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Thursday, April 17, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 44.0° F  Overcast
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Staying alive
A look at some small businesses that probably shouldn't still be around, but are

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The national economy is bleeding jobs, and major corporations are lining up for bailout money, but a number of small, independent businesses with long histories in Madison are doing surprisingly well.

Some of these businesses thrive because they help the public save money. When times are tough, people are more likely to take their old shoes to the cobbler for replacement heels instead of buying new ones. They opt for a less expensive refrigerator when the old one conks out.

Others provide goods or services that serve a niche market, like a century-old business that customizes uniforms for police and fire departments. Or they offer unusual convenience, quality and customer service-like a neighborhood grocery store or a busy one-bay auto repair shop.

Still others cater to people's sense of tradition or environmental conscience, which makes them reluctant to send a broken toaster or shabby sofa to the landfill.

But all are hangin' in there, against the odds, surviving and even thriving.

Time is on his side

When you step into Kappel's Clock Shop, an orchestra of timepieces greets you. Dozens of grandfather clocks play a slow bass line. Small mantel clocks chirp away at higher registers. And the midsized clocks riff on the notes in between.

Every few minutes, at least one the clocks bursts into song to mark the hours. Sometimes it's a traditional Westminster chime. But it might be a snatch of Mozart or "Someday My Prince Will Come."

"I work on all kinds of clocks, as long as they're not electric," says Karl Kappel, who has been buying, selling and fixing clocks at this location for 39 years. It's a craft that is hundreds of years old, but these days, fewer and fewer people know how to do it.

"It used to be that every jewelry shop had someone who fixed clocks. These days, there just aren't that many of us. But there will always be clock shops. Clocks are a big part of the antique market."

Clocks are often treasured family heirlooms, even if they are not especially valuable. "If it was a cheap clock to start with, I tell people it's probably not worth what it will cost to repair. But a lot of times they want it fixed anyway."

Kappel, 64, started collecting clocks when he was 15 and taught himself the trade. He doesn't know how many clocks he has, but his favorite is 11½ feet tall with a hand-carved walnut case. It was built in 1787 and once graced a hotel lobby in Minneapolis. The oldest clock he's repaired was made in Germany in 1710 and has been in the same family since it was new.

Besides clocks, Kappel likes old cars and owns two restored 1931 Model A Fords and a 1925 Model T. On fine days, one of them will be parked in front of his shop.

Kappel's Clock Shop
2250 Sherman Ave., 608-244-6165

Saving soles

"I think of this as a recycling business," Sally Kopecky says, as she surveys her tiny repair shop packed with shoes needing new heels, luggage with lost wheels and purses with broken zippers.

Kopecky, 60, started this Monroe Street business on a shoestring in 1980 and has watched it grow steadily. In the current economic downturn, she's busier than ever.

"People are being a lot more careful with their money now, but I also think that people are more conscious about the environment and don't want to just throw something away if it can be repaired."

If people paid a lot of money for quality shoes, the purse has some sentimental value or the boots are really comfortable, they will want to make those things last longer, she adds.

Thirty years ago, Kopecky was a nurse and single mother who had grown tired of working night and weekend shifts. She began thinking about other careers and saw a newspaper ad for a cobbler's apprentice. After three years of training and another two years working at Cecil's, she decided it was time to open her own shop. The equipment and tools in her workroom were secondhand when she bought them; she still uses them.

When she opened, Kopecky was one of 13 cobblers in Madison. Today, she says, there are just five.

"There used to be schools for shoemakers, but today they have all closed. The only way to learn is to work with another shoemaker." For the cobblers who remain, she says, there will always be plenty of work.

As she says this, a man from Portage stops in to pick up two pairs of shoes he'd left with her the last time he was in Madison. His explanation: "There are no shoe repair shops in Portage."

Monroe Street Shoe Repair
2612 Monroe St., 608-238-3171

Keeping them in stitches

The Schenk Huegel Company has done business in the same location since 1898, when Winnebago Street was an unpaved route for farmers coming into Madison by horse and wagon to sell their crops and pick up supplies.

