A Walk Down Wells
published in Fort Wayne Magazine
Every cool city has one: a “district,” a hip stretch of shops and restaurants where the products and the people are a little different. It’s a haven for creative types, a breeding ground for expression and out-of-the-box thinking, an area where the unusual draws the disenfranchised, the arbiters of leading trends and tourists who want a sense of place.
Dallas has its Deep Ellum; Columbus, Ohio, its Short North. Not much can beat Boulder, Colorado’s Pearl Street. San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury is legendary; even Indianapolis can claim Broad Ripple.
But Fort Wayne is not to be left off the list. There is such a neighborhood – not the only one, but a perfect example – nestled within our reawakening downtown. It is home to artists, thinkers, entrepreneurs and free spirits. It hosts one-of-a-kind restaurants and shops selling things you simply can’t find anywhere else. It’s got a bit of urban grit, a wealth of warm welcome and the juice of a fresh sprucing up. Wander for a bit down Wells Street. You might just be surprised.
Indiana Mexican Bakery
It’s easy to get carried away at the panadaría. There are the empanadas, baked with freshly ground cinnamon and filled with creamy pumpkin or sweet potato or mango. There are the cookies packed with raisins, walnuts and coconut that German Pantoja created for his wife when she was pregnant with their little girl.
Just try to pass up the tres leches cake, named for the one-and-a-half liters of milk – sweetened condensed, evaporated and cream – in the batter. Little loaves of bread for tortas are piled on a tray … and suddenly a sandwich sounds good.
Pantoja learned to bake in a panadaría in his native Mexico, where he swept floors as a youth. He came to Fort Wayne from Los Angeles, seeking a safe city with good jobs.
“For 12 years, I never thought to make bread,” Pantoja said. But with the encouragement of his wife, Irma, he began selling loaves to friends on weekends, when he wasn’t working at the Kendallville Foundry. A change in management there combined with the long drive proved the motivation Pantoja needed to make his passion his profession.
In 2000, he set up kitchen in a tiny shop on Wells Street. So many climbed the steep stairs to watch stand mixers whir in the background and choose trays of fresh treats that Pantoja was able to expand to a larger space next door in December 2005, adding chorizo, spices and other grocery items. He is open every day and busy every day, a welcome relief after surviving in the early months on just $20 in daily sales.
That tiny shop beside his panadaría is incubating fragrant hopes again. Members of his family this summer opened Doña Maria, serving Mexican soups and sandwiches and adding to the wonderfully unique flavor of Wells.
Great Panes Glass
It’s hard to know where to look first when you walk in. Glass glints from every corner in the shape of colorful decorative balls, stained-glass windows, small creatures and abstract figures.
But you’ll quickly be greeted by owner Judi Wire or another of the talented artisans creating more visual delights at a table in the other room, where they have a cozy, friendly vibe at work. It’s hard to say which is more entertaining: the conversation as you watch their designs take shape or the amazing examples filling Wire’s studio.
Great Panes Glass has sparkled in this spot for 18 years, and Wire’s been with it for 15. Much of her work is placed in churches and other major structures – 95 percent of her work is custom – yet she still produces pieces for her shop and for sale at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.
Wire also conducts classes for those who wish to fashion their own glittering gem. While Wire is well-known to contractors and architects in the area, she still is a fresh discovery for some of the 18,000 who travel Wells each day.
“One of the best things is the people who see us,” Wire says, and decide, “Today’s the day.” As long as they seize the day with caution – after all, it is glass.
GI Joe’s Army Surplus Store
Bet you didn’t know you could find the omigosh cutest tank top ever just a few shelves away from the latest in protective warfare gear. Dig around a bit. Nyla and Robert Doswell admit there are all kinds of things crammed into GI Joe’s Army Surplus Store.
“If you come in here and want to scrounge around, you can find lots of stuff,” Nyla says.
The business was started by Nyla’s two brothers 39 years ago, and her daughter Shawna is taking over. It’s always been wedged into Wells; success has never made it necessary to move elsewhere.
Sales represent a huge range of interests: paintballers, hunters, fishermen, wanna-be rap thugs, patriotic types. Sizes start at 6-8 months for infants and expand to adult 4X. There are flags, pocket knives, bumper stickers and, of course, camouflage gear. Some of it is pink, and some of it is fashioned into an Army green tank top with really cute buckles.
The creaking screen door one sweltering Saturday afternoon might as well have been revolving, as busy as they were. A couple in from Kansas City joked they had made the trip to Fort Wayne just to come to GI Joe’s. The wife later admitted they returned to visit family in the area … but maybe that’s precisely why they made Robert and Nyla’s shop a stop.
The Brewer’s Art Supply
It was a total fluke that Francie Lengrich plunged into the beer- and wine-making business.
She was working at Cedar Point after her freshman year in college when she got the call: A business owner in Indianapolis was looking for students who had participated in DECA’s marketing education program in high school to run an outlet of his business in Fort Wayne.
