Business & Family
Working long hours at the Liberty Gourmet and Liquor Store, I learned more of my dad's work ethic. "Don't stand around," he always said. "Stay busy: wash windows, wash floors, clean the shelves. Talk to the customers, find out what they want. Move and rotate the stock, make it attractive. If you want to get ahead, you've got to work hard; then you can play hard." He still spent a lot of time at the store, but he began taking life a little easier.
One day at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church I saw two girls, Rosemary Tsiguloff and her friend. "Hi, girls," I said, walking over to meet them. "What's your name," I asked Rosie. We talked for a while, and I bought them sodas. "How old are you?" She was seventeen, a senior at South Side High School, and I was about seven years older. "Rosie, you keep your nose clean, and one of these days I'm going to marry you."
About three weeks later I saw her at church again. "Hi, Rosie." "Hi, George." I grabbed her hand and gave her a little kiss on the cheek. "You and me, no one else," I said. We began going to places with her girlfriends, and little by little we got to know each other better. Her mother and I got along well, but her dad was sort of against me because of the age difference.
Rosie was the daughter of Macedonians George A. and Linka Tsiguloff and granddaughter of the guerrilla leader Tipo Tsuleff, killed in the Ilinden insurrection of 1903 in the village of Visheni, along with my grandmother, great-grandfather, and several other Macedonians. Rosie's father's family was from the village of Bopchor, and he was one of four children.
George Tsiguloff deserted the Greek army and fled the country with several other men. His brother Naum brought George to Lafayette, Indiana, where they operated a tavern. Another brother, Peter, could not come to the United States because the quota was filled, so he joined a group of Macedonians immigrating to Australia.
When he returned to Bopchor in 1930 to marry Lenka Tsuleff, Rosie's father paid a penalty of a few hundred dollars for having deserted the Greek army. After the marriage he returned to America by himself. My Father-in-law and his brother Naum opened the Royal Lunch Tavern & Restaurant on Main Street in downtown Fort Wayne, where the City County Building now stands. They were very successful with their business. Then in 1933 he brought over my Mother-in-law and their first child, Chris who was 1 year old.
The Tsiguloff's lived at 910 East Rudisill and had two more children, Rosie (Feb. 1935) and Tommy (Feb. 1940). Their mother was a very nice, loving person; she had a lot of class. Her father arranged for Rosie's grandmother, Baba Despa, to emigrate from Macedonia in April 1935 when Rosie was two months old. She lived with the family and was highly respected as the widow of the revolutionary Tipo Tsuleff.
When Rosie began attending public school, she didn't know a word of English. Her mother, who also couldn't speak English, sat in the classroom with her for several days or weeks until the teacher told her mother she should leave. Eventually, of course, Rosie learned the language.
The family moved to a new two-story home at 1023 East Rudisill, about a block from their first house, it had a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor for her Baba, with whom Rosie was very close. As a young girl of five or six, during nighttime thunderstorms she would run downstairs and climb into bed with Baba Despa. How good that must have made her grandmother feel, that her granddaughter wanted to be with her. Baba would have a snack for Rosie every day after school, usually a slice of bread with butter and sugar. When Baba died in Dec. 1951, in respect to her memory as the widow of a Macedonian revolutionary, the Fort Wayne Macedonian band cancelled a scheduled dance.
On Sundays, Rosie's mother served the traditional chicken dinner, with rice or noodle soup. She fixed Rosie's usual pigtails into curls on Sundays, always a special day. During her senior year of high school, Rosie was a receptionist for an anesthesiologist, Dr. Jackson. After graduation, she worked at Norwalk Trucking Company, at Midwestern United Life Insurance Company, and later for a heating and air-conditioning firm.
Her father still did not like the idea of our dating, because of the seven-year age difference. A Macedonian neighbor told me that one day he saw me arrive while her father was washing his car in the driveway. As I walked to the house, he grabbed his rag and slammed it on the car in disgust.
But during Rosie's senior year she became seriously ill with mononucleosis and was in bed for two weeks. I visited her often during that time, and he began to like me a little better. Then when we became engaged, he wanted us to marry as soon as possible.
On the Sunday morning of our wedding, February 20, 1955, I went to the Tsiguloff home for the traditional bidding on Rosie's hope chest. Some of the men there were already drinking and poking fun. Her dad started the bidding at a high price. "I don't need the chest," I told him. "I'm here for your daughter." So he said, "Give me $50, and get out of here." That was fun.
