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Monday
Oct012012

Little Free Libraries

Amid an economic downturn, and slashing budgetary cutbacks impacting publicly funded resources, the Little Free Library movement is taking hold. Part of a larger trend in America toward community, grassroots, and DIY mentalities, Little Free Libraries have been appearing in cities across the nation. The concept is simple; participants can purchase a ready-made, or build a small, house-like structure on a mounted post - about chest high, with dimensions of about two feet by two feet by one foot deep. The result is a small, single shelf brace of books, ensconced by a roof, and framed by a Plexiglas door. Makers ornament their Little Free Library to denote personal tastes and perhaps neighborhood decor. Librarians can get creative with design, and can tailor their offerings of books to reflect their reading interests. What emerges is a small stand on a person’s property, a tiny lending library within a larger network of participants. Participants register with littlefreelibrary.org, receive a number, and get placement within the non-profit organization’s database. Each Little Free Library becomes a steward of book lending - turning ordinary citizens into librarians.

Looking like roadside shrines throughout Catholic and Orthodox Mediterrania, tiny trailside commissaries along Alpine ranges, or even the stone dolmens of the ancient Celts, the Little Free Libraries act as beacons. Respite stops. Landmarks. Little shelves of possibility flanked in a cheery and inviting wooden box. Spines faced to the Plexiglas, a reader can browse. Exchanges happen with the Little Free Library - of books - of ideas, and it’s all done by regular people.

Thursday
Sep272012

Prasco Park 

Regardless of which side of the aisle a person stands concerning medical care, wellness and good health are universal necessities. And falling ill can be an expense that debilitates one’s financial health as well. Prasco has been a company set on healing bodies and wallets since the introduction of Authorized Generics in 2004. Authorized Generics (high quality pharmaceuticals at a generic price) have been saving lives and bank accounts for millions, and Prasco is the industry leader in this movement. And now, though already armed with an arsenal of good karma, Prasco is bringing its philanthropic culture to another institution-the baseball diamond.

Cincinnati is home to the first professional baseball team so it makes sense that Prasco’s homage to the great American past-time takes place in the Cincinnati area. Prasco Park is a state of the art baseball stadium with a golden era aesthetic to it. One can imagine Babe Ruth swatting bombs or Willie Mays shagging flies inside the pristinely clean brick domicile. Of course the players and fans of those days never enjoyed the meticulous upkeep that goes into maintaining the picturesque field of dreams. Nestled against Mother Nature’s finest backdrop, the stadium boasts 550 permanent chair-back seats, poured concrete dugouts, a clubhouse, press box and a sound system that is typically only found in newer Major League venues. The private field is home to the Cincinnati Spikes, a professional team, and with its dimensions has served as host to many baseball events, from youth leagues to collegiate. And in an act that falls in line with the values of its parent company, admission and parking is usually free at Prasco Park.

A dose of Americana at its finest? Perhaps the greatest medicine of all.

Tuesday
Sep252012

Daisy Cakes 

When South Carolinian Kim Nelson appeared on the investment/start-up reality show Shark Tank, all but one judge passed on the proposal to join Daisy Cakes as a backer. What they did not pass on was seconds.

It used to be that there was no such thing as bad cake. That was until Nelson introduced her delectable family heirloom to the industry. On the sage recipes of her aunt Daisy and her two grandmothers, Miss Nellie and Miss Nervilee, Nelson and Daisy Cakes are marking their territory in the baking world, one lemon cake at a time. From her commercial kitchen in the south, Nelson has been a busy lady (5,000 cakes in 30 days is her new normal). Her award winning confections are in high demand, and Daisy Cakes operates as an online bakery; made from scratch and shipped anywhere one might have a sweet tooth.

The blue ribbon cakes (carrot, chocolate, red velvet and coconut among them) are a labor of love for Nelson. The key? Simple and pure ingredients. From hand sifted flour and farm fresh eggs, no corners are cut-and it is evident by her clients’ jumping taste buds that dance with every bite. Daisy Cakes recently joined forces with Whole Foods and continues to ply away in Nelson’s kitchen, the timeless southern fare available anywhere thanks to the matrix. It is an odd pairing, something as folksy and traditional as baking coupled with technology, but one that works well. One thing is certain-grocery store cakes might have just met their bubonic plague. As for the rest of us who have our cake and eat it too?

Everything is coming up Daisy.

Tuesday
Sep252012

Baden Sports-Axe 

As MLB pennant races heat up alongside the scorching dog days of August, baseball fans have been given box seats to a season of change. The knuckleball has returned, as has the resurrgence of small market clubs in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. Teenagers swing like veterans in Washington; veterans everywhere are clinging to their field of dreams like superstitous shortstops keeping to the grass in nonsensical ritual (NEVER step on the chalk). And in Detroit, a husky man named Fielder menaces opposing fastballs; he is no Cecil, but they do call him Prince.

