Retro Ruckus

A fixture on Cleveland's kitsch scene burns his vintage bridges

For 20 years, the white cinderblock building with the striking orange and turquoise sign has been a mainstay of the gritty strip of Lorain Avenue dubbed the Lorain Antiques District. It's where stores hawking ages-old collectibles mix with rent-to-own furniture joints, convenience stores, and hair salons — and the latter are gaining ground on the former.

Suite Lorain calls itself a "vintage department store." What you'll find there is stuff your grandmother probably scored at downtown department stores like Higbee's and May Company back in the day: 8,000 square feet of kitchenware and aprons, clocks and watches, furniture and evening dresses, costume jewelry and ceramic knickknacks, magazines, books, records, and board games, all of it from an era the digital age forgot.

The brainchild of antiques dealer Cindy Deering, Suite Lorain came into existence in 1991, back when the Lorain Antiques District was hitting its stride. She built a loyal following over the years, but eventually burned out from the headaches that go with running a large, multi-dealer space. She finally sold it in March 2010 to a longtime customer and avid vintage collector by the name of Redwin Lewis.

Like many in the resale business, Lewis had graduated from running a stall in another shop to running a shop all his own. He's given the store a new but similar name — it's now "Sweet Lorain," as per the sales agreement — and a makeover. Most days, the parking lot is jammed with cars bearing license plates not just from Ohio, but also Pennsylvania, New York, Nevada, and elsewhere. Lewis says they come to sell and to buy.

But in recent times, Lewis' dealings with those who have long trusted in him and worked alongside him have become the stuff of Cuyahoga County court dockets. Some say the man who built his life around vintage fashions and furnishings may be coming apart at the seams.

"The tradition in vintage continues," proclaims Sweet Lorain's website, its orange and blue colors echoing the store's art deco sign. And while the sign is looking a bit worn these days, with its broken and missing letters, the inside remains crammed with alluring displays of merchandise and oddball memorabilia, with a seasonal emphasis on Halloween. A big fishbowl filled with anonymous yellowed snapshots of ordinary people sits on the counter with a sign reading "Instant Relatives — 50 cents."

Behind that counter, a sandy-haired and ruddy-faced man with soft features enthusiastically greets customers and chats about their various passions — whether it's for the art deco designs he happens to be devoted to or more kitschy '50s stuff. Sporting tasteful vintage clothing that could have been lifted from his own racks, Redwin Lewis is an affable and soft-spoken man of 46 who readily delivers a refrain common among vintage dabblers: "I got into selling to pay for the stuff I bought."

Those with a foothold in vintage Cleveland say that it's a small scene. Though Lewis has been part of it for nearly a decade, those with whom he has worked know surprisingly little about him. They paint an oddly varied portrait of the man: complimenting his knowledge and taste, yet warning of his tendency to stir up trouble, to gossip, and to pit people against each other.

They think he's from Cuyahoga Falls; they say he spent some time in Ann Arbor. He seems to have attended Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy, where he graduated in 1983 under the name "Timothy Lewis." One associate thinks he comes from a fundamentalist family, and Lewis himself talks at length about helping a nephew explore the world beyond the boundaries of his religious parents. His Facebook page lists only one "interest": tranny wrangler.

Lewis doesn't say much about himself either; when a reporter made numerous visits to his store, he continually postponed conversation. On one visit, he said he couldn't talk because he was preparing to sing for the Jewish High Holy Day services — September 30 was Rosh Hashanah.

It's been the better part of a decade since Lewis started dropping in to the popular vintage toy and novelty store Big Fun. In the 21 years since Steve Presser opened his Cleveland Heights store on Coventry Road, he has become one of the highest profile and best-liked merchants on the street, organizing events and serving as an unofficial ambassador for the retail strip.

When Redwin Lewis stepped into his life, Presser noticed that the newcomer "had a good eye — a knack for merchandising." Presser knows well of Lewis' collection of holiday gnome ornaments and his dozens of mohair argyle sweaters from the 1940s and '50s.

"He loves his clothes," Presser says.

Lewis had been shopping at Big Fun for a few years when Presser took him on as a part-time employee, then eventually made him full time about six years ago.

"All the people who work at Big Fun were customers first," says Presser. He found that Lewis was knowledgeable and hard-working, and that he could be charming too. About five years ago, he entrusted Lewis to run a stall for him at another vintage shop, Flower Child, on Clifton Boulevard near Cleveland's western border with Lakewood. It was Presser's first foray into that neighborhood, where he has since opened a second Big Fun store on the same block with Flower Child.

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