Written by Carolyn Gilg
Photos by Carolyn Gilg
City Watch NEWS
April 20, 2023
On a gray, rainy Monday afternoon, I met with two stalwarts of the Albion business scene – Jim Cascarelli and Anna Merritt. These two long-time businesspeople are holding down Superior Street, although they are several blocks apart.
I started the ball rolling with Jim by stating what I thought was an obvious statement: Jim had been working at the family restaurant since he was very young: he told me he started in his mid-20s. He graduated from Washington Gardner High School in 1960 and attended college.
He spent 3 ½ years in college, worked part-time for his dad, and then four years in the military; ultimately, he returned to Albion. Before working with his dad, he did other jobs: putting in curbs and gutters along Broadwell Street and making TV tubes at the Corning factory (currently Knauf Insulation).
I asked Jim when the restaurant expanded its menus from pizza to serving dinners. According to Jim, it’s a funny story. Initially, Jim’s dad, Louis, only served sandwiches and hamburgers during the ’50s and ’60s, which Louis cooked in the front window of the original building. Their featured sandwich then was canned corned beef, toasted, on rye. Everything was fresh, but it was a limited menu. There wasn’t much of a kitchen at that time, either.
Sometime around 1966 or ’67, Louis added on to the front of the original building, which had been a fruit stand, when Louis’s father owned the business.
Jim was discharged from the military in 1970 and returned home to Albion to work with his father in the family business in 1971 or ’72, and pizzas were added to the menu. The kitchen, as we know it today, finally took shape.
At the time, Jim thought Albion needed a little Italian restaurant serving spaghetti, meatballs, and lasagna; unfortunately, it wasn’t as successful as Jim had hoped. Instead, they transitioned into more of a pub, serving pub-style food, like prime rib or baby back ribs, and wild-caught fish.
The thing that kept Jim and his wife, Nancy, in Albion was family. Both Jim’s family and Nancy’s family were very supportive. Jim’s dad had passed away by this time, but his mom Helen, stayed on until she was 92. It wasn’t easy in some ways, having his mom stay on. Helen had been a part of the restaurant for many years but often struggled with the changes necessary to run a business in the late 20th century.
The Old Guard
Jim says Cascarelli’s and Charlie’s (Tavern) are a dying breed: the last of the small, family-owned/family-run bars. Since the 1970s, more than 13 small bars/restaurants in Albion have closed.
I asked Jim: When you returned and started working with your dad, did you ever consider that you might still be doing this at 80? He said no. He aspired to reach age 55, be out of debt, and be ready to quit. He says they were very close to debt-free, but the recession hit.
During a Chamber of Commerce golf outing, the owners of the Bohm Theater told Jim he’d like to sell his buildings (they were behind the restaurant then). Jim says he doesn’t play golf but was along for the ride in the golf cart. Jim told him, “Just for the heck of it, I guess I’d like to buy ’em from you.” The owner told Jim he’d meet Jim the next day at the Big Boy (the current site of Full Moon). They sat down and wrote the contract on the back of one of the paper placemats, and the deal was done.
There have been many changes over the years, and when I asked Jim if he’d do it all over again? he said, “Probably not.”
Flowers for Everyone
Anna has been in the flower business for many, many years. She started working in Hubert’s Flowers (currently the site of Gordon Martin Builders) at 16, working in the greenhouse there. Before becoming a full-time florist, she worked at various places, sometimes as a secretary and sometimes as a quality control consultant.
One day she was working in the greenhouse when someone in the flower shop didn’t show up for work. The owner came over and told Anna to go to the flower shop. Once there, he pointed at the other person working there and told Anna, “Do what she’s doing.” And that’s how she first got involved with the flower business.
When delving into being a “native” Albionite, I discovered Anna is a transplant. Anna’s family originated in Six Lakes, north of here, towards Alma. Her dad worked for the gas wells until he left that job and moved himself and his family to Albion to work at Gale Manufacturing.
Anna had been working for a company out of Marshall, flying around the country as their accounts receivable clerk. She’d get on a plane and fly to Texas, for example. She’d show up at the customer’s main office to collect the money they owed to the company she worked for, either leaving with a check for the amount due or getting on the phone with her headquarters and telling them to stop the order.
A New Start
When the company moved to Waco, Anna stayed behind and was without a job. Enter local businessman Vern Plassman. He asked Anna what she was going to do with herself, and she replied that she was thinking about opening a flower shop; she was 40 years old. There was a house for sale on Michigan Ave that she thought would make a good flower shop. Vern told Anna he owned that house and that if she wanted the house for a flower shop, she could have it, and Anna’s House of Flowers was born.
Anna was a “pioneer” in some ways, opening a bridal shop with a flower shop. The shop opened in 1985 as a flower shop and a full-service bridal salon. Quincy was the closest bridal shop to Albion in those days; the next closest was in Lansing. So Anna filled a need in Albion.
Eventually, flower shops around the area heard about the flower/bridal shop combo and started calling Anna about it, asking her if there was money to be made. She was honest and told them it was too early to tell since she had just opened the business. Ultimately, several shops decided to do the same thing, and suddenly, the market was saturated with combination flower/bridal shops. Anna saw the proverbial writing on the wall and started easing out of the bridal salon business. She continued the flower business at the shop on Michigan Ave.
Anna runs her flower shop out of a storefront on South Superior St. (In the Parks Pharmacy building beside the Secretary of State Building on the alley). She says there are some days when she feels slightly claustrophobic; the shop is much smaller than the house on Michigan Ave.
When reflecting on her 38 years of running a business, Anna talks about how she and Jim are the only two businesses and business owners on the main street who are 80 years old and still actively working. It speaks well for Albion that these two businesses and their owners are working in the 21st century.
Speaking about the two of them still working, Anna says, “I guess we’re just not ready to give up yet.”
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