The prince is crowned on the diamond; the baseball bat, perhaps, might soon have a new king.

From Little League to the NCAA, slow pitch softball to Phillies infielder Jimmy Rollins, the old batter’s box adage “chopping wood” has taken a turn for the literal. Baden Sports, pioneers behind too many sporting good innovations to list, unveiled the Axe this season. The revolutionary bat, approved at all competitive levels, has taken an old Ted Williams offseason training regimine and introduced it to the playing field. Where traditional slugger lumber was rounded at the handle, causing an unnatural tension from impact to the hands (a nightmare for team physicians), the Axe is ergonomically structured to mold to the natural movement of the swing. The results? Less stress fractures and (as close as can be) a fighting chance to connect on an Aroldis Chapman 105 mph missile.

As of this writing, 11 models exist for athletes across the four-bag spectrum. At the professional level, Baden employs the traditional ash and maple DNA from American trees, fabricating tension-free at-bats from their factory in Wisconsin. And with the full endorsement of former pros and current stars, the next wave of the sport is trinkling in. With the Baden Sports Axe increasingly in the hands of Little Leaguers globally, the next decade’s wave could be bordering on tidal.

As for purists? Basketball was originally a game played with peach baskets. Imagine what Shaq would have done to those poor things. And if an axe handled bat was good enough for Red Sox icon Ted Williams, we say it’s good enough for the game.

Monday
Sep242012

NFL Referees & The Strike 

The NFL referees are on strike ($149k median for part time work is an insult, according to them. It’s a hard knock life). Depending on your team’s win/loss record, the replacement zebras are either the worst thing since leather seats in a convertible in August, or the best thing since Rocky Balboa knocked out Drago and single handedly ended communism in Rocky IV. But aren’t all refs created equal? The road to becoming a national punching bag is quite unpaved and curvy. These men must be masochists.

It goes far beyond memorizing a playbook and learning how to not swallow a whistle. It even goes beyond wearing a striped shirt. First, one must have a high tolerance for abuse (perhaps working as a dinner hour telemarketer might help). Then, one must have a fanatic football obsession, yet be willing to wash away any team allegiance. After that, somehow acquire a job that allows moonlighting and thousands of hours of devotion, and the dream begins- at the junior high level.

The fifteen dollar paydays are not exactly fruitful, but an aspiring zebra only needs to toil here for around five years before the next big break-high school. No one wants to relive high school, excluding Al Bundy, but elite referees have no choice. No biggie; a decade or so of absolute excellence MIGHT punch a ticket to the college gridiron, though forget about conferences like the Big 10 or SEC; junior college and Division II is where the road leads, AA ball when compared to baseball. Should the lucky disciplinarian find his way amongst the elite in the major conferences, this is where the scouting begins. Not unlike the helmeted players he governs, referees are subject to a litany of tests-psychological, physical, intellectual; throw in a credit check and suddenly the rigors to becoming an NFL ref are akin to becoming a Secret Service agent. After all of this, NFL referee school calls-imagine being a surgeon for twenty years and then being told to go back to med school.

Of course, being an NFL is quite like success in NYC. They say if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. And a lifetime of jeers, death threats and debris thrown at them gives an NFL ref thick skin (think rhinocerus). Essentially, nothing they will ever face in life will be as harrowing as their time on the sidelines. Just ask their understudies. After two weeks of replacements, the substitutes have forgotten the names of the teams they were refereeing, made a barrage of questionable calls and have had a particularly troubling incident ( a replacement ref telling a running back to do better because he was on the ref’s fantasy team). One thing is clear: the game needs the real refs back in a hurry. Afterall, they are the best men for the job, a job they earned, a job that requires a few loose screws. Because in a way they are patriots, cogs in a time honored American machine-hating the referee.

Come to think of it, maybe six figures is not enough. Give these guys a raise.

Tuesday
Sep182012

Liberty Bottleworks

Made in America

These durable aluminum bottles boast the distinction of the only all metal drinking bottle made in the USA. Fashioned in the sleek style of the cylindrical canteen popular with today’s outdoor enthusiasts, health buffs, and just folks on the go, the Liberty bottles offer an array of painted styling as decoration. Ranging from the “Mass Transit” model (featuring a selection of subway maps from various American cities), to the model described as “Topo” (a set of topographical elevation maps), and “Freedom” which is a small collection of drawings inspired from WWII era posters and pinups, and other stylizations, the water drinker can choose what sort of statement – fashion or otherwise – they wish to make. Buyers can also order custom designs as promotional devices or a commemorative series.

