Archive

Archive for the ‘Sam Mercer’ Category

Omaha’s Old Market: History, stories, places, personalities, characters

June 19, 2016 4 comments

Omaha’s Old Market: History, stories, places, personalities, characters

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

The Old Market represents different things to different people but it is undeniably one of the few go-to destinations Omaha has to offer. It is a concentrated mish-mash of local culture, though still predominantly a white-bread, precious experience. It could use a healthy dose of diversity and grit, which is to say it could use some broader community representation that brings in some fresh entrepreneurial and cultural experiences and perspectives. But however you feel about it or view it, the Old Market holds some of the richest history in this city and it has been home to a fascinating mix of places, personalities and characters. Here is a compilation of some of my Old Market stories featuring some of that history and some of those venues and figures.

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.”

_____________________________________________


photo

Oh, for the days when there was almost literally a grocery store on every corner and a movie theater in every neighborhood.  I only know those days through articles, books, movies, photographs, and reminiscences and I am sure the reality did not match my romanticism about them.  As fate would have it, the Mom and Pop grocery phenomenon I only got a glimmer of during my childhood became the subject of an assignment I was offered and gladly accepted: as co-editor and lead writer for a NebraskaJewish Historical Society book project that commemmorates and documents the Mom and Pop Jewish grocery stores that operated in and around the Omaha metropolitan area from approximately the beginning of the 20th century through the 1960s-1970s.  But it was Ben Nachman, along with Renee Ratner-Corcoran, who I worked with on the project, that truly realized the book .  Ben’s vision and energy got it started and Renee’s commitment and persistence saw it through.  I just helped pick up the pieces once Ben passed away a year or so into the project.  Ultimately, the book belongs to all the families and individuals who contributed anecdotes, stories, essays, photos, and ads about their grocery stores.

Immediately below is Jewish Press story about the project, followed by an excerpt from the book.

The book is dedicated to the man who inaugurated the project, the late Ben Nachman, who was responsible for starting what is now my long association with both the Jewish Press and the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society.  Ben led me to many Holocaust survivor and rescuer stories I ended up writing, many of which can be found on this blog.  My stories about Ben and his work as an amatuer but highy dedicated historian can also be found here.  I also collaborated with Ben and Renee, as the writer to their producder-roles, on a documentary film about the Brandeis Department Store empire of Nebraska.  A very long two-part story I did for the Jewish Press on the Brandeis family and their empire served as the basis for the script I wrote.  You can find that story on this blog.

Historical Society publishes grocery store history

by Rita Shelley

11.11.11 issue, Jewish Press

Freshly arrived from Europe a century ago, thousands of men and women found work in South Omaha’s packinghouse and stockyards.

South 24th Street grocer Witte Fried, also a first generation American and a widow with children from ages 2 to 7, knew something of her neighbors’ struggles to survive and prosper. She also knew they needed to eat. According to her descendants, Fried took care to mark prices on the merchandise in her store in several languages. She wanted her customers, regardless of their German, Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Greek, Czech or other origins, to have an easier transition into their new world.

Fried’s story is one of many featured in Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores. Scheduled to be published in November by the Nebraska Jewish Historical Society (NJHS), the book includes recollections of Jewish grocers and members of the families who operated stores throughout Omaha, Lincoln, Council Bluffs and surrounding areas from the early 1900s to the present.

photo

“A history of Jewish owned stores is also a history of the grocery business,” Renee Ratner-Corcoran, NJHS executive director, said. “Beginning with peddlers who traveled from farm to farm to trade their wares for farm produce to sell in the cities, through one-room Mom and Pop stores with adjoining living quarters, to the first large self-service grocery stores, to today’s discount stores that sell housewares and groceries under the same roof, the Jewish community played a vital role in the grocery industry.The book was a dream of Dr. Ben Nachman, an NJHS volunteer whose father owned a small store on North 27th Street. Dr. Nachman died in 2010; publication of the book is dedicated to his memory.

