Monday, January 29, 2001

No longer business as usual on Harrison Ave.

        Marge Engle died last week. She was 86. Chances are you didn't know Marge. But, if you are of a certain age with memories of the '50s and '60s, you undoubtedly knew someone like her, someone whose kindness offered links with the past and directions to the future.

        Marge was a businesswoman, a shopkeeper, ahead of her time.

        Long before shopping centers unleashed the malling of America, she ran the Nadler's clothing store in downtown Cheviot.

        Back then, Cheviot and Westwood shared a thriving business district along Harrison Avenue. In those days, Cincinnati's City Council did not have to board buses and tour Westwood.

        Two Saturdays ago, council members got their shots, had their passports checked and ventured into the city's biggest, oft-ignored neighborhood.

        They traveled along Harrison Avenue — from the Western Hills Viaduct to the Cheviot border. They looked at blight, boarded-up windows, closed shops, dilapidated houses, abandoned cars, broken-down people.

        In Marge's heyday, Harrison Avenue knew no blight. It was healthy.

        Every neighborhood in Cincinnati and its suburbs contains a similar street. In Mount Washington, it's Beechmont Avenue. Avondale has Reading Road. In College Hill, it's Hamilton Avenue. These business districts radiate out of downtown Cincinnati like spokes in a wheel. The spokes are only as strong as the downtown hub. So, while the districts are still doing business, they could be stronger.

        At their height, the spokes sported banks and theaters, places to buy furniture, clothes, groceries, shoes, jewelry, ice cream and chili. They offered everything you can get now at a mall. Well, almost everything. At the mall, there's rarely a Marge.

        She managed the Nadler's store with her husband, Vic. In my black-and-white memories, I see them as Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

        Vic — like Desi — was suave and immaculately dressed. Wearing his just-pressed shirt, carefully knotted tie and tailored suit, he looked — as my mom is fond of saying — as if he just came out of a bandbox.

        Marge was like Lucy — funny, raw-boned, always on the go. She knew where everything was. And she knew where to put little boys when they came into her store.

        “How's my boy?” she would always say and reach down to pick me up and plop me on her counter.

        Sometimes she'd hand out a lollipop or a new shoe horn. Most times she'd just let me watch all of the action. She'd ring up a sale and make a production out of placing the clothes in a box or bag. I can still smell the tissue paper, so new, so fresh, and remember presents bought with hard-earned money and service given with a smile.

        Nadler's did not last forever. Hardware is now sold from the same floor where Marge once stopped my dad, looked at what was on his head and made a sale by declaring “you need a new hat. That brim's too wide.”

        Now, like Nadler's, Marge is gone.

        Cincinnati's City Council doesn't want to lose Westwood. Plans are under way to arrest the decay. This could help the entire business district along Harrison Avenue. Someday, there might even be a need for more stores.

        Always, there will be the need for a Marge.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at (513) 768-8379; fax 768-8340.


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