Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Yankee Trader Story
By Christine Hayes
November - December 2001 Issues
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See Also Yankee Trader Story 2007
The Yankee Trader Story Part I
Bob Holler was a trader, a barterer, and a poker player. He ran a wholesale warehouse full of goodies for carnivals at the corner of Park and Spruce, where Axis Advertising Group is now located, 515 N. Park Street in the Short North/Arena District. But back then it was not such a fashionable neighborhood.Bob, originally from Newark, started the carny supply business back in the 1950's. In 1965, he married Columbus native Edith and helped raise her two daughters, Debby and Lynette. He was 20 years older than "Edie." She began to help him with the business in 1970.
But back to Debby and Lynette (now Debby Williams and Lynette Howard). In a recent interview with them, in the raised office overlooking the present-day Yankee Trader, 463 N. High Street, across from the Convention Center, they recalled childhood bedrooms full of stuffed animals. They loved riding along in a truck to carnivals, delivering stuffed animals, toys, tickets, and other prizes. The Hollers drove all over Ohio. The girls rode on rides, knew all the carny workers, and felt safe wherever they went.
In 1963, the Hollers bought into their own carnival. They traveled all over Ohio and Tennessee. The girls worked the cotton candy, candy apple, and game booths. But after one season, the Hollers sold out and returned to the Columbus business.
Around 1965, the business expanded from wholesale to retail. That was when the present location (just the building with the main entrance) was purchased. In all, Yankee Trader has 55,000 square feet, three floors of retail and ten floors of warehouse, counting basements.
I was invited to ride up to a warehouse floor with Debby in one of the first elevators built in Ohio. The main four-story building, housing the most trinkets, the office, and the elevator, was originally the C.R. Parish Furniture Store.
The plastic rats, and other creatures, had their own section. Other sections included plastic jewelry, weapons, bubbles, and noisemakers. All were carefully catagorized for quick retrieval.
In the years I was gone from Columbus, I made an annual "pilgrimage" to the Yankee Trader to stock up on Christmas presents, glueables for my car's decoration, and supplies for my Montessori pre-school classroom. Now, to be allowed in a stockroom was like being allowed to peek in Santa's toy factory. All that was missing were the elves. But I remember the elf-and-Santa all rolled into one, the bright blonde personality whose voice I heard booming and laughing out from the office upon those yearly visits: Edith Holler.
The glue that held the business together was Edie. Bob passed away in 1976. Lynette was in Arizona doing accounting for Pepsi and other large corporations. Debby worked as a medical examiner for insurance companies. Although her daughters came back to do some consulting, Edie was sole proprietor for nearly 25 years, enduring the years when drunks slept in the doorways (they lived around Union Station and the viaduct area, when it was in disrepair and later torn down.). Later, High Street was closed due to Convention Center construction. She hung on when there was no foot traffic, stuck it out for the future of carnivals and her "causes." For Edie Holler was the "fairy godmother" of Columbus. It says so on her gravestone, which you can see in the Jewish section of Greenlawn Cemetery. She championed the cause of gays and lesbians in our community. She nursed good friends who had AIDS. Yankee Trader allowed her to contribute money and to speak her mind for the causes she believed in.
Her parents were born Russian Jews, so she was no stranger to discrimination. She fought for the underdog, for non-judgmental thought, for the "Open Heart, Open Door" policy. Also, she loved to have a good time, so she totally identified with her party-supply store. As she put it, "I've already had more fun by accident than most people have on purpose." (Quoted from an August 1999 Stonewall Journal.)
Ms. Holler received the Torch Award of the Human Rights Campaign in 1999. She was pleased by the honor, but her perspective for posterity was modest: "To me the greatest honor is to leave behind a good name. I think you can only expect out of life what you put into it."
Edie passed away in 2000. She leaves a legacy of a prosperous business and many friends. Yankee Trader continues to be a source of charity for the Human Rights Campaign, Open Hand, Columbus AIDS Task Force, Special Olympics, the Diabetes and Heart Foundations. They recently gave 400 flags to QFM 96, to raise money for the Red Cross.
The Yankee Trader Story Part II
I recently spent three hours on October 30 at Yankee Trader, located in the Short North at 463 N. High Street, the morning of Beggars' Night in most parts of Columbus. I wanted to observe the action.
I saw a parent buy reading-incentive prizes (hundreds!). Her son sat on the counter sifting through them, having the time of his life. Mom explained the intricacies of the angel costume of her toddler daughter.
I saw big bare body parts (plastic) purchased by fun-loving customers, giant plastic chicken feet, large jars of glitter.
Two women, employees at a credit union, came in for a cowbell. That's all they wanted, they said. When they closed a loan, the cowbell would be rung. They got the bell, but then those Mardi Gras beads caught their eye. One of them decided to be a gypsy. They spent some time deciding on the perfect strand combination. I also spotted a straight-looking woman buying a plastic spiked war club at 10 am.