"Fred Schenk owned a tavern on that road where the farmers would stop for a little refreshment on the way to town and then again on the way back home," says owner Wayne Johnson. "One day, he said to his friend, Arthur Huegel, that the lot next to the tavern would be a good place for a general store." The two formed a partnership, with Schenk putting up the capital and Huegel running the store.

The tavern is long gone, but the Schenk Huegel Company survives-and thrives-in a building that doesn't look much different than it did 111 years ago.

It remained a general store - selling groceries, clothing, yard goods, tools, household stuff and a bit of everything else - until the mid-1900s. Slowly a new business plan evolved after the company sold some uniforms - baker's whites - to the Gardner Bakery in 1960. Today, it's all about uniforms, a niche market catering to police, firefighters and EMTs from the Milwaukee suburbs to Viroqua and from Marquette County to the Illinois state line.

With six employees, some with the company for as long as 30 years, Schenk Huegel customizes basic uniform pieces-adding departmental patches and trouser stripes, swapping out pocket flaps and epaulettes, and making alterations. The company also sells accessories - holsters, batons and handcuffs. Just don't expect they'll sell those things to you for your Halloween costume.

"We have a store rule that we will not sell soft body armor, batons or handcuffs to anyone who isn't a sworn officer," Johnson says.

Clearly proud of the company's long history, Johnson, 64, has no interest in updating his bricks and mortar. But with the help of his daughter, Laura Rucks, he is expanding the business' website and hopes to open an online store later this year.

Schenk Huegel Co.
2005 Winnebago St., 608-244-6245,

Can he really beat the giants?

Want to buy a no-frills fridge from a neighborhood dealer who'll give you a good deal? Look no farther than Vern Birrenkott's shop on Atwood Avenue. At 75, Birrenkott, who looks 20 years younger, will deliver and install it himself, as he's been doing for 48 years.

With big-box stores commanding a larger share of the appliance market, Birrenkott's store is a welcome throwback to the days when service made the sale and kept the customer. You won't find high-end side-by-side refrigerator-freezers or front-loading washing machines here. But you will find basic appliances at reasonable prices-something with appeal during an economic downturn.

"These days I have a lot of customers who have rental properties. They just call me and tell me what they want delivered," Birrenkott says. Business is steady.

Birrenkott, who also services what he sells, has no plans to retire. He started his business with Ken Snell, who retired in 1984 and died a few years later. They met when they were working as service technicians at Montgomery Ward. He doesn't operate the business much differently than he did half a century ago. He no longer runs the big newspaper ads he used to, when he would price a clothes dryer at $99 or offer a free wig with the purchase of a refrigerator.

But Birrenkott keeps overhead low by running his business in an old-fashioned way. His storefront hasn't been updated. He has no employees, although he calls on casual help for big deliveries he can't manage alone. He doesn't have a computer or a website. He still keeps the books, in his neat handwriting, in the ledger he started using in 1961. The warranty cards are filed in gray metal cabinets. He types up invoices on a typewriter.

"It is just a good old-fashioned basic business," he says.

Birrenkott Appliance Inc.
2926 Atwood Ave., 608-249-2266

The food emporium next door

The neighborhood grocery store is alive and well on Jenifer Street, where people who live in the neighborhood may stop in once or twice a day. West-side residents think nothing of driving across the isthmus to shop at this unique food emporium.

Steve McKenzie was 23 years old in 1979 when the A&P grocery chain closed 130 stores in the upper Midwest, including the one where he'd been working since he was 14. Eight short weeks later, he and business partner Kim Dilley had secured a Small Business Development loan to open the Jenifer Street Market.

The location was dicey: An IGA and Super Value grocery had failed there in quick succession. But McKenzie, now 53, and Dilley had a vision. With the first Woodman's opening in Madison, they realized people's grocery shopping habits were about to change. They would go to the big discount grocery for nonperishables once a month or so. But a neighborhood grocery that offered fresh produce and a full-service meat market could still fill a need.

