Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Truman Dry Cleaners

Harry S. Truman, Library of Congress,

You are opening a dry cleaning business just after World War II. What do you name it? In the case of the storefront at the corner of Mahoning Avenue and North Portland in Youngstown, you named it after the then current president, Harry S. Truman. Not only was there instant name recognition, but Truman was always impeccably dressed as you can see in this portrait. One of Truman’s earlier endeavors was a partnership in a haberdashery, selling men’s clothing and accessories.

I grew up less than a hundred yards from Truman Dry Cleaners on North Portland Avenue. One of my early tasks was to take my dad’s shirts, and less often his suits or dress slacks for dry cleaning and pressing–medium starch on the shirts! You would drop off the items to be dry cleaned, and receive a claim check.

A few days later came the tricky part. I would bring the claim check and money to pay for the cleaning. Then you would watch the clerk run this conveyor on which hundreds of people’s laundry hung until the item that matched the claim check came up. Using a pole with a hook at the end, she would lift your items off, and give them to you. Then I had to get them home without anything getting wrinkled (dad frowned on that). Fortunately, it was a very short walk.

When I was young, the business was just a small storefront with a big neon sign in front. Later, the then-owners, a family by the name of Zwicker, expanded the building roughly tripling its size. They also added a drive through, entered off of North Portland and exiting onto Mahoning Avenue. Business was changing from walk-up businesses to serving people as they drove from place to place doing errands in their cars.

A few years later, probably in the late 1960’s they built an additional building, a huge garage-like structure. I thought they stored supplies there. All I knew was that one of the family owned a cool, light gray Corvette Stingray. I drooled every time I saw it. It turns out that it was the birthplace of a new business and an auto collection. In the 1970’s Fred Zwicker and his wife started a business making sandblasters and cabinets used in auto repainting. This grew into the business TP Tools & Equipment, now located in Canfield and one very cool car turned into a car museum, the TP Tools Auto Museum, that includes a fantastic car collection and the back bar from Strouss’ famous malt bar.

Twenty-three years ago the cleaners was sold to Rick Carlini, who changed the name Appearance Plus Dry Cleaners. On Thursday, January 21, WKBN reported that this business, which had operated at the same location for 75 years was closing and the buildings up for sale. Rick Carlini is retiring.

It is amazing that the business has had such a good run. That would be good in any place. But when I saw the report, I realized that one more part of my past was history. It is one of the last of so many local businesses within a short walk of my home to go, one of the many places part of the fabric of my everyday life. Here’s hoping that it can become the location of a new small business.

[Addendum: After posting, two Zwicker family members left comments, filling in many gaps in my story about the history of their businesses. So be sure to read the comments!]

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Brenner’s Jewelers

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My wedding ring, from Brenner Jewelry.

Wednesday was my 42nd wedding anniversary. The picture above (can you tell I’ve been washing my hands a lot?) shows my wedding ring. My wife’s engagement ring and wedding ring match and were purchased back in 1977-78 at Brenner’s Jewelers at the corner of Hazel Street and West Federal Street in downtown Youngstown. I probably knew Brenner’s best because it was just down the street from McKelvey’s where I worked during college. I also had a friend from high school who worked there for a while. I bought my wife’s rings on credit and paid them off by the wedding.

John Brenner started out in the jewelry business training with a Mr. Barkody for five years. He then incorporated his business in 1904 as the John Brenner Jewelry Company with capital stock of $20,000. At this time the store was located at 117 W. Federal in the Kress Building. In 1932 Brenner’s move down the street to its location at Hazel and Phelps in the complex of buildings connected with McKelvey’s. He established a business in diamonds, watches and all kinds of jewelry, enjoying a fine reputation in the business community. In researching this article I found a number of examples of watches and jewelry with the Brenner name. Interestingly, he was also president of the Youngstown Cattle Company, raising cattle and growing fruit on large holdings he owned in Cuba!

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The old John Brenner Jewelry Co. in the Kress Building at 117 W. Federal

It was a family business, with Conrad Brenner as Vice-President, and Carl Brenner as secretary and treasurer.  Carl Raymond Brenner, Jr. was born in 1931. After military service in the Air Force in Japan from 1953 to 1955, he returned to Youngstown and joined the family business and eventually became president of the business. In time, he expanded their business to three stores in Youngstown and Boardman. Eventually the downtown store closed before the demolition of the former McKelvey buildings in 1982.

