Downtown Danville in the 1960s was chockful of little businesses owned by local people who worked hard and had fun doing it. One of them was Fritsch’s, run by Gene Fritsch.
Mr. Fritsch died in February at age 91. I often shopped in his store, chatted with him and looked forward to visiting again.
My dad worked downtown and I often would hang out with him. I still can recall most of the businesses that were there, 50-plus years ago. I can picture Joe Berkowitz, of Berkowitz’s, where you went to buy luggage and billfolds. I remember the Palace Cigar Store, owner Dave Doggett, and the cheeseburgers grilled by George, Buss and Mary.
I can see Gene Elliott, of Elliott’s Candy, Stamps and Coins, stirring taffy and fudge in a copper kettle. I remember Elzie Willison at Shepard’s Garage. I can picture Glenn Jones, owner of The Nook, one of the busiest restaurants you ever saw. And I can picture Lehmann Brothers Ace Hardware & Automotive, where I later worked as a stock boy. Archie, Jack and Glennie were the best bosses ever. The Best. Ever. Period.
Gene Fritsch’s shop was, simply, “Fritsch’s.” He started out in 1958 at 1 S. Vermilion St., on the southeast side of the courthouse square. That storefront sat sort of between Gerry’s (the sign claimed it was “America’s Most Interesting Store’) and the beautiful old Palmer-American National Bank building. Fritsch’s moved to 15 N. Vermilion in 1975 and stayed there until it closed in 1989.
I don’t remember when I became a Fritsch’s customer, but it had to be in the early 1960s. Mr. Fritsch offered a full line of comic books (the Nazi-killing Sgt. Rock was my favorite comic hero), plus popular magazines, books, candy (I couldn’t get enough Clark bars), pop (Coke and Orange Crush for me), local and big-city newspapers, and lots of tobacco.
I’ve never smoked, but I always loved going into Fritsch’s and inhaling. The whole place was perfumed by containers filled with pipe tobacco that smelled of cherries, apples, maple sugar and, well, tobacco. Pipe smokers created their own blends. There were boxes of cigars, too, plus cigarettes and smoking accessories.
The health impact of smoking became clearer over time. That troubled Mr. Fritsch, a religious man. He finally decided to quit the tobacco business.
He was an early member of the Vermilion County Museum Society, and his interest in history was reflected in his book inventory. I still have a few books with “Fritsch’s Discount Price” stickers stuck to the dust jackets, including “Old Kentucky Architecture” and “The Autobiography of Gurdon Saltonstall Hubbard,” which was written, coincidentally, by an Indian fur trader who had a trading post near the very spot where Mr. Fritsch’s store stood 150 years later.
Gene Fritsch is gone, but his many friends and acquaintances will remember him as a kind, sweet-natured gentleman who loved his business, his customers and his hometown. That’s quite a legacy.
Danville native Kevin Cullen is a former Commercial-News reporter. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org