Much to the dismay of her father, Daniel, who now keeps books for The Brewers Art Supply, she said yes. When the other locations failed, Francie became owner of the one-stop shop for home brewers.
She’s grown with the ripening interest in wine and added free classes to teach her customers how to reap the best results with the supplies she sells. There’s a laid-back, learning atmosphere in her shop, so Francie hears lots of stories, about weddings, celebrations and family history.
She’s proud to say, however, that techniques and equipment have elevated the beer- and wine-making process from the bathtub days of yore. “It’s not what your grandpa used to make,” she says with a laugh.
Thank heavens, and pour out the moonshine.
Big Eyed Fish
Big Eyed Fish owner Tony Bryant claims his restaurant serves the best fried fish in town, and he’s got the votes in local radio station polls to prove it. So why would someone who’s not crazy about fried fish ever stop by?
Because there’s great local music – Stone Soup plays every Wednesday night. Because the staff’s up early every morning serving breakfast, too. Because you can sit at the bar and chat with the friendly person behind it in front of all kind of different food.
“(Fish is) our main item, but we have a little bit of everything,” Bryant says.
Open just two years, Big Eyed Fish feels like it’s been there forever. Maybe it’s because Bryant and his partner, Tim Allen, were behind Famous Fish of Stroh for so many years. Maybe it’s because Bryant grew up in the area and still lives just down the road. Or maybe it’s because everybody checks their pretentiousness at the door, right next to the big-screen TV.
Wildman Tattoos isn’t wild at all when you walk in the door. In fact, it’s pretty darn serious. This is artistry, professionalism and a respect for the sterility necessary to preserve positive word-of-mouth after their work walks out the door.
The Wildman in question is Steve Arnett, who has operated in this sliver of a spot on Wells for nine years. He strikes one as fairly mellow at the moment, but frankly fascinating at the same time
His career started with a bet from a buddy in school that he wouldn’t tattoo his drawings. He won the bet, practiced on his brothers and friends and worked out of his house.
“A hobby went awry,” Arnett says.
He has a staff these days, but Arnett still tattoos every day. Clients include doctors, lawyers, bikers, 17-year-olds and 69-year-olds, “a little bit of everyone,” he says.
Everyone, it seems, has a little bit of wild man in them … or on them, as the case may be.
His theory holds water … though it takes some getting used to the idea. Jim Koch’s hobby for the past 20 years – now his business for the past year (“It got out of hand… I ended up with a store”) – is hydroponics: growing things in water, rather than soil.
Soil, he explains, serves to hold nutrients and water for a growing plant. Put the plant in water, add nutrients, and voila! a complete diet, plus bigger, better, faster-growing plants with greater yields, thanks to the blend of nutrients he sells.
Koch thinks the idea has legs, though he admits he’s a bit ahead of his time in the heartland of America.
“Holland is very big on this,” he says, because there’s not much ground.
He sells most of his supplies, including premium organic plant food, to other hobbyists, often men in their 30s and 40s. And he’s got a small sideline: live herb plants small enough for a windowsill or large and lush enough to scent a room. This winter he’ll sell organic veggies in addition to the hydroponic tomatoes he already offers.
Things are slow for now, but that suits him fine as he sits in a lawn chair reading in back. He’s confident things will grow – in his shop, they always do.
Hyde Brothers Booksellers
Hyde Brothers has earned and probably will never shake the title “institution,” even though one half of the brothers just departed the beloved used bookseller to open Every Other Book on the east side (so named because they’re splitting the inventory by pulling every other book off the shelves).
The shop is not just its owners, though Sam Hyde is the beating heart under the floorboards. The bookstore is more treasure trove, a whimsical stroll through ancient philosophy, cooking trends, religious movements, the advent of digital photography, perhaps even your high school yearbook. You never know what characters might grab you from the pages – or from behind the counter.
Artist Julia Meeks might ring up your stack, or you might indulge in talk of random topics with another of the educated, worldly and just plain interesting people who work, sell books or buy books there. This is the place to track down a rare book, but even more rare is the atmosphere.
Now bigger, Hyde Brothers could never be better.
Linda Lou’s Used Furniture
It’s the best garage sale – new stuff is always coming in, everything’s tagged, and it’s never rained out.
Some come to Linda Lou’s Used Furniture for the thrill of the hunt. Some come for the chance to furnish a home affordably. Linda Klotz and her husband, Dave, buy from all over and sell to anyone.
They have an arrangement with the trustees’ office to help those released from jail find the basics to set up housekeeping. Many of their customers are newly divorced or moving to a new home. Some are the same people who sold their things to Linda when they moved away.
“I actually have kids come in here and buy furniture from me now that came with their parents the first time,” Linda says. “That’s fun.”