Children of early Jewish grocers who were interviewed for the book or submitted recollections recall the hustle and bustle of buying produce from open air stalls downtown (today’s Old Market) as early as 4 a.m. to stay ahead of the competition. Before there were automobiles, grocers’ children were responsible for the care of the horses that pulled delivery buggies. Mixing the flour and water paste to use for painting prices of the week’s specials on the front window was also the responsibility of children. So were dividing 100-pound sacks of potatoes into five- and 10-pound packages, grinding and bagging coffee, and feeding the chickens. (A kerosene barrel and a chicken coop were located side-by-side in at least one family’s store.).

photo

The book’s publication was underwritten by the Herbert Goldsten Trust, the Special Donor Advised Fund of the Jewish Federation of Omaha Foundation, the Milton S. & Corinne N. Livingston Foundation, Inc., the Murray H. and Sharee C. Newman Supporting Foundation, Doris and Bill Alloy, Sheila and John Anderson, Edith Toby Fellman, Doris Raduziner Marks, In honor of Larry Roffman’s 80th Birthday, and Stanley and Norma Silverman.Increasing prosperity meant housewives had more money to spend. Innovations in transportation and refrigeration also brought changes to the grocery industry, and Jewish grocers were among the first to embrace those changes. More recently, Jewish Nebraskans “invented” some of the country’s first discount chains and wholesale distribution networks, as well as the data processing innovations that made them profitable.

For additional information, contact Renee Ratner-Corcoran by e-mail at rcorcoran@jewishomaha.org or by phone at 402.334.6442.

Excerpts from the book-

©by Leo Adam Biga

Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores                                                                                Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa

photo

Jews have a proud history as entrepreneurs and merchants. When Jewish immigrants began coming to America in greater and greater numbers during the late 19th century and early 20th century, many gravitated to the food industry, some as peddlers and fresh produce market stall hawkers, others as wholesalers, and still others as grocers.

Most Jews who settled in Nebraska came from Russia and Poland, with smaller segments from Hungary, Germany, and other central and Eastern European nations. They were variously escaping pogroms, revolution, war, and poverty. The prospect of freedom and opportunity motivated Jews, just as it did other peoples, to flock here.

At a time when Jews were restricted from entering certain fields, the food business was relatively wide open and affordable to enter. There was a time when for a few hundred dollars one could put a down payment on a small store. That was still a considerable amount of money before 1960, but it was not out of reach of most working men who scrimped and put away a little every week. And that was a good thing too because obtaining capital to launch a store was difficult. Most banks would not lend credit to Jews and other minorities until after World War II.

The most likely route that Jews took to becoming grocers was first working as a peddler, selling feed, selling produce by horse and wagon or truck, or apprenticing in someone else’s store. Some came to the grocery business from other endeavors or industries. The goal was the same – to save enough to buy or open a store of their own. By whatever means Jews found to enter the grocery business, enough did that during the height of this self-made era, from roughly the 1920s through the 1950s, there may have been a hundred or more Jewish-owned and operated grocery stores in the metro area at any given time.

Jewish grocers almost always started out modestly, owning and operating small Mom and Pop neighborhood stores that catered to residents in the immediate area. By custom and convenience, most Jewish grocer families lived above or behind the store, although the more prosperous were able to buy or build their own free-standing home.

Since most customers in Nebraska and Iowa were non-Jewish, store inventories reflected that fact, thus featuring mostly mainstream food and nonfood items, with only limited Jewish items and even fewer kosher goods. The exception to that rule was during Passover and other Jewish high holidays, when traditional Jewish fare was highlighted.

Business could never be taken for granted. In lean times it could be a real struggle. Because the margin between making it and not making was often quite slim many Jewish grocers stayed open from early morning to early evening, seven days a week, even during the Sabbath, although some stores were closed a half-day on the weekend. Jewish stores that did close for the Sabbath were open on Sunday.

Jewish grocery stores almost always became multi-generation family affairs. The classic story was for a husband and wife to open a store and for their children to “grow up” in it. In some families there was a definite expectation for the children to follow and succeed their parents in the business. But there were as many variations on this story as families themselves. In some cases, the founder, almost always a male, was joined in the business by a brother or brothers or perhaps a brother in law. Therefore, a child born into a grocer family might have one or both parents and some combination of uncles, aunts, siblings, and cousins working there, too.

Of course, not every child followed his folks into the family business. Because most early Jewish grocers did not have much in the way of a formal education, the family business was viewed as a springboard for their children to complete an education, even to go onto college. It was a means by which the next generation could advance farther than their parents had, whether in the family grocery business or in a professional field far removed from stocking shelves and bagging groceries.

Some Jewish grocers went in and out of business in a short time, but many enjoyed long runs, extending over generations. Some proprietors stayed small, with never more than a single store, while others added more stores to form chains (the Tuchman brothers) and others (like the Bakers and the Newmans) graduated from Mom and Pop shops to supermarkets. Some owners made their success as grocers only to leave that segment of the food business behind to become wholesale suppliers and distributors (Floyd Kulkin), even food manufacturers (Louis Albert).

