they really weren’t,” Justin said. “Some companies tried doing it and they quit…now they just do respiratory or they just do power chairs, where we can do it all. We really are truly one-stop. You can come here for everything.”

The store that best epitomizes the company’s one-stop health-orientation is at 127th and Q, where clients can: get prescriptions filled inside or via a drive-thru window; receive vaccinations and blood pressure/cholesterol screenings along with hormone replacement injections; get fitted for wheelchairs, mastectomy bras, compression socks or ostomy bags; select from many other personal care items, such as chairs, scooters, walking aids, raised toilets and bath/shower bars; and even have a lift installed on their van. The store has bays dedicated to not only installations but also repairs of lifts, power chairs, scooters and glides and has even opened a showroom selling vans that come equipped with lifts.

“You can go anywhere in the country and you will not see a facility that looks like this. I guarantee it,” David said. “You might see some who have some wheelchairs or this and that — kind of shoved in the corner, but without real experts doing it. None has anything to this (level of) commitment. Pharmacists generally own their pharmacy and if you’re trying to get everything done right there you’ve got to be really committed to this and you’ve got to like it. You can’t just do it for the business or it’s going to go away.”

It’s about the Kohll family being smart and passionate about what they do.

“We try to pick and choose what we do,” Justin said. “I mean, we could do a lot of things, but we usually pick something we like to do also. You’re going to do a better job if you like it.”

 

 

Each Kohll’s pharmacy offers the basics when it comes to prescriptions, vaccinations and screenings, along with a general selection of health care items, but each store also specializes in something. For example, the 127th and Q store specializes in mobility products. It’s also the company’s headquarters, housing the administrative offices, marketing department, call center and future orders center. The Leavenworth store features respiratory/oxygen supplies. The 50th and Dodge site specializes in mastectomy fittings and compression stockings. The 114th and Dodge location handles the compounding side and veterinary needs. And so on.

Instead of extra inventory taking up space at each location, one central supply site contains medical supplies, which makes it easier to track what’s in stock and to send supplies out as needed. Being able to respond to many different needs is what Kohll’s does best, Justin and David say. “Knowing you have something for the patient, knowing that you’ll do a good job, knowing that you’ll get it there in a timely fashion,” said Justin, adding that in most cases patients only think about health care aids when a crisis occurs. “You don’t know unless you need it,” he said. “If you need something, hopefully the physician will send it through here because normally we’ll have it. And, right up front as customers come in they see all the products and maybe that gets them to thinking, ‘Hey, I saw walkers at Kohll’s. My mom needs a walker.’ That’s what we try to do.”

“We try to educate people,” David said. Part of that education, he explained, is providing timely, state-of-the-art answers for people as their health care needs progress. A wheelchair patient may be upgraded to a power chair. If a patient can’t move his or her arms any longer, a lift may be in order. Kohll’s visiting homecare professionals are trained to recognize when a client’s declining health dictates action in the absence of a regular caregiver or adult children. Its future orders callers and delivery drivers are trained to ask questions that reveal the kinds of changes that indicate problems. This way, unhappy outcomes can be avoided.

“A person may be doing pretty good but they may get to the point where they can’t walk very well and instead of somebody recognizing that they just stay in their apartment more and then they can’t walk at all and instead of being in a wheelchair they’re just in bed all the time. And the next thing you know the senior develops a bed sore. It causes the progressive deterioration to go faster,” David said. “What we try to do is ask questions every month, like — Do you have trouble getting up from a chair? If they answer yes to that we ask more questions and begin coming up with solutions. It might be a raised toilet seat or bath bars or a lift.”

It’s also about anticipating future needs.

“Somebody getting their prescriptions and adult diapers from us now are more than likely within a year going to need a walker. We try to be aware of that,” David said.

The goal is helping patients maintain independence in their own homes.

“It could be something as simple as a reacher. Maybe it’s become hard for somebody to bend over and stand up. It can be just basic things to keep people doing what they were doing for as long as possible. To make it so they don’t go into that nursing home or that assisted living facility. To keep them in their own home with their regular neighbors. That’s what we want to do,” David said.

The ongoing education Kohll’s does with clients includes getting folks to see that a homecare product like a stair glide is not a step back but a step forward.

“A lot of times seniors have the mind set — ‘I don’t want a glider to help me get up the stairs because I want my independence.’ They don’t understand that by risking a fall where they fracture a pelvis or an ankle, they’re actually saying, Make me dependent,” David said. “We’re trying to do all we can to show that you can have a much better life if you get one of these things. But don’t get the hospital-looking one, get the red one so people don’t feel sorry for you.”