Her daughter is involved with the business now, and they’ve expanded to sell new furniture through catalogs. What hasn’t changed is the eclectic mix of practical, potential and perfect, depending on the eye of the beholder.
They’re serving garbage at Klemm’s Kafe, and you’re going to like it.
The dish of eggs, sausage, hash browns, onions, tomatoes and green peppers smothered with sausage gravy is one of the most popular on the menu at this quintessential neighborhood breakfast joint. They serve lunch, too, but it’s what’s on the griddle that keeps the barstools full.
Sonia Harter took over Klemm’s just more than a year ago and has worked long and hard since to degrease and refresh the interior. But a veteran of local institutions Rich’s Café and Willie’s Restaurant, she knew better than to tinker with the menu. The regulars have their favorites.
It’s that kind of place – Kenny, the man working magic with the spatula at the grill, has been flipping fresh orders behind the bar for 20 years. That loyalty among staff and customer is the best part of the job for Harter: “They become part of your family. A lot of people who come here, this is their family.”
Visitors are welcomed into the fold and given this worthy advice: You can’t leave without trying the pie. It might even be better than garbage.
When Collaboration Goes Official
The sun was as intensely bright as the freshly painted poles were intensely black when members of the Third Street Church of God youth group hit the street to provide some neighborhood pride.
The students worked in teams to paint light posts and hang flowering baskets in front of businesses who paid to participate. They were earning money to send several of their members to church camp. The effort was coordinated that Saturday morning by Josh Harper, office manager at Sloan & Sons Funeral Home on Wells and a leader in the new Wells Corridor merchants’ association.
It’s the first time in 20 years that the businesses in the area have formally organized. It was only last November that the first meeting was held, and already the following spring, Harper could outline grand plans. He has found a newly receptive audience among the moms and pops who make up the economic base of the district
“The people on this corridor, the majority are small businesses. They have a vital interest. … This is their livelihood.”
Harper and other new kids on the block have provided much-needed momentum, says Judi Wire, owner of Great Panes Glass and another guiding force in the effort.
As new businesses arrive or as the next generation steps up to the counter, there is a heightened appreciation for strength in numbers. The group has some impressive numbers to work with.
Wells Street is the second-oldest business district in Fort Wayne. It is traversed by some 18,000 cars a day. The combination of history and visibility provides unique value. There also are some exciting developments in the neighborhood. The possibility of a charter school in the former YWCA down the road gives hope to business owners who feared that facility’s decay. The construction of the Police and Firefighters Memorial at the base of Wells, near the old iron bridge, gives meaning and use to a previously overlooked piece of ground.
The Wells Corridor merchants’ association has endeavors of its own. Francie Lengerich, owner of The Brewers Art Supply, is spearheading plans to initiate an Iron Bridge Festival this fall. The historic pedestrian bridge already provides an important link to downtown, making the shops and restaurants on Wells a short walk from most offices there.
With fund raising and a festival, Lengerich and the other business owners hope to light the bridge, creating a welcoming gateway that frames the city skyline at night.
The association has sought help from the city to make the corridor more inviting for pedestrians and businesses. They’ve worked with the Fort Wayne Police Department on speed control, and they have requested from the board of works and city planning department an improvement plan to include planter islands as a traffic buffer for pedestrians as well as off-street city-owned parking lots.
They’ve also petitioned for corridor zoning to allow mixed-use properties – say, a coffeehouse on the first floor of a building, with a residence for the proprietor on the second floor.
Most powerful thus far has been the personal support of the individuals involved. The attitude toward organizing has changed with a change in the street’s character.
“It’s quieter than it had been,” says Linda Klotz, owner of Linda Lou’s Used Furniture. She attributes some of that to the closing of a bar she owned on Wells, the Happen Inn. “I needed more room, and we didn’t want to be in the bar business anymore,” Klotz says.
Big Eyed Fish owner Tony Bryant noticed the difference when he brought his restaurant to Wells two years ago. “Wells Street used to be a troublesome neighborhood at one point,” he says. “It’s on the rebound, and it’s on its way up, and we’re happy to be a part of it.”
Wire has gone out of her way to help that happen. She has spent many weekend hours on tasks such as cleaning up a new park space at Wells and Third streets or watering the new planters. She’s been gratified by the response not only from business owners but the surrounding homeowners, who have expressed their thanks for the area’s beautification.
“The neighbors are noticing,” Wire says. “We’re doing the right thing.”
Wells Street may be benefiting from a more civilized clientele and some elbow grease, but the spit-polish could never erase its character. It’s why Lengerich chose the location for her business: “You walk down the street, it felt like home. All these little businesses are so eclectic and unique.”
Instead, the corridor’s fresh face may slow down a few more of those 18,000 cars to appreciate the diversity that can make it a destination. “Everybody’s always had an interest in Wells Street, drove down it thousands of times, but never really stopped to pay any attention to the shops and the things that are going on around here,” Bryant says. “And that’s changing.”