Whatever path Jewish grocers took, the core goal was the same, namely to provide for their families and to stake out a place of their own that offered continued prosperity. For a Jewish family, especially an immigrant Jewish family, owning a store meant self-sufficiency and independence. It was a means to an end in terms of assimilation and acceptance. It was a real, tangible sign that a family had arrived and made it. Most Jewish grocers didn’t get rich, but most managed to purchase their own homes and send their kids to college. It was a legitimate, honorable gateway to achieving the American Dream, and one well within reach of people of modest means.

For much of the last century Jewish grocery stores could be found all over the area, in rural as well as in urban locales, doing business where there were no other Jews and where there was a concentration of Jews. In Nebraska and Western Iowa there have historically been few Jewish enclaves, meaning that Jewish grocers depended upon Gentiles for the bulk of their business. Dealing with a diverse clientele was a necessity.

In some instances, Jewish grocers and their fellow Jewish business owners catered to distinct ethnic groups. For example, from the 1920s through the 1960s the North 24th Street business district in Omaha was the commercial hub for the area’s largely African-American community. During that period the preponderance of business owners along and around that strip were Jewish, including several grocers, some of whom lived in the neighborhood. These circumstances meant that Jews and blacks in Omaha were mutually dependent on each other in a manner that didn’t exist before and hasn’t existed since. When the last in a series of civil disturbances in the district did significant damage there, the last of the Jewish merchants moved out. Only a few Jewish owned grocery stores remained in what was the Near Northside.

Until mechanical refrigeration became standard, customers had to shop daily or at least every other day to buy fresh products to replenish their ice boxes and pantries. Having to shop so frequently at a small, family-run neighborhood store meant that customers and grocers developed closer, more personal relationships than they generally do today. Grocers not only knew their regular customers by name but knew their buying patterns so well that they could fill an order without even looking at a list.

Home delivery was a standard service offered by most grocers back in the day. Some stores were mainly cash and carry operations and others primarily charge and delivery endeavors. Taking grocery orders by phone was commonplace.

Most grocers extended credit to existing customers, even carrying them during rough times. It was simply the way business was conducted then. A person’s word was their bond.

Fridays were generally the busiest day in the grocery business because it’s when most laborers got paid and it’s when families stocked up for the big weekend meal most households prepared.

Jewish grocers were among the founders and directors of cooperatives, such as the United Associated Grocers Co-op or United AG and the Lincoln Grocers Association, that gave grocers increased buying power on the open market.

With only a few exceptions today, the intimate, family neighborhood stores are a thing of the past. As automobiles and highways changed the landscape to accommodate the burgeoning suburbs, newer, larger chain stores and supermarkets emerged whose buying and selling power the Mom and Pops could not compete with on anything like an even basis. Thus, the Mom and Pop stores, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, began fading away.

Because Jewish grocers were such familiar, even ubiquitous fixtures in the community, the majority population gave little thought to the fact that Omaha Jewish merchants like the Bakers (Baker’s Supermarkets) or the Newmans (Hinky Dinky), who began with Mom and Pop stores, led the transition to supermarket chains. For much of the metro’s history then, Jews controlled a large share of the grocery market, helping streamline and modernize the way in which grocers did business and consumers shopped.

It is true the one-to-one bond between grocer and consumer may have all but disappeared with the advent of the supermarket and discount store phenomenon. The days of grocers filling each customer order individually went by the wayside in the new age of self-service.

One thing that’s never changed is the fact that everybody has to eat and Jews have been at the forefront of fulfilling that basic human need for time immemorial. The Jewish grocer was an extension of the friendly neighborhood bubbe or zayde or mensch in making sure his or her customers always had enough to eat.

Once upon a time an urban dead end became Omaha’s lively Old Market

June 19, 2013 2 comments

 Omaha’s signature arts-entertainment district the Old Market was never a foregone conclusion.  It only came into being because a few people with the vision and guts to make it happen could see the potential of a derelict old produce center to be the base for a mixed-use urban village with residences, restaurants, shops, galleries, bookstores, live music, theater, and all sorts of funky creative spaces.  What long ago became a chic destination place was forged from rough-hewn beginnings that to most looked unpromising.  A band of artists, hipsters, and entrepreneurs applied their individual and collective talents to transforming a history-laden area into something entirely new and 45 years later it continues to be a vital melting pot for culture and creativity.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) attempts to explore how the Old Market emerged and who was there at the beginning to see its possibilities and to help shape those possibilities into reality.

