Sharing life’s adventures
What’s the difference between venture and adventure? The dictionary makes so little distinction between them that they can be used virtually interchangeably. Both involve risk and danger. But the two words feel different.
Venture seems comfortable when linked with business, as in business venture. Adventure implies exploration, discovery, and fun, which might seem to exclude anything to do with business. The phrase business adventure just doesn’t sound quite right.
Nevertheless, when Mary Bobby talks about the businesses her husband Fred got her involved in, she describes them as adventures.
Mary was born and raised in Warren, PA.
“Growing up in Warren was a lot of fun,” Mary said. “It was just a nice town. Everybody was very friendly. Jobs were available. In fact, a bunch of us started working in a restaurant setting up salads, while we were in high school. Of course we had a ball.”
Upon graduating from high school, Mary got married and had two children, and she had a couple of jobs. After her husband passed away, she went to beauty school and became a hair dresser.”
Then she met Fred Bobby, a divorced man from Farrell.
“It was a blind date,” she said, “and I guess we hit it off right away.”
Fred’s grandfather had a farm in Hickory township. His name lives on in Bobby’s Corners, the intersection of Route 18 and Longview Road in Hermitage, and in Bobby’s Run, the creek that runs just west of it, behind Combine Brothers Restaurant. Fred’s father worked at Sharon Steel, and Fred grew up in Farrell.
“He talked about his friends in school and all the fun they had, and the scrapes they got into,” Mary said. “When we would go to a reunion they would get to talking about Fred having a certain car and a whole bunch of them piling in. They laughed and said they’d kill their own kids if they acted like that.”
After high school, Fred worked at Westinghouse.
“He had some pretty good friends at work, and they had a good time at work. He was always telling me of all the good times they had. I said, ‘Did you guys ever really work?’ He and his first wife owned a farm outside of town, up off Route 62. He farmed it while working at Westinghouse. Then he got laid off, and I guess he did whatever odd jobs he could pick up. And he was going to night school for business.”
Fred was never content with just working a job.
“With Fred everything was an adventure. He was always getting into making money. He owned a surplus clothing store when I met him. It also had surplus household items.”
While working at Westinghouse, Fred often walked past the Book Rack, a franchise used book store that was located on Sharpsville Avenue. He loved to read, and he saw the store as an opportunity. But he didn’t want to open a second one in the Shenango Valley.
“He suggested opening a book store in Warren, and I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m a hair dresser. I don’t have time to read.’ He said, ‘You quit hair dressing and let’s start the book store. So that’s exactly what I did. It was a great adventure.”
It wasn’t long before the Book Rack in Sharon was up for sale.
“Fred suggested we buy it,” Mary said. “So we hired three very good women, friends of mine, to run our store in Warren, PA. We got married, I moved here, and we started our life together. Then we opened a book store in New Castle. After Westinghouse went down, he ran the store in New Castle and I ran the one here. We lived in Sharon, and he drove back and forth. We would go to Warren periodically to make sure everything was okay there. Eventually we had an offer to sell that store, so we did. In the late 1980s, we moved the Sharon store to its present location on State Street.”
The next business opportunity opened up right close by.
“There was a woman next door that sold hats,” Mary said. “When she closed up, we opened an ice cream store. You talk about an adventure! We bought home made ice cream from a restaurant over in Niles, and we served lunches.”
And who ended up doing the cooking? Mary, of course.
“I did all the cooking, and I ran the book store. I was up until midnight, one o’clock in the morning cooking so we could have soup the next day for the restaurant. Fred said, ‘Why don’t you make pasta fazool? You’re very good at making that.’ So I made a big pot full. Then they called me over here and said they ran out. I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ They said, ‘You’ve got to start making more.’ I said, ‘No, you get one pot full. When it’s sold, it’s all gone.’”
Next, Fred talked her into making pressed steak sandwiches.
“He was telling me about a place called Mary’s that was up in Hickory. She made a pressed steak sandwich. He said it was marinated in a tomato sauce. I said, ‘I don’t know anything about this.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you just start experimenting?’ So I started with a big pot of tomato sauce, and I’m dumping this and that into it, and it would cook a while, and he would come in and taste it, and he would say, “It just needs something else.’ ‘Well, okay, let’s put a little bit of wine in it.’ Finally he said, ‘I think you’ve got it.’”
Since her name was Mary, they called it Mary’s Steak Sandwich.
“A woman came in one day and said, ‘Why are you serving Mary’s Steak Sandwiches, when that was my mother’s specialty?’ Fred said, ‘We’re not taking your mother’s name, it’s my wife’s name. We named it after her.’ So she said, ‘My mother wants two sandwiches.’ Next day the woman called me, and she said, ‘I want to tell you that yours are just as good as mine.’ Do you know how good that made me feel? Because I had no idea what I was doing. It was a lot of work, and a lot of fun. Then it got to the point where it was just too much. We closed the restaurant, and we expanded the book store into that space. That was the end of our adventures.”
At least, it was the end of their new businesses. They still had adventures within the Book Rack.
“I decided to have a Super Bowl sale. We put a big ad in The Herald, and it said Women Only – 25 cents a book. The lady that owned the franchise said, ‘Mary, you’re going to lose your shirt. If you make enough money to pay for the ad, I’ll be surprised.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m going to try it.’ It was from one o’clock until four o’clock, and it happened to be a beautiful day. The men stood outside and waited for their wives, and they were furious because they weren’t allowed in the store. It was fun, we worked like hell, and it was great. We made way more than enough to pay for the ad. So from then on we had a Super Bowl sale until they moved the Super Bowl to the evening. Then we put a stop to it.”
Not all of their book store adventures turned out that well.
“The last good sale we had, which people are still talking about, was just before Fred got sick. He decided to price everything in the store at a dollar, and the customers could bring the books back for full credit. I said, “You’re going to kill us.’ He said, ‘I want to see how many new customers I can get.’ So we ran it from five until eight in the evening. It was absolutely crazy. We moved so many books, and he got his satisfaction. There was a lot of new customers. Then for three months it killed us, because they had enough books to read and they could bring them back for full credit. Now they’re still asking, ‘Are you going to have that dollar sale again?’ I say, ‘No!’ So that was really the end of our adventures.”
Sadly, Fred passed away on January 6, 2006. But Mary still runs the store, with the help of a couple of her friends. And it’s still going great, despite the normal slowdown that occurs this time of the year.
“The whole franchise has the same problem every year at this time,” Mary said. “People are working outside, and they’re spring cleaning. Then comes graduation. After that people start vacations, and they start buying books again. But the last two days have been fantastic. Yesterday and the day before I had four new customers each day who were absolutely thrilled with the store. That’s what I’m looking for.”
So actually, running the store is still an adventure for Mary – maybe a little calmer one, but perfect for this season of her life.
Excerpted from Lives of Quiet Inspiration, Volume 3, by Joe Zentis. Hermitage, PA: Green Street Press, 2009