 

 

He said the public should shop around when buying home medical equipment, such as power chairs. It pays to go where there’s good selection and price as well as proven expertise. A Kohll’s advantage is that it knows and stands behind the items, even doing repairs. He said too many people just go where it’s convenient.

“If you all of a sudden end up in the hospital after a fall, you’ve got to get a chair now. You’re more reliant on professionals to get you through it. You don’t have time to do any preparation. The sad part about that is that you might make a mistake and go to a place that doesn’t really know anything about it and get something wrong for you,” David said.

All the emphasis on home health supports doesn’t mean Kohll’s has left behind the core or traditional pharmacy service of filling prescriptions.

“We’d like o be filling prescriptions for everybody in Omaha or anywhere around,” David said. “We don’t want them to go elsewhere because if they get their prescriptions from us then they’ll have more of an awareness of the other things that might benefit them. I don’t want to get away from our base of prescriptions. All three of us (himself, Justin and their father Marvin) were trained as pharmacists. We think it all starts with prescriptions because we’re trusted more than any other profession. The patients know us or they see us or they talk to us the most often. It all starts there and then we can bring them into all these other things.”

The family’s arrived at a democratic way of setting policy and managing operations.

“My father has a say in things if he chooses, but there isn’t and hasn’t been a dictatorship or hierarchy or veto power by any of us,” David said. “Each of us would explore an idea and if it looked successful, it would be presented to each other. We then give suggestions and implement it. We’ve had our disagreements, but we’re so concerned and busy with providing our customers/patients with the best care possible that the disagreements are taken care of within 24 hours,” David said. “We really don’t have time for disagreements. I don’t believe the staff’s felt pulled in different directions by each of us, so it’s not an issue.”

Marvin Kohll said the family avoids internal strife as each member involved in the business establishes “responsibilities” distinct and apart from the others’. Besides, he said, “I was never a real taskmaster to them. I let them pretty well do as they pleased and they responded.” David said that’s still the case.

While David monitors the retail end, Justin runs the compounding side. Marvin’s watched over the money in recent years, taking a less and less active role. Still, David said, his presence is felt. “We always feel he’s working with us.” And if dad sees something amiss, David said, “He’ll rip us about something we can do better.”

“Towards Louis’s last years he mainly oversaw the employer pharmacy benefits

area and pharmacy mail order division,” David said. “Since his passing we have continued where he left off. He did a phenomenal job educating the staff…making it easier for us to carry on. It is difficult because we worked so closely together.”

Marvin’s boys weren’t pushed to go into the family business, but each came to it on his own. From the time they were young they hung around their dad at work after school or on vacation.

“We probably first came down to the pharmacies when we were about 4-5 years old. My brothers and I were only 3 years apart, so we played pretty rough and I think my mother would ship us to the pharmacy when she had enough of us,” David recalled. “At first my father would just try to get us out of his way and assign us to one of the staff. They would usually have us break up empty boxes. Over time we became more useful as clerks, stockers, drivers and then pharmacy helpers. We begin working full-time summers when we were 16 or 17.”

Besides David, Justin and Louis, some other Kohlls have contributed to running and growing the family company. “Two of Jerry Kohll’s kids, Cindy and Alan, joined the company in the early ‘90s.  They contributed significantly, but not as pharmacists,” David said.

What the next generation holds as far as new Kohll blood entering the business, no one knows. Since David and his wife Janet are the parents of five young children the odds are at least one will follow David’s path. Marvin Kohll said one grandchild has expressed interest to him in studying pharmacy, which if it comes to pass would mean a fourth generation of pharmacists in the family. But more than family legacy keeps the company strong 58 years after its start — its single-minded focus.

“We don’t feel a responsibility to the next generation to carry on the family business. The responsibility we have is to our customers/patients to provide excellent care to them,” David said.

Bedrock values at core of four-generation All Makes Office Furniture Company

June 17, 2012 1 comment

 Working in a family business can be a blessing or a curse.  Families that make it work are to be commended.  Ones that make it work over four generations are rare indeed.  This is a story about such a family and their office furniture business based in Omaha, Neb.  Harry Ferer taught the business to his son-in-law, the late Lazier Kavich, who taught the business to his son, Larry Kavich, who in turn showed the ropes to his children, Jeff and Amee, who run it today.  The piece originally appeared in the Jewish Press about six years ago.