Once upon a time an urban dead end became Omaha’s lively Old Market

Popular Arts-Entertainment District Emerged in Late 1960s-Early ’70s Thanks to Artists and Entrepreneurs

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appearedin The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

In a state with few destination attractions, Omaha‘s Old Market arts-entertainment district packs them in. The draw is not any one or two venues, but a collective of shops, restaurants, bars, galleries and creative spaces, along with the historic character of those places.

Designer Roger duRand opened one of the first businesses there, the head shop The Farthest Outpost, with Wade Wright in 1968. duRand later designed businesses and apartments there. He was struck then as he is now by the area’s contiguous array of late 19th-early 20th century warehouses.

“I was really charmed by how coherent the neighborhood was. It was really intact. The buildings all had a relationship with each other, they were all of the same general age. They were all designed in a very unselfconsciously commercial style. They’re very honest buildings.”

If density and diversity define vital urban areas, then the Market is Omaha’s most lively concentration of eclectic spots.

It’s also a neighborhood whose residents add to the vibe.

“Having people live here makes it a 24-hour alive place,” says Ree Kaneko, an Old Market artist, arts administrator and resident whose presence there goes back 40-plus years.

Nicholas Bonham-Carter a nephew of the Market’s late godfather, Sam Mercer, says, “The Old Market works because of the multiplicity of things going on. In other historical districts they have no residence portion at all so at night when the shops close it looks dead. But in the Old Market when the shops close you know people are living upstairs. Even if you can’t see them the knowledge they’re there gives it life;”

In this same year the Market turned 45 years old its guiding light, Sam Mercer, died (Feb. 5). The Mercers are longtime property owners and landlords there. When the idea for it surfaced they were perhaps the only locals with the resources and inclination to make it over on the scale required to turn the abandoned produce center into a chic oasis.

In the mid-’60s Mercer began heeding advice that the dying wholesale district could be revived for a new use. It took vision and guts as the old buildings were in bad shape and no one knew if enough entrepreneurs would take the plunge. The four-square block area became a real life assemblage or installation that creatives reclaimed and rebirthed, one building, one endeavor at a time.

 

Cedric Hartman

 

Cedric Hartman and Judy Wigton put the proverbial bug in Mercer’s ear. He’s an internationally known lighting and furniture designer who keeps a low profile at his factory on the Market’s southeast edge. She’s an arts lover. Their shared appreciation for the finer things led them to open a mid-town high-end shop, The Afternoon (the Omaha store by that name today has no relationship to the earlier store).

In 1964 the business partners went on a buying trip to Chicago and discovered Old Town – a mix of quality shops in repurposed buildings.

Wigton recalls coming back and driving around Omaha’s city market “looking for a likely area” to relocate The Afternoon and finding a For Rent sign. She made the necessary inquiries and, she says, “On a very cold day in Dec. 1964 we met Sam Mercer. He showed us the property. We indicated it wouldn’t work if we were the only ones down there. We wanted there to be a number of shops. He seemed very doubtful about our idea for a community of shops and restaurants.”

But Wigton and Hartman persisted and kept pitching the concept.

“We became great friends. One evening we took Sam to see Jim Shugart’s wonderful house in a former Budweiser building at 1215 Jones. It made a good impression on Sam who then said that maybe what we were talking about would work. Eventually he seemed to be coming around. He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.

“We also appreciated old buildings. Cedric and I had special interest in architectural history. I had started the drive to try to save the old Omaha City Hall from destruction, but when we met with Mayor (A.V.) Sorenson about it, he made it clear a serious goal of his and city fathers was to get rid of old buildings. That conflict continued for years.

“All through 1965-1967 we talked about possibilities for the area.”

Sam Mercer

The Market happened in spite of meek support and sometimes outright opposition from Omaha city government and business leadership. The very idea of it flew in the face of conservative, parochial Omaha.

Old buildings were razed with alarming frequency then. Aging inner city neighborhoods were neglected. The Great Suburban Boom was on and new was preferred to old. Downtown Omaha was already slipping and would soon find its once vibrant retail base gone. Flipping, reinventing, transforming massive buildings simply didn’t occur here.

Bonham-Carter echoes others in arguing the Market “provided sort of the initial shove for the rebirth of downtown.”

