Wednesday, January 27, 1999

Lunchtime in a little town served warm

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Any time you get an invitation to have lunch in the back room of a furniture store in far-off Liberty, Ind.,take it.

        The food and the company at the end of the 55-mile drive from Cincinnati to the city of 2,051 souls are worth your while.

        They make tasty BLTs at the Liberty Restaurant. And, if you're as lucky as I was this week, you'll discover that old-fashioned, small-town values of cooperation and caring are still in vogue. They help people cope with the unrelenting demands of modern life.

        The invitation for a “Lunch With Cliff,” where I share a regular midday meal to hear what's on regular people's minds, came from Jean Vance. She's a designer at Fosdick Interiors, a 123-year-old furniture store and interior design studio in the heart of this old farming community.

        “Each morning I smile when I drive into town and walk across the street,” she wrote in her invitation. “No traffic, no noise, just a warm "Mayberry-ish' feeling.”

        Barney Fife must have had the day off when I pulled into town. I jay-walked — without getting a ticket — across the street from the Union County Courthouse. Built in 1890, the castle-like edifice of carved stone had a city square all to itself.

        Across the street, Fosdick Interiors stood in a row of brick buildings old and colorful enough to have stepped out of a painting by Edward Hopper. The furniture store's green awning proclaimed, “since 1876.”

        Jean met me at the door and went over the lunchtime drill. Walk to the Liberty Restaurant at the end of the block. Pick up a carry-out order for Fosdick's nine-person staff. Chat with Irma Creek, a waitress at the restaurant for the last 36 years.

        “Watch out,” Irma warned me as I stood by the Liberty's cash register. “Folks at Fosdick's laugh a lot at lunch.”

Humorous feast
        Lunchtime laughter “helps us let off steam,” Jean told me as we took the meals to the back room of the high-end furniture store.

        “Our work is high-anxiety,” said Alan Straus. He owns the store with his wife, Linda. She's worked in the design studio for 28 years.

        “Buying furniture makes people nervous,” Alan explained. “We calm them by making sure everything is just right.”

        “But, calming customers gets us worked up,” added designer Marilyn Cumming. “So, lunch is our time to turn the brain off.”

        Even though the shelves on the back room's walls are lined with wallpaper books, fabric swatches and furniture catalogs, there's no place at lunch for shop talk.

        “Rather than talk about colors and fabrics and whether the drapes match the sofa,” Marilyn added, “we prefer to have fun.”

        To lighten the mood at lunch, Jean has been known to stick plastic bugs in meals and hide the shoes of Karen Soper, the office coordinator. Everybody gently kids Rachael Rude, the assistant office coordinator, about her pregnancy.

        Jean and Marilyn recently saw a performance of Swan Lake. Last week, they entertained the lunch crowd with a slapstick interpretation of the ballet.

        “We died right there on the floor,” Marilyn said. Faking a pout, she pointed to a spot on the hardwood floor. “It was supposed to be sad. But everybody just laughed.”

All for one
        Lunch at Fosdick Interiors is a lot like the rest of the day at the store. No one stands on ceremony or pulls rank. Everyone, from the owners to the delivery men, Don Byrley and James Wyatt, pulls together.

        When one person is hurting, everybody tries to help. During lunch, Nancy Joan Franklin, the employee in charge of keeping Fosdick Interiors sparkling clean, started to talk about her late husband. She got a few words out before sadness claimed her voice.

        Suddenly, arms reached out and she was wrapped in a hug.

        “This is such a small place, in such a small town,” Jean said as she comforted Nancy Joan, “we're more than friends. We're family.”

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.