Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Norm Downey never thought that he’d one day be the owner of one of the city’s most iconic watering holes.
As a kid growing up in Battle Creek, Downey’s aspirations were like those of many of his friends and classmates.
“I thought I’d get a job at Kellogg and do that for the rest of my life,” Downey says.
Then his father, John, became ill and asked him to take over the management of the Lakeview Lounge which the Downey family had bought in 1959. The building had started out in 1933 as a house and became a beer garden and tavern called Beeson’s Tavern in 1935, according to a worn sheet of paper offering a typewritten timeline of the business that Downey laid on a table during an interview with On the Ground Battle Creek.
The original space was about 900 square feet. When the Downeys purchased the business, they also bought a coffee shop next door which enabled them to expand the business – affectionately referred to by customers and city residents as “The Lounge” -- to its current 1,600 square feet.
Norm Downey began working at the Lounge in 1974 when he was still in high school to help out, never dreaming that he would someday be running the place and feeling lucky to be doing so.
“My dad really wanted to keep it in the family. It meant a lot to him to have someone in the family carry it on,” Downey says. “I was a senior in high school when I started working here. Then my dad got sick and I was kind of stuck.
“Did I want to help my dad? Yes. Did I Want to work in the bar business when I was 18-years-old? No.”
But, as he settled into his new role, Downey says he realized how much it meant to his dad that the business would remain open and stay in the family. In 1992, Downey and his wife, Bonnie, formally purchased the Lounge from his father.
“He was awful proud to be able to pass it on to someone in the family,” Downey says.
When asked how the Lounge has been able to keep its doors open and maintain a regular customer base, in addition to attracting new generations of patrons, Downey says, it’s all about the atmosphere. On any given day, business owners, attorneys, and community leaders can be found bending elbows with residents from the neighborhood.
Downey says it’s the familiarity that keeps the barstools and tables full at the city’s oldest neighborhood and what many would say only neighborhood bar.
“You could come here five days a week and see the same people sitting in the same chairs,” Downey says. “My dad would open at 9 in the morning and at 9:10 he’d have the same people sitting in the same chairs drinking the same thing.
“It’s nice that when new people come in they feel comfortable. That’s what matters. It’s a bar and I want people to be comfortable when they come in. There are guys who come in for the first time and the second time they come, they’re so happy that two guys at the bar remember their name.”
While Lakeview Lounge’s neighbor one-block down is in a very different business, like Downey, its owner says his doors remain open because of his focus on his customers and meeting their needs.
“That’s what we sell here, it’s the service and being able to point people in the right direction and give them what they need,” says Craig Walters, co-owner of Lakeview Hardware.
On a recent Friday, store employees replaced knobs on old cooking pot tops for a customer. This kind of service is what helps the hardware store remain competitive with Big Box retailers like Lowe’s or Menard’s.
Tom Coleman, co-owner of the Henry Funeral Home, on the opposite side of Capital Avenue from the Lounge and the hardware store, says he recently needed bulbs for a lamp and knew that Walters would be able to find what he needed.
Downey says a sense of history helps keep these businesses alive, too.
Lakeview Hardware has been in the same location since 1933 with the same wooden flooring that receives a coat of paraffin oil each year. Originally owned by the Meacham Family, the business went on to be owned by the Nashs and then Boyd Redner who purchased it in 1977. He became Walters’ father-in-law when Walters married Redner’s daughter, Laura.
He has an even longer history with Laura’s sister, Kerrie, who bought the business with him in 1999. Walters said he and Kerrie Redner have known each other since they were kids. He met his future wife while she worked at the store, which he was managing at that time.
“It's old and that’s what gives it character,” Downey says. “It’s the age of places like Lakeview Hardware. I grew up when the Nashs owned it and I knew them and their kids. Then Laura’s dad bought it. It’s people like that who care and work it. They didn’t buy it and throw people in who didn’t know about the business. That’s what keeps these businesses alive.”