The Market’s success undoubtedly made Omaha more receptive to preservation and revitalizing areas like the riverfront and north downtown. Even its example though couldn’t save Jobbers Canyon and its historic buildings just east of the Market.

Hard as it may be to imagine now, the warehouses comprising the Market were mostly viewed as eyesores, not assets.

Hartman and Wigton saw things differently and their dogged pursuit of what to others seemed a pipe dream paid off.

Kaneko says few realize how vital they were to the Market coming into being.

“Nobody wanted to take on these brick warehouses. The idea was planted with Sam with Cedric’s help and as these Old Market spaces were renovated Cedric provided much good advice.”

Bonham-Carter, who spearheaded the creation of the Passageway in the Market, says Hartman “sowed the seeds of what could be done. He’s a real genius.”

The Passageway

Hartman was so convinced of its potential he recalls “I couldn’t stop on the subject. Judy was enthused too.” His motivation was to break Omaha from its dull status quo. He’d lived in Chicago and New York, studied in France, and upon returning to Omaha found “it dreadful, nothing happening here, it seemed like a very unsophisticated place to me. I was interested in seeing something happen downtown.”

He says there was resignation nothing would really ever change.”Most people droned, ‘It seems like nobody will ever do that here, this is Omaha, forget it.'” He wasn’t deterred. “I just kept talking it up.”

In Mercer Hartman and Wigton found the receptive audience they craved and someone in a position to do something about it.

“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman.”He was very smart and a very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both flabbergasted, dazzled by his personal style. We were taken with him and in his way he was with us.

“He did respond to us in a great way and I think he was genuine. We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, too, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”

Hartman recalls walking around the Market with Mercer when it was a warehouse graveyard “trying to imagine what could be done.”

With Mercer on board Wigton helped raise public awareness of the proposed redevelopment by hosting luncheons at the old Omaha Club where Mercer bent the ear of stakeholders and tastemakers.

“Sam was invariably charming and interesting and would lay out the possibilities in a very persuasive way. I especially remember a lunch there with (the late columnist) Robert McMorris which seemed to result in dozens of favorable stories in the World-Herald. Another was with city planning director Alden Aust, whose advocacy became invaluable.”

The initial businesses in the fledgling district opened in 1968. Percy Roche’s British Imports was the first.

Omaha businessman Tom Davis invested in several ventures there.

The French Cafe

It was very much a combination of the right people in the right place at the right time,” says Wigton “And then it was very fortunate that Sam’s family, Mark and Vera Mercer and Nicholas and Jane Bonham-Carter were able to move here when they did and keep everything going. It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it.”

Wigton suggests, and others agree, that “perhaps it really began to come together” when the French Cafe was born in 1969. But even that anchor, signature eatery only happened because Hartman was in the right place at the right time. He spotted a condemnation notice posted on the Solomon Gilinsky Fruit Market building and contacted Mercer.

“That’s a building I promoted finding. It was not a Mercer property, it belonged to the Gilinsky family. I said, ‘Sam, we really ought to buy this building.'” Hartman’s concern was that if the structure, situated mid-way on Howard St., were razed it would interrupt the flow of what they hoped to do with the other buildings.

“If we were working on separated buildings and somebody would do something else that didn’t quite fit in that could have destroyed the atmosphere for the whole place,” says Bonham-Carter.

Mercer and Gilinsky made the deal but even then last minute fast talking was required because, Hartman says, Gilinsky had a contract with a wrecking firm to take the building down. Demolition was set for the following morning. After some frantic calls the order was canceled.

The idea to open a French restaurant there was entirely Sam’s. Hartman designed the space. He admires the chance Mercer took.

“It was a risky thing for them. Who knew if that would work?”

Roger duRand

Kaneko says if Hartman hadn’t prevailed on Mercer at that critical juncture there might not have been a French Cafe or Old Market.

She says “credit for building the Old Market belongs to many people over the years who put their ideas, dreams and patina on the spaces in these handsome, left behind buildings. Yes, it’s true the Mercer family had the financial ability to make lots of things happen and the flare to do it right, but I would guess had it not been for Cedric Hartman who called Sam Mercer in Paris to inform him that a building in the middle of the block of Howard St. was about to be torn down that maybe it would not have happened at all.

“Paris is a long ways away for one to keep an eye on what’s happening down the block. The idea was planted with Sam…And so it started this way – the idea, the saving of a structure, then the investment in the renovation and all the wonderful ideas and people that followed.

