Thursday, February 21, 2002

Kathman recovers


Life is good away from downtown

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        For 18 long months, everybody told Buck Kathman the same thing.

        “Everything happens for a reason. Something good will come of this.”

        He didn't believe them.

        Now, he does.

        Two years ago, Cincinnati's bone-headed development plans for downtown forced Buck to close Kathman Goodyear Shoe Repair at Sixth and Race. A Queen City institution, the business had been in his family for 95 years.

        “We always wanted to make it to 100,” Buck once told me.

        For a time after the closing, he wondered how he would make ends meet.

        Six months ago, he stopped wondering. He finally found the good thing everyone promised.

        Buck is the general manager of A-One Dry Cleaners' Pleasant Ridge headquarters.

        “A-One is obsessed with perfection,” he said as he proudly led a tour of the dry cleaners' plant.

        “This is my kind of company.”

        For 95 years, the Kathman family — starting with Buck's great-grandfather John Henry Kathman — strove to be perfect.

        Shoes came in run-down. They went out standing proud.

        Re-soled. Re-heeled. Re-stitched. Polished to perfection.

        Customers entered a store perfumed with leather, lotions and polish. They passed shelves stocked with tins of wax and jars of polish — all in orderly rows — to claim their gleaming goods. Each pair of shoes sat in a paper bag, the end folded over neatly, a reflection of the precise work that went into the repairs.

        It was all part of the Kathman tradition, an obsession with perfection. It ended two years ago this month.

        With his dad — Bernie Kathman turned 75 Wednesday — Buck closed up shop Feb. 29, 2000. The city wanted to wreck their building and put up yet another drugstore.

        Buck's last name is not Saks. Or Lazarus. So, he did not get millions from the city to stay in business.

        City Hall made its usual noise about offering help and what a shame it would be to see the store go. Ditto for Downtown Cincinnati Inc. But, in the end, Kathman's closed.

        Ninety-five years of tradition and service — in the business where Buck started working when he was 12 — came to a sad end.

        “The most devastating thing was that we had 60 days to vacate,” Buck said. “But it took the city two years to wreck the building.”

        After the store closed, Buck did chores he had put off for years at his Covington home. Two months later, his wife lost her job to downsizing. Six months later, he was running out of chores — “I was cutting my neighbors' grass to keep busy” — and money.

        “When both of you are unemployed, when your health insurance runs out and you have no income coming in, you start to hit your 401(k) and see it going out faster than you anticipated. That's when it gets a little scary.”

        At age 57, Buck started looking for a new job.

        One Sunday, he saw a want-ad for A-One and applied. A week later, he started work as the dry cleaners' general manager.

        “I've been here six months,” he said, standing in A-One's alterations department. “It started out great and it gets better every day.

        “When I had the store downtown, it was not a job. It was the best way to spend your day. This is exactly the same way.”

        Knowing a good thing when he sees it, Buck said there's a moral to his story.

        “There is life after death.”

        That life is good — when it's away from downtown.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340; e-mail cradel@enquirer.com.

       



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