Meanwhile, in any spare moment, employees of Yankee Trader put out new merchandise. Michael (who has been known to give out a balloon to someone looking sad) sorted out the beads.
Linda, his co-worker, claimed they had "hair-pulling busy" work on the Friday and Saturday before Halloween. "We found bits and pieces of costumes in the luau stuff - as far away as you can get," said Misty, another Yankee Trader comrade.
The best sellers? Mullet wigs ("straight in front - partyin' in the back") and bubba teeth (mottled, showing lots of gums). Monk robes, priest and nun costumes, redneck anything, Afro wigs, cowboy and Indian stuff, Statue of Liberty, Uncle Sam, pirate accessories, and all kinds of makeup sold briskly. They said it was just as well I wasn't observing them on the weekend. "We won't snap at you," said Mark behind the counter.
All employees of Yankee Trader are extroverts. They work hard. Likewise, the customers like to talk to anyone who will listen. They share their creative costume ideas - and bond at the counter.
A policeman bought a bumblebee piñata. The mother of a teen-age girl, who had "searched the Internet to find out what punk was," bought faux barbed-wire jewelry, spiky plastic bracelets, fake piercings. "I just came in for inflatable electric guitars," she said. She got those too. The pace picked up considerably around lunchtime. A Sherlock Holmes costume - hat, pipe, and magnifying glass - was found in three minutes and purchased by a happy man.
Debby, one of the proprietors, was sent up in the famous old elevator many times. She worked the counter too. She said, "Haven't you noticed we're more organized?" And it's true - none of that weekend mess was evident. The stuff multiplies, yet seems more accessible. "Costumes year-round: Let's make Mardi Gras as big as Halloween!" Michael and I had consensus.
You can buy a fake dirty diaper, a huge plastic syringe (shades of my nightmares) and a huge thermometer. Above me hung inflatable candy canes. The skull candelabra beckoned.
Customers talked on cellphones while cruising the aisles. Yankee Trader's only visible concession to modernism (no computer cash registers here) is the intercom: "I need some help on the dance floor please!"
I have commented before on the witty handwritten labels. Those tissue-paper packages are fine reading. Some of the printable ones: "Yup, it's official - I'm annoyed," "Hit that high note, honey," "Tissue paper with attitude," "Don't buy her jewelry buy her tissue paper." On the plastic Weapons of Sunday Mass Destruction box it reads: "Wow, dude, careful, honey we're fragile, spread the love." I also like the descriptions on the toy boxes and the mask labels. Words run rampant and set the kinky tone.
Decor abounds. Having a baby shower? Into vintage rock n' roll? Mexican fiesta-ing? And that luau stuff - the coconut bra is $5.00. Many varieties of hula skirts run $4.50 to $9.00.
I like the giant lion and tiger cardboard standups. Bogey and Count Dracula send you onward to the third building in the floor meander - two more buildings to the south were bought after the Parish Furniture's original (463 N. High) was purchased (see it written in entryway tiles).
The classics are here: inflatable boyfriend and girlfriend, whoopee cushion, belch powder, exploding wallet, plastic dog-do, rubber chicken (the rubber pig is nice too). Decorate your room with corrugated printed cardboard. Wood grain! Snow scene! Snowflakes. Stars in sky. "Greystone" bricks. Red bricks, Have permanent spring, fall, Valentine's Day, or patriotic. There's also: OSU stuff, Tarot cards, wind banners, bandanas, T-shirts for patriots, feather boas and fans. Pricey tiaras sparkle in a glass case. Millions of key chains and those little erasers. Have a smiley face party! A full-size rainbow flag is $45.
Most American flags are made in Taiwan, say proprietors Debby Williams and Lynette Howard. The flags were hard to get after September 11 due to a typhoon in Taiwan.
The daughters of Edith Holler, who continue her good work, had to "eat, drink, and sleep the Yankee" as children – and even though there were parts they enjoyed, they left it and never thought they'd come back to it. Now, they divide the labor (Debby, ordering and buying, Lynette accounting).
They hope to do more marketing and to spend more time getting to know their neighbors. They don't want the uniqueness of the business to fall to the side. They can keep the prices down by their ability to buy in quantity. They have only 10 employees. They each have a daughter. We of humor and creative consumption in Columbus can hope that the Yankee Trader legacy will live on for many more years with characteristic style and pizzazz.
I exited the Yankee Trader when an ancient-looking clock (another Parish feature?) amid the masks said 12:10, past the window with the T-Rex stepping out of a white satin casket interior in a pink feather boa, "ruby" ring, prim black hat with net. The Flintstones, the Lone Ranger, Tonto, and Hopalong Cassidy looked out of another window, pensively.
Yankee Trader was located at 463 N. High Street in the Short North neighborhood of Columubus, Ohio.
The store closed October 2010
See Also Yankee Trader Story 2007
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