“So many interesting people shaped this area with their ideas and energy. Each person added to the growth of the dream. They were the fiber of the place. They came to work here, they lived here, they ate here, they hung out here. They were neighbors…they were friends.”

Bonham-Carter says, “I think everyone who was down here was in some way or another very unique and we couldn’t have done it without them.”

The Edison Exposure and Omaha Magic Theatre were cutting-edge venues. The Antiquarium and Homer’s were counter-culture bastions.

The French Cafe helped legitimize or mainstream the district.

“It was getting the so-called aristocracy of Omaha to come down to our area. It was very sophisticated and its image rubbed off on the rest of the Old Market. so I think it was very important. And it generated traffic. It became sort of a magnet,” says Bonham-Carter, who helped shepherd the Cafe its first couple years.

Bonham-Cartern notes that the Market ultimately benefited from the family having meager development funds because it reinforced leaving the buildings largely alone, to retain their historic integrity. “We had a lot of bricks and mortar but not much money,” he says, “so we were always having to sort of economize and so as a result that probably made it less likely for us to make some expensive mistakes.”

The last thing the family wanted was to make the Market a glossy theme park whitewashed of age.

For Kaneko the great attraction was “space, space and more space. It’s just what artists needed. And at that time the visual arts were the poor sister in town. So this was a big deal.” She was among the early vanguard to move in as working artists. She says despite a lack of creature comforts they felt impassioned.

“It was a no-man’s land but very exciting because you were making a change happen. We felt we were doing something very important and very radical. We were saving this wonderful architecture and bringing new life to these discarded places. We had nothing but our dreams and hard work and intense desire to make it happen.”

 

The Bemis

 

duRand, who was there even earlier, says, “It was exhilarating really because it was all new and it was a creative process. The whole venture was kind of an artwork really. Making something out of nothing – that was really the fun part.”

He recalls the Market as “a really interesting urban environment” where hippies and artists commingled with blue collar laborers. Some wholesalers were still operating. Cafes catered to truckers and railroaders. “A lot of jobbing went on – suppliers of all kinds of mechanical stuff. The railroad cars would go up and down the alleys at night where freight was loaded and unloaded.”

For years Sam’s son Mark Mercer and his wife Vera Mercer have stewarded the family’s various holdings and ventures. Mark developed V Mertz restaurant in the Passageway. The couple later created La Buvette and The Boiler Room. They’re now developing a new eatery at the site of the French Cafe, which closed last year. Mercer says their guiding philosophy is the same as Sam’s was:

“We want to create things that are attractive and different than other places that have been infected by chains and franchises or things like that because than it’d be just like anywhere else. We pick things we think to rent to or to do ourselves that fit our tastes and our interests.”

“Something that has made the difference between the way we did it and the way other people would do it is that we determined the only businesses we would get there would be home grown, locally owned,” says Bonham-Carter. “I think we are today exactly where we hoped we would be in having a pretty good mix of tenants down there.”

Kaneko says, “The Mercers are wonderful at allowing things to take shape. They know it is a slow process, so if you come to them with a good idea and they believe it fits with their dream for the Old Market you could probably have a good chance at succeeding. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”

duRand says the Market succeeded “because it was genuine, it wasn’t really contrived. it evolved authentically. The main criterion wasn’t profit it was for interesting things to happen. The Mercers made it very easy for interesting people to get a foothold here. A lot of times the rent was negligible. You could give receipts for improvements in lieu of rent money, and it helped everybody. It helped people on a shoestring build something for themselves and the owners got improvements at no expense to them, so it was a win-win.”

“For a long time,” he says, “Mercer Management kept the rents low and took a percentage of profit so that if people were struggling it didn’t cost them so much to be here and then if they were successful the Mercers shared in that success. It was a nice formula.”

Mark Mercer

Mercer says it didn’t take long for the Market to attract tenants.

“It really did take off pretty quickly in the sense of these groups of artists and the French Cafe and then M’s Pub in 1972, and the galleries. Rusty Harmsen did the Toad and Spaghetti Works. Then a little bit later we did the Passageway and V Mertz.