Liberty Bottleworks is also committed to engaging an ongoing stewardship with various charitable and conservational organizations, and as such pledges 1% of sales proceeds, and 1% of employee working hours to the betterment of those causes. Such commitment is in line with the company ethos, spearheaded by a product that keeps untold thousands of pounds of disposable water bottle waste out of landfills – not to mention the money saved over years of not buying twenty ounce bottles of water from vending machines. Kind of liberating.

Monday
Sep172012

Tilt-A-Whirl

Sellner's Tilt-A-Whirl Ride Circa 1940's

It’s almost an idiom. The Tilt-A-Whirl – nearly synonymous with carnivals, festivals, fairs of various ilk and sort, and all the things that go with those things. The carnies, perhaps, unshaven and swarthy, in stained T-shirts, taking tickets as riders ascend the diamond plate metal stairs to this collapsible and portable realm dully replacing the dog chain gate latch, and fire up the motor from a makeshift stool in a metal crows nest along the precarious edge of the device. They might smoke a cigarette, probably unfiltered, denoting the duration of one ride. The motor whines, and a faint smell of elevator grease and ozone wafts from below the metal skirt, as the machine clatters to life. The segmented slabs of sheet metal, designed for portability, and countess installations and removals for travelling fairs and innumerable midways throughout the land buck and slam in thunderous bursts like interlocked shields in a Roman Legion. The clam shaped cars, swivel and roar, as the plane of the ride travels in an undulating sine wave. Each car, with the painted face of a morally ambivalent clown on the back, stares at passengers. Depending on contents of stomachs, or stages of budding romances, that clown face can be a supremely joyous or unconscionably horrifying observation.

It’s part of America – this Tilt-A-Whirl. Some Tilt-A-Whirls have been in continuous use for decades. Some stationary. Some not. Like many pieces of carnival equipment, the Tilt-A-Whirl has its origins at the hands of a Minnesota handyman. Woodworker Herbert Sellner tinkered with the idea in his home, initially uncovering the concept by placing a chair on top of his kitchen table, and rocking the resulting plane back and forth with his son in the seat. The ride evolved from crude prototypes of wood, and gas powered engines, to the clamorously familiar metal centrifuge known today. Seven independent electric motors power the seven cars providing a symphony of that familiar groan.

In 2011, Texas based Larsen International, Incorporated, purchased the rights to Tilt-A-Whirl, and still produces the machines. Custom versions can be bought with various models of cars ranging from kettles and tea-cups to dinosaurs or virtually any incarnation of sculpture conceivable in fiberglass, and with certain use specifications such as stationary or mobile. Of course, the familiar clam shaped bench with clown on the back remains standard. New models range from 300k on up, but used ones can be struck for fractions of that. Could be a raucous and unique edition to a backyard menagerie for the painfully wealthy, or a potentially lucrative start-up business opportunity (carnies not included).

Friday
Sep142012

Standard Goods 

Garrett Colton might be a good candidate for the television series “Hoarders”, and that’s alright with us.

After a two-year gig alongside Scott Sternberg at L.A. menswear label Band of Outsiders, Colton’s harboring tendencies, combined with a creative influx that filled his worldview with everything from clothing and books to coffee beans and locally crafted jams, led to a passion project; a modern take on the timeless general store.

Standard Goods opened last fall in a small storefront on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles. A throwback to the small town department store, Standard Goods offers a variety of must-haves. A meticulously scrutinized clothing line, vintage LL Bean and products from MAKR among them. West Sweet Preserves find their way to the shelves, as do Tourne ceramic vessels, skateboard decks, leather goods and anything else that might be found through local artists, obscure international brands or the unabashed treasured cove that is the garage sale. It is a lesson in the rustic, a dive into the eccentric. From behind the counter, a painting of the debonair (and just a touch unnerving) Davenport Brothers watches over the operation, a 1960’s relic that serves as homage to the diverse vibe that filters the room.

Standard Goods has unleashed a “Guest Buyer” series, employing artistic souls (RTH’s René Holguin, Saving the Season’s Kevin West to name a few) to purchase items for the shop. Guest buyers educate clients on their purchases in a video produced for Standard Goods’ web site. It is, in affect, more experience than commerce; unlike its name, nothing standard occurs here.

At Standard Goods, expect an artist’s den and a new outlook on what we call “things”. But don’t expect to buy the Davenport Brothers painting-something so effortlessly cool cannot have a price tag put on it.

