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Sometimes old is new. Sometimes we walk past the old and never give it a second thought, thinking there is nothing new going on there. If that is the case people are missing much of what is going on in downtown Barberton. We often wax nostalgic about Barberton’s past but bringing life to downtown is the passion of a mother daughter team.
Hannah Gerbec and along with her mother, Debbie Gerbec own Aunt Hannah’s Antiques and General Store at 561 W. Tuscarawas Street. If you think it is only an antique store you may soon change your mind after striking up a conversation with either mother or daughter because if there is anything they know as well as antiques, it is Barberton.
Even though the duo can tell you about the antique world, they have been part of Barberton for generations and their store holds many stories from the days past as a theater and department store.
First, the history behind the structure. In 1920 Constantine Wowra built a movie house there called The Pastime Theater. The foundation was made with huge quarry stones that were repurposed from the luxurious Barberton Inn that was torn down in 1915. Actually there were two Pastime Theaters, the first opened in 1916 but when talkies were added acoustics were horrible due to the tin ceilings and cement walls that caused the sound to bounce all over the place, even putting down a carpet did not help much.
Wowra evidently thought a lot about his employees since he was known to keep bathing suits in the theater so the workers could take a quick dip in Lake Anna before, after or in between shows.
In 1935 the Pastime was leased to Nate Shiltz, who represented Makinson and Gaethke, owners of the Park Theater. By 1943 the movie house was relegated to second class movies. Cowboy movies seemed to be the main fare and for a dime you could shoot it out with the most notorious of outlaws. Other B movies also played at the pastime, but bigger and better theaters were moving in around them.
“They tried several new innovations like having the floor slant the wrong way. That kept the audience from having to lift their heads up so far.” Debbie Gerbeck said.
But with the screen being in front of the entrance it was unlikely that latecomers were seated.
Before the daughter, Debbie Gerbec, purchased the building nearly five years ago, their “Pastime” story had already taken shape. When the Gerbecs owned a previous store down the street, they were in need of shelving for a vintage candy display, so they contacted the owners of the present business and found what they were looking for in Pastime building, which at that time was loaded with old junk, furniture and other oddities.
“Hannah bought a shelf and while cleaning it off she began screaming. All I heard was, Oh my God, oh my God,” Gerbec said. “I thought she cut herself on the shelf.”
What came next was something so strange it was nothing short of a miracle.
“When I went in there, she was holding a piece of paper from the Barberton Hardware that was on the shelf, with my dad, Hanna’s grandfather, signature on it from 1968.”
Because the paper was the only thing on the shelf Hannah took that as a sign, so she purchased the building. Her grandfather was Bud Landals, a Barberton police officer during the 1950’s and 60’s. Finding the signed picture was such a wonderful discovery they took it home and framed it.
Landals portrait hangs on the wall behind their desk in the store. It was taken on the day a storm with high winds hit Barberton. The wind was so strong it blew down a stop light on the corner of 4th and Tuscarawas that narrowly missed him by inches. It is a memorable picture of him in uniform because Hannah never knew her grandfather since he died before she was born.
The decision to open the store was equally divided between the mother daughter team. “My husband and I were always antique shoppers so it was only natural to open a store. Collecting antiques is like a disease you might say.”
Hanna always wanted to be a businesswoman, so she purchased the store when she was twenty-five, about four years ago from Tim Eberhard. Although they got a good deal, it needed a lot of work.
“It was just a shell of a building, no plumbing or wiring and of course it was filled with junk. He (Eberhard) did a lot of work on the building before they purchased it,” Gerbeck said.
A lot of the stuff in the store was from Herwick’s which they sold off and made a little profit from.
As you walk about the store you can see much of the old structure mixed with new additions, especially in the basement where cinderblocks intertwine with the old massive stone foundation, along with steel beams that now support the floor. Etched onto the old brick foundation you can find the name of an employee, Adolph Zucnar, signed 1/17/40, who was a medic during WWII and was killed in a car accident.
Below the ceiling on the north end you can still see the holes cut out for the projection room. That room has been repurposed for living quarters. For a bit of nostalgia you can buy candy like Necco Sky Bars that may have been common during that era.
Debbie graduated from Barberton High School in 1977.
“I was a stay at home mom raising five children, Hannah being the youngest, she said. After I graduated from school I did work at B&W for a while but don’t get me started,” she said with a bit of a disgruntled voice. The idea of B&W leaving does not sit well with her. Her mother-in-law was part of the Barberton Band Boosters for thirty or forty years and was still running it when she died.
Her girls, while at Barberton High started the 4th Friday programs held in the downtown area for several years. After they graduated, Hannah took over the event and she also started the Barberton Merchant’s Association which was created to help promote and bring businesses to downtown. She was the president of that group but recently resigned from that due to promotions at work. After Hanna resigned Joyce Kilburn took over as president.
Customers like Cheryl Dennison are frequent shoppers at Aunt Hannah’s.
“I stop in all the time. Every time I stop by, I discover something new, and purchase whatever catches my eye,” Dennison said.
Her home, near the lake, is close to becoming a century house, is completely filled with treasures from the store. Gerbec went through a long list of items she purchased from them. Dennison stopped by last Thursday to measure a grandfather clock she purchased.
“I have a Fiat and not sure how to get it home. It’s a convertible so maybe if I put the top down,” Dennison laughed.
Gerbec assured her they would get it home for her.
“We will deliver locally, but only to local customers though.”
After walking through both the upstairs and basement you can’t blame people like Dennison for returning. Every corner is filled with something of interest like the mechanical horse from Myers Lake. The horse is the third one they owned; one being shipped to Georgia. But this one is not for sale at any price.
The store carries clean, quality antiques and they are always trying to stock Barberton memorabilia. Gerbec actually has a man who scouts for Barberton merchandise for the store.
“Certain items like Anna Dean milk bottles are in high demand. Other memorabilia such as items from the Barber Mansion are nearly impossible to find. I have a mirror that may be from there,” she said, but I am still researching that.”
So, whether it is a lesson on downtown history, a vintage candy bar or a special antique, stop by Aunt Hannah’s and talk to the Gerbecs. And remember, downtown is still alive and well awaiting your visit.