“A lot of people were excited because maybe there wasn’t something like that in Omaha, a place where you could combine music and art and new kinds of food. We didn’t have any French restaurants in Omaha at that time. There was a hunger too for a pedestrian area and arts and books and different kinds of movies that could combine. So it all seemed to get established in a couple-three years, although there were still problems with how to deal with building code inspectors. But it seemed it had gained enough momentum by then to attract people and as long as people were coming and finding it exciting…”

Kaneko says, “Things were happening and being presented in the Old Market you could not find anywhere else in the region.” Arts were always a part of the scene but the early emphasis was all local artists. The Bemis artist residency program she founded in 1981 with Jun Kaneko, Tony Hepburn and Lorne Falk introduced artists “from all over the world who added to this conversation,” she says. “The spillover into the community has been the benefit. Hard to measure but it’s alive and it’s there. The more artists and creative people in your community from all walks of life, makes for a much better place to live.”

It’s helped that the Mercers are art lovers. Sam painted as a hobby. Vera’s a noted photographer and painter. Mark’s designed the family’s restaurants.

Vera Mercer

Not everyone agrees with the direction the Market’s gone. duRand feels it’s over-gentrified compared to its counter-culture roots. Underground newspapers were published there. Edgy film, theater and art happened there. The drug culture flourished there.

Mercer concedes it may have been more adventurous early only.

“Maybe in the beginning it was a little more rebellious and exciting in finding different things,” he says. “In the early days it was, well, newer. Maybe a little more controversial and a little more avant garde.”

Hartman despairs the Market’s overrun with bars and restaurants.

Bonham-Carter feels it might be time for another big project, adding that “a little extra sprucing up might be nice to do over the years – tuck pointing here and there. We don’t want it to look too worn out or too overdone.” The recently announced $12.8 million Jones13 apartment project at 13th and Jones may be the next large scale endeavor. It’s being developed by a private company.

Mark Mercer says, “As long as we can I guess we’ll keep trying to do new things and find new things that will enhance the Market, enhance the area,” Vera Mercer says the passion still burns. “I think we are as excited as before about doing something new. We are still looking for new things.” As for who will carry the torch in the future since the couple have no children, he says, “We have to think more about that.”

Kaneko, who with her husband, artist Jun Kaneko, has developed an arts campus there says the district illustrates how the arts act as a catalyst for renewal. Looking ahead, she says, “The next period of time in the Old Market’s life is what I call cultural in-fill. A time of refinement. If we are lucky and if we are wise we will maintain the quality, respect and excitement that this urban area needs and this city deserves.”

 

The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha

April 28, 2013 1 comment

Any urban place worth its salt as a destination to visit bears the imprint of the people who shaped it.  Omaha isn’t known for much outside Nebraska but one area just south of downtown has become its primary tourist destination, the Old Market, which at its core is a historic district whose collection of late 19th and early 20th century warehouses offers the city’s most eclectic concentration of restaurants, shops, and arts-cultural venues.  Many people have had a hand in molding the Old Market but the most critical guiding hand belonged to the late Sam Mercer, who had the vision to see what only a few others saw in terms of the potential of transforming this old produce warehouse market into a arts-culture-entertainment haven.  My story about Mercer and the small coterie of fellow visionaries he developed a consipiracy of hearts with in creating the Old Market appears in Encouner Magazine.  You’ll find some other Old Market-related stories on this blog and coming this spring I will be postiing a retrospective piece on how this creative hub became the Old Market and how it survived and thrived against all odds.  I will introduce you to the people who turned the spark of an idea into reality.

 

 

 Samuel 1974Sam Mercer, center ©Photograph by Vera Mercer

The Old Market’s Late Godfather Samuel Mercer Casts Long Shadow in Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Encounter Magazine

 

 

Sam Mercer

 

 

The Old Market’s undisputed godfather, Samuel Mercer, passed away Feb. 5 at his home in Honfleur, France. He was 92. Services were held at Trinity Episcopal Church in Omaha.

This continental bon vivant was not a typical Nebraskan. The son of prominent Omaha physician and landowner Nelson Mercer, he was born and raised in privileged circumstances in London, England and educated at Oxford and Yale. After living in Washington D.C. he based his law practice in Paris, where he mostly lived the rest of his life. He held dual citizenship.

In Paris he cultivated relationships with avant garde artists, A watercolorist himself, he made artist Eva Aeppli his second wife.

On his handful of trips to Omaha each year he cut an indelible figure between his shock of shoulder-length gray hair, his Trans-Atlantic accent and his waxing on far-ranging subjects. He spoke perfect French.

“He projected an aura of unpretentious aristocracy…I liked him immediately and enormously,” says designer Roger duRand, who with Percy Roche opened the Old Market’s first business, The Farthest Outpost.