Friday
Sep072012

Tom Bodett: an American Voice  

His jingle for Motel 6, “We’ll leave the light on for you,” is one of the more recognizable, and long lived ad campaigns in existence. Tom Bodett’s voice speaks of American sensibility – an honest, no nonsense tone telling a tale of how it really is –the subtle inflection and timbre threading into the fabric of a national essence, and has become an American treasure of sorts. Of course, he’d probably downplay that. How he got there is no surprise. The Michigan native credits his father, Peter, “who had an exceptionally dry and sarcastic wit,” as the origin of his own delivery. “Not everyone found him to be funny,” he adds, “but obviously, one of his sons found it funny enough to imitate.” Tom found himself drawn to writing – to storytelling, and writing and radio were, as he describes, “natural extensions” of that practice. “I tend to pick projects that interest me and then stop... when they don't interest me anymore,” he writes. That authenticity permeates his work.

His coming of age period began in his early 20’s as a cross country trek took him to the frontier world of Alaska – that untamed bastion of wilderness and grit that has forged the likes of Jack London, and ill fated adventurer of Into the Wild fame, Chris McCandless. Bold images of gold nuggets in wooden sluice boxes, mukluks, huskies hauling sleds – rugged and real – all come to mind. “Alaska is in almost every way the place where I grew up – even thought I didn't get there until I was 21,” Bodett says. He remained there for some twenty five years, forging lifelong friendships, and establishing his voices of both written and spoken word. Now living with this family in Dummerston, Vermont, a rural community in the more geographically connected region of New England, Bodett still remembers Alaska as a place of “jaw dropping beauty,” but fraught with the thing that paradoxically makes it so appealing – the distance.

Working in construction in Alaska, Bodett decided to hunker down and continue his writing – churning out an article for the Anchorage Daily News on a typewriter. To his surprise they published it, and his self effacing, from the hip take on things drew the attention of a local public radio host, who invited Tom on his show. One thing led to another: parlaying the success into an NPR spot, and from there the Motel 6 ad campaign.

Bodett also had a role in the mid nineties Steven Spielberg creation Animaniacs. When discussing his work on the show, Tom described it as: “The most fun I ever got paid for.” He would occasionally record in his Alaska studio, or sometimes travel to Los Angeles for work on the animated series. “It was a room full of grown-ups who make cartoons for a living. We laughed a lot,” he adds. That earnest take on the project – the humble, yet bull’s-eye perspective on things carves to the essence of Bodett’s career. The segment Good Idea/Bad Idea showcased Tom’s almost laconic delivery as a hypothetical “good idea” was juxtaposed with a corresponding “bad idea.” The intro to the recurring bit featured conspicuously, the “o” letters in “good,” and the “i” of “bad idea” as pull string light bulbs being turned on – nodding to the cultural gravitas of Bodett’s almost canonical ad work with Motel 6.

Tom continues to be a contributor on NPR, an enterprise that first landed him the Motel 6 gig in the mid 1980’s, and a venue that forces him to “watch my grammar,” with an audience that “keeps you on your toes.” His humility is apparent. Bodett’s sincerity comes through in his voice, both written and spoken, and in many ways, he speaks for America.

Thursday
Sep062012

Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop 

Chagrin Falls. It is a tiny village in northern Ohio, a picturesque community that Norman Rockwell might have dreamed of, a quaint beauty surrounded by majestic arbors and a proud waterfall. It is a hidden gem, a secret that must be shared but not by too many, as a treasure becomes tainted when divided too liberally. It is a vintage piece of traditional Americana, sans the pretense of trying. And The Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop, perhaps even more iconic than its namesake, is the heart of it all.

Nestled against the banks of the pristine falls, The Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop began as a complementary piece to The Pride of the Falls, a flourmill anchored by a water wheel-driven gristmill. The current incarnation began in the 1940’s, as the retail end of the flower mill began serving local ice cream, coffees, candy, gifts, and of course, popcorn. The shop, rightfully adorned with a red, white and blue awning, has since become a generational hotspot, a place where families create memories on the wooden steps of the falls, a confection in hand and warmth in the heart. A grandmother might hold the same cone she enjoyed as a child, in the same spot she stood back then, hand in hand with a grandson who will someday pass the torch down the family tree.

In 2000, an errant automobile nearly ended the communal heirloom, crashing into the shop and dislodging it from the banks. Lucky for the driver, the building was saved and rebuilt to withstand such future atrocities, preserving the tradition. Otherwise, Art Modell and LeBron James might have company as the “Most Reviled” person in these parts of Buckeye country.

The Chagrin Falls Popcorn Shop carries into the future, driven by the past. It is a simile for America, a small business fueled by local pride and abject perfection in its product. And on a clear night, with the falls raging mightily and the caramel corn in hand, one can almost see the ghost of Rockwell if they squint as he transfers a scene on canvas, a scene that is, undoubtedly, already art in itself.

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