The ceremony was held at St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, Warsaw and Oxford streets, officiated by Rev. Kyril Yoncheff. My cousins Peter and Dita Atzeff served as Godparents. Bridesmaids were Rosie's sister-in-law Mary Tsiguloff, my sister Marie Spahiev, Rosie's cousin Vera Baker, my cousin Luba Knecht, and Rosie's friends Dorothy Lazoff and Radka Gouloff Lebamoff. My cousin Dorie Atzeff Reynolds was Junior Bridesmaid, and Rosie's cousin Lenka Markoff Bercot was our Flower Girl. The Ushers (Groomsmen?) were Rosie's brothers Chris and Tommy Tsiguloff, my brothers Ivan and Klem Lebamoff, and my cousins Carl, Boris, Bill and Joe Christoff. The wedding dinner was at the Purdue Center, with an evening reception at the Armory on South Clinton.
For our honeymoon we drove to Florida, without making any hotel reservations. In Tennessee and Georgia, we stayed in nice places and visited some Civil War sites. Arriving in Miami, we found that most of the hotels were filled but eventually took a room at the Jefferson Hotel, in a Jewish area of the city. An old Jewish woman sitting on the hotel porch commented about Rosie as a beautiful Jewish princess. When I told her we weren't Jewish, she asked why we were staying there.
In Fort Lauderdale we visited a Fort Wayne beer distributor, Phil Zacharia, and his wife, Inez. They were in Florida on vacation and drove us to a racetrack, where we had a great time, and then to a nice restaurant for dinner. "The wait will be at least an hour," the host told Phil. I watched as Phil reached in his pocket and gave the man a $20 bill. We ordered drinks at the bar, and within five minutes, "Mr. Zacharia, your table is ready." That was the first time I encountered someone giving money in exchange for service.
I was working with my father at Liberty Grocery and Liquors, and on returning from our honeymoon we lived with my parents for six months, then moved to the apartment above the Liberty store. At the time of our marriage my father loaned me $2,500 to buy the inventory for the liquor store behind his grocery. He owned the building, and his loan terms were $60 a month rent and $1,000 every January 1st. Rosie helped at the store and spent a couple of hours a day on the bookkeeping.
On November 18, our first child was born. I thought we would have a boy, didn't even plan for a girl. Dr. Michaels came from the delivery room and said, "She looks just like her daddy." That was nice; I was the father of a daughter. As Rosie recuperated I began looking through the Bible and saw the name Deborah, queen of the Jews. "I have the name," I told Rosie. "Let's name her Deborah Ann." And Rosie agreed. Some of my wealthier customers with large orders wanted delivery to their homes. I delivered at night, with Rosie and baby Debbie in the car. Sometimes we'd be invited in for coffee and a short visit. Eventually I had about thirty delivery customers from that little place.
In 1958 I began planning for a second liquor store, buying the permit with $1,200 Rosie had saved. Her dad and I drove around the city looking for a location. "This will be a good spot," he said, stopping at a vacant lot next to a restaurant on U.S. 27, on the north edge of the city. We talked to the restaurant owner, who agreed to lease the land. Both my father and father-in-law co-signed for a $10,000 bank loan, and I opened Variety Liquors, an 800-square-foot brick and frame building. My loan payment was $250 a month for four years.
Rosie helped Dad at Liberty Gourmet and Liquors, while I worked at Variety Liquors day and night. Baby Debbie would be sleeping when I'd leave before seven in the morning, so I'd go to her room and give her a little kiss. I'd see her when Rosie brought my supper to the store, but by the time I returned about nine at night, she would be asleep again. I'd look at her and give her mother kiss.
At first there was little to do at Variety Liquors, mainly straightening up, checking the inventory. I started to clean the five small bay windows, and did that every day, inside and outside. In the summer I began washing the driveway. "What are you doing?" people would ask. "You did that yesterday." And I'd say, "I've nothing else to do, just waiting for customers." By keeping the place spic and span, I got a reputation for cleanliness. Once a week I washed the glass shelves and wiped every bottle.
I smoked cigars at that time, and on the roof of the store a big billboard had a caricature of me with a cigar. One Syrian friend, Mose Bedree, a kind guy, came in about twice a week, never bought much, but he would stay and talk. It seemed that whenever he was there, customers began coming to the store. He laughed about it, "Every time I'm here, you get busy. I'll come more often." So he would be at the store three or four times a week, sometimes just to say hello and wait until other customers rame in. He was like magic.
Eventually I could afford to hire an assistant, a man named Fred Dryer. He had a good gift of gab, but he'd give everyone discounts to build up sales. A Macedonian friend and tavern owner in the neighborhood, Louie Laycoff, would say, "Georgie, any damn fool can give it away. It takes brains to sell it."
Variety Liquors was a nice store. We worked hard, and everyone remembers how particular I was about cleanliness and neatness. I'd tell the distributors to wipe their feet before they came in, to straighten the beer, to clean up when they finished their deliveries.