When the death of his father in 1963 Mercer inherited his family’s property holdings and he took charge of their Mercer Management company here. He appreciated the century-old brick warehouses, some Mercer-owned, comprising the wholesale produce market just southeast of downtown. But it was someone his junior, designer Cedric Hartman, who first advocated doing something with those buildings, which by the mid-1960s were largely abandoned and in disrepair.

Hartman, an acclaimed designer of lighting and furniture pieces made at his 1414 Marcy St. factory, recalls the genesis of the Old Market. He and Judy Wigton were partners in a high end gift shop. Like Mercer they admired the dying produce district’s buildings and in 1964 began meeting with him about these structures as potential sites for exciting new ventures, such as fine shops, galleries and restaurants. Those conservations in turn sparked Sam’s efforts to preserve and repurpose the Market as an arts-culture haven.

“We were quite surprised to find such a person,” says Hartman. “He was a very smart, very worldly and sophisticated character with great personal charm. We were both wowed by him and in his way he was with us.”

Wigton says, “He certainly had a great appreciation for old buildings and also a need to fill the empty places with new tenants.”

“He did respond to us in a great way,” Hartman notes. “We were a couple of really arty kids and he was really arty, so it couldn’t have been a better association. He was a kindred spirit in so many ways.”

Those early encounters formulated the vision for what became the Old Market.

“I remember we walked around the streets trying to imagine what could be done. I’d say, ‘Now look at this building, here’s we could do this with it,’ and he’d just respond right in kind,” says Hartman. “I couldn’t have done that with anybody else. He hooked into all this stuff really fast.”

A sense of urgency set in when city officials and property owners began eying some Market buildings for demolition.

Hartman tipped off Mercer to the condemnation of the Gilinsky building that sat in the middle of Mercer-owned properties on Howard Street. It was Hartman too who brokered a meeting between Mercer and Peaches Gilinsky. A deal was struck that led Mercer to acquire the site.

By 1968 Mercer moved strategically to gain control of a collection of buildings there.

“Sam did not want anything said about the project until he could acquire options on enough other properties in the area to insure the success of the redevelopment,” says Wigton.

It was Mercer’s idea to make the groundfloor space of the former Gilinsky fruit company into a French restaurant. There, Hartman designed the Old Market’s signature spot, the French Cafe, as well as apartments above it. Ree Kaneko, a fellow Old Market pioneer, says the restaurant, opened in 1969, was “very important” in helping solidify and legitimize the Market.

“It was a risky thing for him to do,” Hartman says “Who knew if that would work? However, it was a great success.”

 

Mark Mercer, left, with Sam Mercer in 1982. By: THE WORLD-HERALD:
Mark Mercer, left, with Sam Mercer in 1982. By: THE WORLD-HERALD

 

 

More anchor attractions followed – Homer’s, M’s Pub, Mr. Toad, the Spaghetti Works, Nouvelle Eve, eh Firehouse Dinner Theater, the Bemis.

Designers duRand and Hartman advised Mercer and his son Mark, daughter-in-law Vera, nephew Nicholas Bonham-Carter on this never planned but organically developed area. The Mercers created one of the Market’s most distinct features, The Passageway, and later opened their own distinguished enterprises – V Mertz, La Buvette and The Boiler Room.

“We worked to shape the Old Market neighborhood in the most authentic and benign ways possible, gently guiding new tenants away from the cliched and vulgar, and to more thoughtful and honest approaches to development of the beautiful old structures,” says duRand. “Even though Sam lived and worked in Paris, his presence was in every decision of significance in nurturing the Market.  He made frequent visits to Omaha in the early days, and was instrumental in bringing the city fathers around to acceptance, then eventual approval, and finally enthusiasm for the preservation and rebirth of our neighborhood.

“His passing leaves a permanent and poignant void.”

Sam Mercer viewed the Market as an evolving social experiment and art project aligned with his own desires. Mark Mercer says the family’s continued that philosophy by encouraging unique ventures that “fit our tastes and interests.” He and his wife, artist Vera Mercer, say “creating” new things is their passion.

Ree Kaneko has high praise for the Mercers’ stewardship and their “allowing things to take shape” by nurturing select endeavors. She adds, “They know it’s a slow process,. They have a great sense of the mix of things that need to happen to make the Market exciting.”

“It hasn’t been easy and I don’t think any other family could have done it,” Wigton says.

Mark and Vera Mercer say Sam remained “very interested” in the Market. They vow retaining the vibrant charm of this historic neighborhood he lovingly made happen.

%d bloggers like this: