Keeping The Faeth

Business to sell as it rolls over a century in Fort Madison


FORT MADISON – There’s a quiet effort underway downtown to….well, keep the Faeth.
Faeth’s Cigar Store is on the verge of celebrating its 100th year in business but has announced the store is up for sale – to the right person.
W.R. “Bill” Faeth III said Tuesday that he’s not tired, but this is what God must have in store for him.
“Well, I’ve run out of help. My health is to the point where I can’t run it myself. I can’t do it on my own. My vision has gotten to the point where I can see some things, and I can’t see some things,” Faeth said.
“It’s gotten to the point where it’s not what I want to do, but what I have to do,” he said.
Faeth has two sons, Rob and Randy, and two daughters, Becky and Rhonda. All the family members have found themselves in different careers, as have all the Faeth grandchildren.
“It’s been a good run, but they got other plans for me, I guess,” he said.
The iconic and unabashed “Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms” outlet on historic downtown Avenue G is full of history and a little bit of fame. Faeth, who has little emotion in his demeanor, seems a bit overwhelmed with the idea of giving up what may be best described as a charmingly cluttered wood and glass-drenched speakeasy.
But he said the irregular fame that’s followed the cigar store is for other people.
“I guess other people think that way, I just come here and go to work,” Faeth said.
His grandfather, W.R. Faeth, built the structure in 1910 with the hopes of moving in a hardware store. That never happened. The patriarch was a master tinner and created structural tin products like ceilings buckets and gutters, installed furnaces, and made casual tins for locals while he rented space to cafes and pool halls before his father took over and started selling cigars, beer, and ammo in a place called Faeth’s Royal. The business has been in the family ever since. From soda fountains to lunch counters and to punch cards that were used to get meals on credit until the end of the week. Despite working his way through his eighth decade, Faeth has a grasp on every detail.
“We had a steam table we’d serve lunch from behind the bar and we cooked meals downstairs that probably would have had today’s health department pulling their hair out,” he said.
“People from Shaeffer's would come in and get lunch with a card, we’d mark it and they would come back at the end of the week when they got paid and pay us.”
With the end of the store near, Faeth said he wasn’t too picky about who bought the place, but he would like to find someone who would keep it the way it is.
“One person was in here a while back and Tina was showing them around. They thought they’d like to buy it and keep it the way it is. They said I might even be able to come back and go to work awhile,” he deadpanned.
Tina Faeth, Bill’s daughter-in-law, said with a chuckle she told someone that allowing Bill to come in and work would be a condition of sale.
Leaving the Cigar Store the way it is also keeps some pretty heavy history intact.
It's well-known that the main bar along the west side of the store came from the 1933-34 World’s Fair from the Blue Ribbon Casino. Bill said when they brought the monstrosity in from Chicago they had to re-brace the floor due to the heavy weight of the marble built into the wood. The original bar was on the east side and it is currently stored in the basement.
The large piece of furniture behind the cigar counter on the east side just inside the front door is another piece from Chicago that was pulled from the Chicago Sun Times building.
And a little known piece of history that Tina herself didn’t even know about, was there was a baseball scoreboard that had been painted over where people used to track baseball scores during the day.
Faeth said at one point, when he was still a youngster, a ticker ran on the counter on the east side near the back of the store and a ticket agent from the railroad used to come up in the afternoons and read the tickers and hang emblems of teams playing each other on the board at the score.
His father came back from Chicago to help work in one of the businesses at the location for $15 a week. Bill said his dad had to take a paycut at one point because the owners couldn’t afford the rate.
Bill is a veteran of the Navy serving four years from 1956-60 and then returned to work at the local business. He did that on military leaves, as well. He graduated from Fort Madison High School in 1954. He went to the University of Iowa and quit after spring finals. They talked him into going back the following year and after his finals that year, he went to Cedar Rapids and enlisted.
“I came home and told them if they wanted a vacation they better go ‘cuz I’m gonna be gone for four years,” Faeth said. His parents went on vacation.
“That was not being talked into going back to school again. They took off.”
Since that time, the Faeth family, including his daughter-in-law Tina, Rhonda, Rob, and Randy, have all taken turns working behind the counter. Becky, who farms on the west side of Donnellson, hasn’t worked at the store.
Faeth said his grandchildren are all into other careers and educations and no one is left to run the century-old business and it’s time to step away. But the look in his eyes, you can see just inside the patch he now wears over his left eye, shows hesitation and just a little emotion. He'd rather slide beer cans down the counter and sell fishing licenses, and bullets, and the wide variety of cigars. The bigger loss is giving the stories away. Stories from more than 80 years and beyond, stories that many know and others he’s held close to the chest.
Either way, if he gets his way, things will go on and he’ll still be there being Bill Faeth…until he’s not.
The store is currently selling iconic items through its online store at https:/shirtstampmerch.com/shop/ols/categories/faeth-cigar-store in a one-time sale that is closing soon. The store will also be celebrating its 100th anniversary with a reception on June 8 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. with food, beverages, and recollections, stories and fun.

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