 

 

Bedrock values at core of four-generation All Makes Office Furniture Company

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Jewish Press

 

As Omaha family businesses go, All Makes Office Furniture Company is one of the oldest and largest still operating. The fourth generation family members running things today stick to the same core principals, values and philosophies that have guided the business since dapper Russian immigrant Harry Ferer founded it in 1918.

A go-getter, Ferer became a star agent for the Royal Typewriter Co. and the Ediphone, an early dictation machine patented by inventor Thomas Alva Edison, whom Ferer knew. Ferer built his own company through hustle and guile, traits his successors have shown in growing the family business. Son-in-law Lazier Kavich entered the fold in 1938 and helped move All Makes forward by adding new lines, earning a reputation for fairness along the way. Lazier taught the business to his son, Larry Kavich, whose energy, people skills and “do the right thing” motto drew in new business. Larry, in turn, taught his children the ropes and now they run things. Larry’s son, Jeff Kavich, is president/CEO of All Makes Omaha and Jeff’s sister, Amee Zetzman, is president/CEO of Lincoln, Neb. and Urbandale, Iowa. The legacy continues. Only time will tell if Jeff’s or Amy’s kids one day carry the torch.

All Makes evolved over these 88 years into a full-service center that outfits offices of every size, located virtually anywhere, with products that range from the latest in work station systems to used desks, chairs and files. The company does more than just sell stuff. It also designs and installs office spaces for all kinds of settings, offering expertise that makes today’s technology-rich environments user-friendly.

Any firm as long-lasting as this one adapts to meet the needs of customers in changing business climates. Through world wars, economic downturns and industry trends, All Makes stays the course, each generation adding fresh ideas to the mix.

Much has changed since Harry Ferer opened his downtown typewriter sales, rental and repair shop. When Lazier Kavich came aboard, the business added office furniture to complement the automated machines it carried. In 1950 All Makes moved to its present location at 2558 Farnam Street. By the 1960s the company added the first of its branch showrooms and stores. Once Larry Kavich joined in the mid-’60s, high end contract furniture became the staple. He expanded the business physically and enhanced its position as a multi-product, multi-service center. He continues as chairman today, wintering in Arizona.

Under Jeff’s and Amee’s watch from the late 1990s on, All Makes has added to its facilities, including new showrooms and warehouses, made a series of renovations, grown the company’s design division and expanded into international markets.

Yes, much has changed. Then again, people are still people and business is still business. Office furniture may be wired today, but getting repeat customers still comes down to treating folks right, qualities sorely missing from so many service providers today. Jeff and Amee keep alive All Makes’ service-first credo, drawing on lessons from two masters in the art of the deal — their grandfather and father.

“Certainly the products have changed and the industry has changed,” Jeff said, “but as far as learning the passion — and taking that home every night with you and always thinking about how to make things better and how to do the right thing — I got that every day from both my grandpa and my dad. It came so naturally, it would have been impossible, I think, for me to feel or act or do any differently.”

As kids, Jeff and Amee were always around the business, working there summers. He learned all facets — from stock and sales to delivery and installation. She applied her gift for number-crunching to the company books.

“Summers, when my friends were spending every day at the pool, I was here in the back room sweeping floors, fixing typewriters, working in the warehouse. I installed furniture, I delivered furniture, I drove the truck. I’ve done everything except billing,” he said. “I look back now and say it was fun and wouldn’t change a thing, Back then, when my buddies were going to the pool, I probably wished I was, too.”

But he knew where his destiny lay.

“I knew from an early age I was carving a path for me into the business and everything I was learning then would only come to benefit me later,” he said. “I knew that this is what I wanted to do. I went to the University of Kansas for a couple years and decided it was time to come home and go to work. You know, my career started in 1990 — 16 years ago, but I can say I’ve been here 30 years because I worked here summers from grade school through college. When I’d come home from college my father and I would talk about the business. Even in high school, if something big was happening here, we discussed things over the weekend. Growing up, dinner table conversations happened all the time. So, as long as I can remember I’ve kind of known and talked the language of All Makes.”

For the young Amee, the business wasn’t so much a career path to follow as a place she felt obligated to pitch in. Her math and computer skills were put to use.

“When I was in the 7th grade they’d bring me in a little desk to sit in the middle of my grandfather and Nancy Mudra, who’s been here over 30 years, and I learned how to compute commissions. When I was more high school age they gave me one of the first portable computers — a huge thing with a screen that popped down…They said, ‘There’s a new program called Lotus and we need you to figure out how we can get the commissions from this giant ledger book into the computer,’ and that was my project. Every time, they saved projects for me. Like one summer all I did was purge the bookkeeping files and make new folders.”