We advertised in the newspapers and mailed postcards to potential customers. "How much are you paying for beer?" we asked in one ad. "Why not give your pocketbook a break, check our prices. We have specials every week." We couldn't advertise prices then, but suggested that if you were planning a party or a family or holiday get-together, "Let George do it" and let us provide the refreshments. Advertising was an important key to increasing our sales.
Fred worked one Labor Day weekend so that I could take Rosie and Debbie on a trip to Chicago. Arriving at the Pick-Congress Hotel on Michigan Avenue with no reservations, I was told, "Sorry, we're sold out." Remembering Phil Zacharia at the Florida restaurant, I took a $10 bill from my pocket and pleaded with the clerk, "I have a little daughter, a tired wife. Please help me out." He left and came back, "There is one suite available." I thanked him. The next morning Debbie ran into our bedroom. "Look out the window!" she said. "See the parade!" From our suite we enjoyed watching the Chicago Labor Day parade.
In my business, both my dad and my father-in-law were of great help to me, both had words of wisdom. In about 1960 I spoke to my dad about the loan he gave me five years earlier to buy the Liberty store. "Papa, you loaned me $2,500, and at $1,000 every year I've paid you back $5,000. When do I quit?" And he said, "Well, I was waiting for you to ask. You're the dummy. Now you won't have to pay me any more." He was saying, in effect, use your head.
One day a salesman sold me ten cases of King's Black Label, an inexpensive blended whiskey. He offered one case free and 3% off the price, with the bill to be paid in two weeks. I put one case on the shelf and the rest behind the door. A few weeks later, my father came in and asked why the whiskey cases were behind the door. "Papa," I explained, "The man gave me a good deal. I bought ten cases and he gave me one case free." "But you paid for it a week ago. When the hell are you going to sell it? Buying it if you can't sell it is not a good deal. Now, we're going to play a game. Put twelve bottles on display on this part of the counter, that's your side. The twelve bottles over here are my side. Let's see who sells more of the King's whiskey."
It sold for $4.35 fair trade, and we discounted it about 10% to $3.85. "When a customer comes in," Dad said, "and asks for a bottle of 7 Crown or Calvert, you say, 'OK, but I've got something on special today. It's just as good, for 50 cents less.' We'll see how fast you can sell it." It took about three weeks, but I think I bested him in his contest. Then he said, "Now, buy another ten cases, but try to sell them before the bill is paid." A great lesson.
Also in those days, I didn't know the price difference between 10% discount and cost plus 10%. A salesman said, "Georgie, if you buy something for $50 and sell it for cost plus 10%, the price is $55. If it sells for $10 and you give 10% discount, that's $9. The difference between you and your competitors is that they're selling whiskey by the case at cost plus 10%. When you get a case free with ten, along with an extra 3% commission, the whiskey is lowered by about another bottle on the case. If you sell it at cost plus 10% you'll make just as much as you do on any other item."
One day a wealthy, smart, Jewish produce salesman, Jake Bernstein, came to the store. "How much for a case of Seagram's VO?" I looked in my book and found the cost, $62.36; added 10% and told him it would be about $69 a case. "OK, listen," he said, "I can buy it at the Yacht Club for around $66 a case. Now, what does it cost you?" I told him, and he answered, "I'll give you $3 on top of that. You want $6, but half a loaf is better than none. Put the case in my car; I'll give you $65.50 cash. Tomorrow you can buy something with that money." He called me a putz, a schmuck, a dumb Gentile.
While he was standing there, a customer came in to buy a pint of whiskey. The bottles on the shelves were not in a straight line, so when I reached for one, I dropped and broke it. Jake just watched as I cleaned up the mess, and then he said, "George, put a ruler between the bottles, then turn it so that the bottles are all lined up straight. And here's another trick; this is why Jews make money and you don't. If you paint the back of your shelves black, customers won't know whether you have five bottles or none behind the one they see. Right now the backs of the shelves reflect the bottles, and the customer can see whether you have five bottles or one bottle - if you're in business or almost out of business."
One time a liquor salesman came in with a case of shot glasses and an idea to sell gin: a boat in the middle of the store, holding 120 bottles of gin. We advertised the gin at $3.93 a bottle, with a free shot glass. That was illegal, giving an item to induce the buying of alcoholic beverages. When two men came in the store, I knew they were either police or competitors. "Are you giving away these shot glasses," one asked, "or are you selling them?" I knew he had me. "Sir, if you want one," I answered, "take it." But they told me I was in violation of the law, and I realized it was bad judgment on my part.
After I was issued a citation, I asked the name of their boss. "George Rink," one said. Rink was chief of the state excise police. "Oh," I said. "I met him a few weeks ago at a tavern in South Bend; a nice guy. Go ahead and write up your report. He'll take care of me." I didn't mean it the way it sounded, but they wrote in the report that I implied George Rink would fix the citation.