"We looked at what Ken Kopp was doing on Monroe Street and thought we could do something similar on the east side," says McKenzie. (Ken Kopp's closed in 2001.)

Working off that model, Jenifer Street Market added a hot deli, with lunch entrees that attract construction workers and landscapers at noon and busy working parents looking for dinner options. The store sends faxes to area businesses advertising its lunch specials.

Jenifer Street Market appeals to foodies and the environmentally conscious by regularly shopping the Badgerland Produce Co-op Auction for locally grown food. And it delivers to elderly and disabled people who can't get out to shop.

"Grocery stores needs thousands of purchasers a day to survive," McKenzie says. "I think we are doing well because we offer high quality and because we are in the heart of a unique neighborhood."

Jenifer Street Market
2038 Jenifer St., 608-244-6646

Still clicking

Want another look at those slides you took when you were backpacking across Europe in the '70s? Or maybe the ones you found along with an ancient, but broken, carousel slide projector in your grandmother's attic?

BDC Camera Repair just off State Street is one of the few places in the country where you can get that ancient projector fixed so you can look at those slides. It can also fix all sorts of antique photo equipment.

But BDC doesn't only work on old equipment. It repairs modern film and digital cameras, flashes, light meters, binoculars, lenses for scientific equipment, and even iPods.

It's become a rare business, says Bill Roelofs, who bought the company with two partners in 1980. (Partner Jim Remer is still with the company; the third partner, Kent Tenney, left about eight years ago.)

"Five years ago, there were probably twice as many independent camera repair stores as now," says Roelofs, 59. "In Wisconsin, we are the only full-service one."

The decline owes in part to the steadily dropping prices of new cameras.

"In this economy, camera manufacturers have really dropped their prices, so people are more likely to buy a new camera if the old one needs repair. But on the bright side, lots more people are buying SLR [single-lens reflex] cameras now, and those are cameras that are worth repairing."

Because few people are in the business, BDC gets work from professional photographers and hobbyists from all over, some drawn by its website. "We have people call us from all over the country, even from other countries, about certain types of cameras," says Roelofs. "Because we've been in business for so long, we're one of the few places that can fix older, classic equipment."

BDC Camera Repair
313 W. Johnson St., 608-257-6315,

Other survivors

McGilligan's Upholstery Shop (2906 Commerce Park Dr., Fitchburg, 608-274-8200, has been reupholstering and restoring furniture since the early 1900s. Still a family business, the company employs eight highly skilled people; the one with the shortest tenure has been there 18 years.

According to co-owner Bill Weber, a good piece of furniture should last at least a hundred years, but the fabric is only good for about 20. Weber says fine furniture is worth saving and calls reupholstering a "sustainable alternative for redecorating your home."

Percy's Service Station (3600 Monroe St., 608-231-3304) on Monroe Street, owned by Jerry Nechkash, specializes in fixing Volkswagens. He doesn't advertise and doesn't have a website, but the tiny parking lot is always packed with VWs waiting their turn in the single bay. Nechkash and his son Pat often work 12- to 14-hour days, but don't seem to mind the long hours. Nechkash enjoys talking about his 1930s-vintage gingerbread house-style building, built as a gas station.

"We have loyal customers," Nechkash says. "At least 75% of our business comes by word of mouth. People come back because we are honest, and the prices are reasonable."

Kiefer's Appliance (4511 Monona Dr., 608-221-3322, bills itself as "the only fix-it shop in town." That may be overreaching, but it's definitely the place to go when you need someone to repair your waffle iron, mixer, lamp or electric shaver.

"I guess we are a dying breed," says Wayne Kiefer, who has been fixing stuff since 1981. "There used to be shops like this in Milwaukee, Rockford, St. Paul and La Crosse, but they are all closed now."

Since there are few fix-it people left, Kiefer's customers come from all over the Midwest. Most of the appliances Kiefer and his staff of four work on are older models. "You can't fix the new ones," he says. "You can't get the parts, and they are made so they can't be repaired."

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