As a boy Jeff accompanied his dad on business trips. Trussed-up in a coat-and-tie, the little boy said little but absorbed much as Daddy made deals.

“I was there watching him do what he does best and that’s an education you won’t learn at Wharton School of Finance,” he said.

When Lazier, who passed in 1996, wasn’t playing cards or handicapping the ponies, he was striking bargains that brought in new business or that added to his overstuffed back office, which has been preserved intact as a kind of memorial. The walls and shelves are still filled with kitsch collectibles. He loved acquiring things in bulk in order to give them away, like the drawer of surplus watches he kept. True to his salvage roots, he built All Makes’ used office furniture segment, now called All Makes on Two, which still accounts for a robust volume of sales today. Sections of two floors, plus the basement, practically sag from all the used items on display.

At one time, three generations of Kaviches drew wages together. “It was something special that I’ll never forget and I know it’s so rare and something few people get to experience,” Jeff said. Lazier, the old-school wheeler-dealer who started in the junk business, was the elder statesman. He read the mail, saw a few old customers and played cards with his cronies in his office. “This is what he loved,” Jeff said. Larry was the dynamic leader closing deals in the showroom, on the phone or on the road. Jeff and Amee were the fresh-from-college upstarts soaking it all in.

The lessons learned from these old-school salesmen made a deep impression on the next generation. Much of what Lazier and Larry did still shapes the business.

“He loved a good deal,” Amy said of Lazier. “He did not like to leave money on the table. That was his mentality and that’s why we have all the used furniture. He taught my brother that end of the business. There are still people we do business with that will fly in here from somewhere in the South to come pick out all their used furniture. Then they’ll send trailers back for it. Because that’s how they and my grandpa did business. So, it still goes on.”

She utilizes some of the managerial tricks and rituals he taught her years ago.

“The entire pile of mail in the morning went to him. He used to say, ‘You can learn what’s going on in every part of the organization by reading the invoices.’ That’s how he kept in touch with what was going on — through the mail. And so now I read the mail every day and it does help me know what’s going on.”

More a benevolent figurehead by the time Amy and Jeff assumed titles and positions at All Makes, Lazier still came to the office every weekday, modeling the Golden Rule in his good works and in his high ethics. Years ago he befriended a blind black evangelist known for traversing the city on foot selling brooms. A tradition began that saw Lazier invite the Rev. into the store for a repast before driving him home at night. The preacher man still stops by on his circuit and Jeff and Amee, like Larry and Lazier before them, make sure he’s well taken care of.

“He was the most giving, caring person you could ever imagine,” Jeff said of Lazier. “Everything was as it is. He said it like it was. Just total honesty and integrity.”

 

All Makes' Amee Zetzman and Jeff Kavich (4th generation) with their father, Larry Kavich (3rd generation:
Jeff, Amee and Larry Kavich

 

 

Amee said her father, Larry, “took a lot of qualities from my grandfather. He’s very wanting to always do the right thing. Very honest, very charitable. But he also doesn’t like to be taken advantage of. He’s very passionate about everything he does. He’s proud of what we do. It’s been nice for him to be able to take a step back, but he is still absolutely involved in big deals going on. He misses being here full-time. As he explains to us, ‘This is all I’ve done. It’s hard to leave.’”

The siblings feel an obligation to maintain the family tradition in All Makes.

“It’s so important for me to make sure we do provide the best product at the best possible price, along with the best service, because our reputation means so much to us. We just always want to play cards up on the table and do the right thing for all of our great customers,” Jeff said.

“It is an awesome responsibility because our name is associated with this,” Amee said. “We had a situation where we needed the money up front on something and the customer asked, ‘Well, what if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do?’ And I said, ‘You know, we’ve been here 88 years doing what we say we’re going to do.’ And, so, we take it very personally…”

Satisfaction for her comes from knowing a customer’s been satisfied, no matter the size of the transaction. “It’s getting positive feedback from clients, not even on the big deals,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll get a phone call to say, ‘I bought a desk and your guys took great care of me.’ It’s just a feeling of pride that someone in the organization has represented us well.”

For Jeff, it’s” a sense of accomplishment when you meet somebody for the first time, you get to know them and get to know what their business needs are, and then our team puts together the right solution. I guess at the end it’s having a happy customer. There’s a beginning, a middle and an end to a transaction that’s definitive. When we walk away and they say, ‘We have our office furniture — you guys did a fantastic job’ — that’s the carrot. That’s what’s rewarding.”