I had to go to Indianapolis, the state capital, and my brother Ivan, a young lawyer, went with me. When the prosecutor, Jack Brown, asked if I ever had a parking ticket fixed, I told him that yes, I did. "Your honor," the prosecutor said, "this is precisely what he meant when he told the excise men that George Rink 'would take care of me.'" I tried to explain that I meant I thought he would give me a fair shake. The Judge issued a finding that closed the store for ten days.
After we went to the office of the Commissioner of Excise, Noble Ellis, Jack Brown said to send him a check for $500 as a retainer fee. "If you have a problem in the future," he added, "if you have to come to Indianapolis, I'll take care of it. But don't bring your brother, we don't need another lawyer involved." I didn't have any problems after that. If something happened, such as an underage customer in the store, I'd just call Jack, and he'd handle it for me.
After the finding, I put a sign on the store door, "Closed for ten days due to tavern pressures." The excise police came again: "Take down that damn sign. All of your competitors are mad." I said, "Well, they're the ones who complained. I want my customers to know who's responsible." But I removed the sign, and we reopened ten days later.
In about 1960, a guy walked into Variety Liquors from the gas station across the street and asked for a half pint of whiskey. He put a $20 bill on the counter, took it back, gave me a $10 bill, he said "wait a minute," took it back and handed me a $5 bill. Then after I put the money in the cash register, he said, "No, I don't want this. Keep it here; I want to buy something else." He was confusing me. "Now, here's your whiskey and your change." "No," he said, "I gave you $20." "I don't have a twenty in the drawer," I answered. "If you want to buy the whiskey, fine; otherwise, here's your $5 and be on your way." He went to his car across the street and drove away. The gas station attendant came running over. "Did you get taken? That guy cheated me out of $20." I told him that he tried to cheat me. "But maybe I'm a little smarter than you, because I stopped him." We called the police and reported that he drove north from our corner. He tried to pull the same scam at a gas station about six blocks away, where the police arrested him.
In 1961 the city offered liquor permits for sale, but obtaining them required contributions to the Republican party. I had friends in the liquor business with political clout and was told that I could pick up four permits with a thousand dollar donation to Tom Galmeyer, the county chairman. I was a Democrat, but I took a check for $1,000, payable to Galmeyer's law firm. The permits were approved, but Galmeyer told me later the check should have been made out to him personally. "I know that," I said, "but by giving it to the law firm, the payment was tax deductible."
Our apartment was becoming a little cramped, so Rosie's dad bought us a lot at 1438 Ardis, in the southern section of Fort Wayne. I hired an architect to design a three-bedroom home. During Rosie's second pregnancy, in May of 1961, her mother had a sudden heart attack and died the next day. Rosie was very close to both her mother and her dad, and the shock was enormous. We left the furniture in our apartment and moved in with her dad. Our son Andrew George was born on October 24, 1961.
We stayed with her father for about a year and asked our architect to redesign the house to a four-bedroom plan. We wanted him to live with us, but then he decided to stay in his own place. Soon after we were settled in our new home, on October 8, 1962, our third child, John George, was born. Our last child, Thomas George, was born three years later, on October 24, 1965. We lived in the home for thirty-six years, remodeling and enlarging it several times.
Working from morning to night managing the stores, I was never of much help with our four youngsters. "Rosie," I'd say if she called that one of them was sick, "I'm here alone; I can't leave." Rosie made breakfast for the children, dressed them, put them to bed at night. By the time I came home, they would be asleep. She went to school meetings and took the children to appointments without me.
One of the most traumatic experiences of their childhood occurred when Debbie choked on a piece of egg. I patted her back and then her rear end, but it didn't help. Becoming frantic and not knowing what to do, I grabbed her feet, lifted her upside down, and hit her back. Suddenly she spit it up, and thankfully she was OK.
At one of the children's birthday parties, Andy doubled over with severe stomach pain. Leaving the party, Rosie and I rushed him to Lutheran Hospital, where the emergency room physician said Andy might need exploratory surgery. I told him to do whatever was necessary, but Rosie said, "Oh, no. You won't do anything until Dr. Michaels gets here." She was right. Dr. Michaels examined Andy and then explained to the other physician how to determine whether the problem might be serious. Andy's turned out to be a congested stomach, which was relieved by medication.
Even as youngsters, the children always had chores at home, trimming the yard, pulling weeds, cleaning the pool. Poor Debbie; when she was about six or eight years old she had the job of taking care of my new Scout vehicle. Just about every afternoon after school she had to clean and vacuum it for me.
With the liquor business increasing, I had the resources to expand into
other areas of the city, eventually owning six small stores: Liberty, Variety,
and four Lebamoff's locations - on East State, Lafayette, Bluffton Road,
and North Anthony Boulevard.
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