Labor of love

A pink bloom climbs a windowpane, and leans softly against the cold glass.It shouldn't be here at all, in late winter, hanging heavy on a thin stem. Yet it's one of a handful of improbable flowers crowding the front window with a dozen other potted plants at Lip-Pan TV, on the corner of Chene and East Warren.

Tom Reynolds, the gray-haired and mild-mannered owner of the shop, is the gardener, the one who draws blooms from a plant that should be dormant this time of year. "They were my wife's," he says. "We usually had them outside at home. I used to bring them here in the winter. I take care of them."

The plants hold more meaning now than in years past because his wife Gloria died of cancer a few months ago at 64. They're now a living link to his missing (other) half, and so he takes care of them. "I was with her for 50 years," the 66-year-old says quietly. "I have a lot of good memories. We did a lot together."

The window flowers, behind protective metal bars, contrast the hard circuits and cold tubes that stock shelves and fill boxes at Lip-Pan, a repair shop for TVs, DVD players, VCRs and stereo components. The place is located on the wasteland that is Chene Street, once the commercial artery that connected Polish neighborhoods in Detroit to those in Hamtramck, before nearly everyone left and the area crumbled.

"People got scared," Reynolds says. "They really did. A lot of things changed." The destruction of a neighborhood to make way for the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly plant in 1981 was the death blow to an area battered by urban renewal schemes, new freeways and white flight. "Once they cut off Chene Street, people didn't want to go around that thing," he says, referring to the auto plant and the winding road around it. "GM said, 'Oh, we're gonna do everything for the neighborhood, we're gonna help you.' They didn't do shit. Nothing. It's really a shame because it was a nice neighborhood. Maybe it still would've went down, but that made it start faster."

The project razed 1,300 homes, 140 businesses, six churches and a hospital to make room for the auto plant. "When General Motors has all these problems, it doesn't bother me," Reynolds says, bitterly. "After what they did to this neighborhood, I don't care what ever happens to General Motors. What goes around comes around."

Lip-Pan is one of the few operating businesses left on Chene. "There used to be one on every block," he says. "The guy who ran this before used to belong to a business association, and there were like 800 businesses they represented."

The shop opened in 1948, christened Lipan after an original owner. Over the years an extra "p" and a hyphen crept into the name. "It's a stupid name," Reynolds says, "but people remember it." He began working here when he was 19, and eventually took over.

It's in one of those old, long buildings common in the city, a narrow rectangle that stretches far back from the small front lobby and counter. Such buildings used to be stacked next to each other — from one end of a block to the other — all over town, but now you often see one or two standing alone, like a single tooth in an otherwise toothless mouth.

Their workshop is stacked shelf after shelf with hundreds of TV and stereo components, organized loosely, poking out of boxes haphazardly.

Years ago the shop had a building connected to it until someone tried to break in by setting its wooden front door on fire. The blaze destroyed the edifice and jumped atop Lip-Pan, scorching the upstairs apartment, rendering it uninhabitable.

The '67 riots inflicted more damage. Reynolds credits residents with saving the shop. "When they had the riots they broke all the windows, but it was all the people in the neighborhood that protected this place," Reynolds says. "They stayed in here. They watched so nobody would do anything."

The front door swings open regularly, showing someone picking up or dropping off their broken TV or dusty old radio. Customers usually live in the neighborhood, or did at one time. Besides doing repairs, Lip-Pan also sells phonograph needles, refurbished TVs and radios, and parts like circuit boards and TV tubes. Sometimes people wait in the lobby for the bus; Reynolds lets them sit inside during the colder months.

Jim Dalton, the only other employee here, notes a peculiar phenomenon — the old people in the neighborhood yearn for music as winter retreats, and come here with their broken turntables. "In the spring they want to play their records," the 64-year-old Dalton says. "All year long they don't mess with them records, but in the spring, when it gets warm weather, they get their old records out."

The pair's van is emblazoned with the shop's logo, but they don't make house calls anymore. "You don't know whose house you're going into sometimes nowadays," Dalton says. "You go to make the delivery and then they start an argument with you. They don't want to pay. Then they got a whole bunch of people outside and you're scared. What can you do? You can't take the TV out with all those guys out there."

They've had a couple holdups, but neither man has been hurt. "You get a cold chill, like somebody's walking around on your grave," Dalton says. "For about three months I was nervous afterwards. Anybody that comes in with their hand in their pocket you think they're holding you up. But it fades after a while."

Though Reynolds could retire — "I just got my first Social Security check" — he keeps the shop open, partly out of habit, partly to sustain something familiar. He isn't given to demonstrations of sadness, but his sentimental acts say everything about the hole in his life. People sometimes stop in and ask to buy one of the plants in the window. "I just say, 'Nah,'" he says. They have too much meaning now.

Gloria's fingerprints are still here and there in the shop. She used to work here, doing the books, answering the phone, the "dirty work" as Reynolds calls it. The old bathroom is decorated with a little vase she put on the toilet tank with dried flowers poking out, and a couple of small nature photos on the wall, a charming, feminine touch in a room too dingy for it to matter.

And Reynolds still wears his wedding band. "I've never had it off," he says. "Never ... I don't even know it's on anymore." The ring shows his is a love interrupted by death but not diminished by it.

The shop, the ring, the plants, all link to what once was an attempt to hang onto some aspect of what's gone — a loved one, a wrecked neighborhood, an old shop. "There's a lot of good people around here," Reynolds says, looking outside. "That's what keeps everything going, what's left."

It's usually quiet inside, between customer visits, as the two men busy themselves fixing broken things, and a missing love is remembered in lovely little gestures, and in plants kept alive by a heartbroken gardener.

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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