Groomed as he was to take over as president from his father, Jeff said, “I always knew it was coming,” but added “it never really sunk in until it was on my business card. You always had Larry to fall back on before on making some decisions. But when now it’s my deal, I’m very cautious about what I’m going to do before I do it.” Easing the transition, he said, was the way he worked side by side with his father.

“I learned everything I know from him and I’m grateful to him for that. Even before I became president he would say, ‘You make the decision and if it’s wrong, you’ll learn from it, and if it’s right, way to go.’ In the 16 years I’ve never been sat down and screamed at. He’s let me learn by the mistakes and kind of relish in the good.”

Unlike her brother, Amee didn’t always see herself in the All Makes mold.

“When I left for college (University of Colorado) I was not coming back to Omaha and the store, whereas Jeff knew he was going to come back and be part of the business. So, it was definitely a different scenario.”

Straight from college she moved to Los Angeles in 1989 to work in public accounting. Her niche was small family businesses just like All Makes. “It was really good preparation,” she said. By 1994 she was married with kids. “My husband and I made a quality of life decision that Southern California was not where we wanted to be. And I sort of came to the realization this (All Makes and Omaha) isn’t such a bad thing to come back to.” Factoring into the decision was the chance for their kids to “have grandparents to hang out with. It’s part of Jeff’s and my own life stories. We got to have a life with our grandpa.”

The first order of business was making sure she and Jeff could share power. “I called my brother and we started talking about it. I asked him, ‘What do you think? Do you think we could make this work?’” He told her yes and in 1994 she joined the  team. They’ve found a way to make it work for 12 years now.

“We both have our strengths and we know our strengths,” she said. “We try to stay out of each other’s various departments, but still have input. I think because we have separate responsibilities it makes it easier to get along. In certain situations I know he’s going to make the final decision and in certain situations he knows I’m going to make the final decision. And there’s some situations when we make decisions together. It just works out.”

Jeff said, “Well, I think there’s some good balance there. Amy’s got an accounting background and understands a lot better than I do the books and all that sort of thing. So, with her kind of keeping an eye on the pot and making sure everything is in line and in check, that allows me to be in front of the people from more of a sales standpoint. I’m involved with a lot of new business development.”

Just like his grandfather and father before him, Jeff kibitzes with customers to earn their trust and their business. When he isn’t pressing the flesh on the showroom floor, he’s trading jokes on the golf course. Amy trains her eye on the big picture, ever mindful of what her grandpa and dad would do. “There are definitely moments when we say, ‘Oh, Lazier’s rolling over in his grave on this one. What would Lazier have done?’ It’s part of the lore,” she said. Or she repeats one of her father’s credos — “Fast pay makes fast friends.” She added, “He doesn’t like owing anyone.”

The family “works hard to make it work right,” Amy said. “We had a consultant come in and help us separate everything so we had some type of framework to try to work within. Before, we didn’t have titles…everyone just did what needed to be done, which is still the case, but now we have a more clear definition of what our responsibilities are. I think so many times family businesses don’t have a plan and everyone thinks they’re in charge of everything” and it becomes a real mess.

The way Jeff sees it, “you can’t avoid the pitfalls” of a family business, “it’s how you handle the pitfalls. It’s maintaining respect for each other. It comes down to respect. We’re very, very lucky on that regard. I mean, I’m not going to say we don’t have our moments, but at the end of the day we really do have a good working relationship and we’re good friends through it. We’re very blessed.”

All Makes has won area recognition as a model family business and small business and industry-wide awards as a top dealer.

Among other things this next generation in business has taken from their elders is a commitment to downtown. “Yes, we are downtown to stay,” said Amee, who added all the development activity there, including a run-down apartment building converted to condos in back of All Makes, has only strengthened the family’s stake. She said All Makes acquisition of properties around its store realized a “Lazierism” that went — “always buy property near your business when it becomes available.” Lazier also taught her to “never be embarrassed by what you’re going to offer. And that’s how all these properties were acquired,” she said.

She and her brother have also remained committed to the loyal work force, whose average length of tenure is 12 years, Lazier and Larry built. “We have great people here. We like to think it’s a great place to work,” she said.

As a salesman at heart, Jeff’s keenly attuned to two Kavichisms passed on from his grandfather to his father to him that speak of never being too satisfied. When a big deal’s inked, he’s reminded of Lazier and Larry saying: “That’s great, now what are you going to sell ?” In other words, Jeff said, “get onto the next thing.” The other has to do with not repeating mistakes. As Lazier said, “Man who stumbles on rock wants to be forgiven. Man who stumbles on rock twice should break his neck.’”

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