“Ray” Brenner was active in the Youngstown community. He served on the boards of the Community Chest/United Appeal, Better Business Bureau, Downtown Board of Trade, Planned Parenthood and the Youngstown Symphony Society. He served as president of the Boardman Youth Center and led the funding drive to build a new Youth Center. He was He was a member The Youngstown Club, the Youngstown Country Club, Elks Club, and the Boardman Swim Club.

He led the business for fifty years, which would be into the 2000’s. His obituary from 2012 mentions how much he loved working with a young man buying an engagement ring. I did not have the fortune to meet him but friends who knew him spoke highly of him. I don’t ever remember TV ads for the store. The phrase that comes to my mind for the store downtown was “understated refinement.” Both young men like me and the wealthy of the city were equally welcomed and well-served by a business that endured over 100 years. Many of my generation will always remember the Brenner name. I carry that memory on my ring finger.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Gorant Chocolatier (Gorant Candies)

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The original Gorant store on Federal street.

Chocolate is one of the languages of love. This is Valentine’s weekend and reminded me of a name synonymous with good chocolate. If you grew up in Youngstown, Gorant Candies was probably the place when you went to buy chocolate for the holidays, for your special Valentine, for a birthday, for Mother’s Day, or just to satisfy your chocolate craving. Chocolate covered strawberries, assortments of milk and dark chocolates, chocolate pecan tootles, milk chocolate raspberry parfaits, French mints, chocolate covered pretzels, cherry cordials, and of course–buckeyes!

Is your mouth watering yet? Well, Gorant Chocolatier is still in business and you can order chocolate at their website. You can also visit one of their five locations, all in the greater Youngstown area. If at all possible, you want to visit the factory and store at 8301 Market Street in Boardman. The smell of the chocolate is to die for!

It all began in 1949 with two brothers, Charles and Sam Gorant. They began not with chocolate but with sugar mints that they sold door to door. They opened a store on Federal Street between McKelvey’s and Strouss and sold them in both downtown department stores. By 1954 they had three stores and had moved into the chocolate business. An individual who remains anonymous to this day sold them his recipe along with chocolate making equipment.

In 1972, they launched their Yum Yum Tree stores selling gifts and greeting cards in addition to candy, many in the new shopping malls springing up around the country. In 1977, they opened their manufacturing plant on Market Street. The company history notes that all the candies are still poured on tables and cut by hand. The Gorant brothers philosophy was expressed in this statement: “If the work is done by hand you can catch the imperfections and ensure the quality of all the chocolates before they are packed.”

Sam Gorant died in 1982. Charles sold the company in 1986, and it changed hands several times, eventually owned by Cleveland’s American Greeting Card Company which sold the product in 500 of their stores and through another 200 wholesale accounts. In 2009, American Greetings sold off Gorant, closing 34 stores, to Joe Miller, who at this writing is still the owner of the company, now renamed Gorant Chocolatier. At the time of the sale, they went from an $11 million to a $3 million company.

While the company has a smaller retail presence than it once had, they have expanded their sales to private label customers, fund-raising, mail order and internet business. They’ve streamlined inventory, manufacturing, and cost control processes and gained SQF certification for food safety that expands Gorant Chocolatier’s global marketing possibilities.

About 50 people work at the factory and store year round with extra employees during the peak season from September through April. While the company has changed ownership and marketing strategy, they continue not only making their chocolates by hand out of the best ingredients. Over the course of the year they produce 400 different chocolate products.

Recently, my wife and I stayed at the Inn at Amish Door in Wilmot, Ohio. It is part of an “Amish village” with a restaurant, banquet, bakery, and store complex with a number of special events. We delighted in the quality construction, comfortable lodging, and great food we enjoyed during a short, overnight stay. While researching this post, I discovered that previous to purchasing Gorant, Joe Miller was Vice Chairman and President of the Amish Door company, started and still operated by his parents, and helped develop the complex into a major attraction in the quiet village of Wilmot. One hopes that he will continue to lead Gorant Chocolatier in the same way.