The store carries everything from pressure cooker parts to plastic Adirondack chairs. It also has boxes of old brass screws that date back to World War II, which is when the business really cemented itself with residents as the go-to place for their hardware needs.
“During World War II there were so many shortages and the store stocked everything,” Walters says. “We still have some of that stuff including a lot of brass screws that were very odd sizes and they’re still here in old boxes. They bought cases of them.”
Walters says he loves what he does and has never had second thoughts about making a career out of it. Although he has had as many as 20 employees, these days he gets by with an even dozen.
“You keep the prices in line and you promote your business in another way that the Big Box stores can’t do,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of fun and it’s been a great run so far.”
Walters says that it’s a challenge to get new customers, especially those who are younger to walk through his doors, but once they do, they become repeat customers.
Some of this loyalty to locally owned businesses, he says, has to do with the old-time feel of the neighborhood business district. Despite the age of many of the buildings, business owners have kept up their properties. They've also taken the time to beautify the area with flowers.
The leaders of these efforts remain somewhat of a mystery and somewhat of a running joke with Coleman and Joseph U. Stasa, who co-owns Henry Funeral Home with him.
“There’s been Lakeview Business Association. I don’t even know who’s in charge. I just always knew there was one because years ago we were planting flowers out front, which was something they were leading,” Coleman says.
Back in the 1970s, Walters says, the Lakeview Business Association used to meet regularly at the former Buckingham restaurant and one thing they were involved with was planting flowers in the area.
Coleman says improvements now tend to happen organically, absent of any formalized approach to taking care of individual properties. “Everybody’s just trying to clean up this stretch of Capital Avenue,” Coleman says.
He and Stasa are the new kids on the block having purchased the funeral home in 2015 after its original owner, Richard Henry passed away. The two, relocated to Battle Creek from Kalamazoo when they came to work for Henry 17 years ago.
The original two-story brick house where Henry and his wife, Shirley, started the business in 1963 has been added on to over the years and now occupies more than 14,000 square feet on the main floor alone. The Henrys lived on the second floor until Richard Henry passed away.
Unlike Downey and Walters, Coleman and Stasa didn’t have deep family ties to their business, but they both say their move to Battle Creek with their families was a good decision. During their time with the funeral home, first as employees and now owners, they have come to appreciate how fellow business owners look out for each other.
“We may not sit down and talk to each other once a month,” Downey says, but it doesn't take a meeting to stay connected. “I snowplow for Craig (at Lakeview Hardware) and we look out for each other. We take care of each other and if they need something and I have something I’ll help out with it.”
Walters says they stay in touch and alert each other to occurrences such as the occasional shoplifting.
For the most part, Coleman says it’s a safe neighborhood, “just like any other place, you get a few characters walking through the parking lot, but the more positive activity you have, the more that other element gets pushed back a little bit.”
Even though the funeral home doesn’t have the same element of competition from Big Box retailers or chain restaurants that Lakeview Hardware or the Lounge have, Coleman says he thinks the businesses surrounding him have staying power because the city’s residents like their mom and pop shops.
“You have to be in more of a niche market,” he says. “The business owners that have that good niche market know their customers and people go back because they are known. It’s nice to go in where people know your name.”
At Lakeview Lounge, Downey says for as much as he may complain about the long hours and the family gatherings he may have had to miss over the years, he wouldn’t do anything differently given the opportunity for a do-over. He says he considers himself lucky to have made friendships that have withstood the test of time.
If he was ever in a pinch, he says, there are childhood friends he can and has called on to help out. He also has adult children who work in the business on busier-than-normal days.
“Without my family and my brothers and my kids it would be tough to keep going and I’ve got a guy that helps me out who's been here for 25 years, now,” Downey says. “Without their help, I wouldn’t survive and I think that’s why family-owned owned businesses can survive.”
Photos by John Grap of John Grap Photography. His work is featured here.