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.

Presser remembers that Flower Child owner Joe Valenti had told him Lewis had had personality clashes with other employees, and that Valenti didn't want him around anymore. Presser had been finding the same thing with customers at Big Fun, but thought he had hit upon a solution.

"Redwin has a personality that is both very ingratiating ... and a total other side that is very, very, very upsetting to other individuals," says Presser. Former co-workers say he has a penchant for starting rumors and playing staffers off of one another. Many are leery of talking on the record at all, saying they're afraid of him.

"He was pretty good on the computer, so I put him in the back office," Presser says. "He took care of cutting checks and making deposits. It seemed like that was where he could put his best foot forward."

To Presser, Lewis was a valuable part of the Big Fun family. But the fun wouldn't last forever.

A slender, pale, blonde with fine features, Cindy Deering looks like the kind of suburban housewife who shopped at the high-end art and antiques gallery she ran in Beachwood back in the 1980s. By 1990, she started selling vintage collectibles out of a stall at the Bijou Gallery, an antiques mall on Lorain. The strip was red-hot, so she quickly added another space, then another. Her boyfriend at the time, artist Tom Wilson of Ziggy fame, urged her to open her own spot and abetted the project by helping to buy the former bingo hall that became Suite Lorain.

"It was such a huge space, I had to have renters," she says. Some, like Flower Child's Valenti, moved on to open their own businesses.

But by 2009, some of the businesses on the strip that had catered to vintage and antique collectors had moved on. Years of bad economy had taken their toll. Riding herd on the 16 dealers who leased space had overwhelmed Deering, who had had her own financial and personal ups and downs in recent years, including caring for her elderly father for several years before his death in 2009. Her friend, advertising hotshot-turned-investor/entrepreneur Alan Glazen — now a partner in such hot new establishments as Erie Island Coffee, ABC Tavern, and XYZ Tavern — had helped her pay off some back taxes; in exchange, Deering put the building in his name as collateral.

Deering was looking for someone to take over the store when realtor Gaye Ramstrom came in with Redwin Lewis in tow as a potential buyer in late 2009.

"He'd been a customer of mine for eight to ten years," says Deering. "I was happy to see him. I thought, he can continue the Suite Lorain tradition and do even better."

But one incident that occurred a couple of years earlier gave Deering pause.

"There was one odd thing that stuck in my craw, and I told Gaye about it before we signed the papers," she remembers. "A few years ago, [Lewis] went to New York to a vintage dealer who buys stuff in Cleveland and told him, 'Everyone in Cleveland thinks you're a pain in the ass, and no one there wants to deal with you. Everyone hates you.' I got a letter from [the New York dealer] saying, 'I'm sorry if I offended you.'

"It was all false. It left me wondering what kind of man is this that would stir the pot like that and do something so hurtful?"

Knowing little else about Lewis at the time, she brushed it off as an aberration.

In early 2010, Lewis entered into a two-part agreement to take over Suite Lorain. One part was for the building. He agreed to pay $50,000 — $25,000 each to Glazen and Deering. And he made good on it.

"I bought the building and agreed to let her stay in the building until I decided what to do with it," says Glazen. "[Lewis] made the arrangement to buy the real estate from me and the rest from her. It was a normal real estate transaction."

The other half of the deal was for the fixtures, including display cases, risers, and the store's computer system. "I had all kinds of fabulous display stuff and display showcases — a 20-year collection," says Deering.

Lewis agreed in writing to pay $50,000 for that too, at a rate of $1,500 a month starting in September 2010. Deering gave him six months to get on his feet before the payments would kick in.

As the deal was completed, everyone wished Lewis well. Presser and his wife brought a bottle of wine to Sweet Lorain's grand opening. Valenti sent flowers.

"I want other people to do good business," says Valenti. "If people come from out of town, they'll shop here and there and everywhere. We want them to come back. We want them to be happy."

At around that same time, Presser started noticing that his business was leaking money. A big-hearted man who treats his employees like family, he admits that his greatest shortcoming is that he's too trusting of people, and he was reluctant to admit that one of them might have been siphoning money from the store. Presser didn't immediately suspect Lewis, though other employees suggested taking a look at him.

Presser eventually took heed, marking some bills that he gave Lewis for deposit one day. When he found his deposit short he confronted Lewis. One of the marked bills was in his pocket.

"I trusted him like I trusted all my employees," Presser says. "I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt.

"I got taken advantage of."

When he realized how much had gone missing — he'll never be sure of the exact amount, but figures it's in the tens of thousands — the benefit of the doubt had come and gone. In December of last year, criminal theft charges were filed against Lewis.

It was shortly after Sweet Lorain's opening that Presser caught Lewis with the marked bill and gave Deering a warning call. With the ink from her deal long since dried, she could only hope for the best.

In the meantime, she was formulating her own plans for a new shop.

"I just needed a break after 20 years," she says of her hasty return to resale. "It's the only thing I know how to do."

In September 2010, she opened Deering Vintage on West 14th Street in Tremont, in a space about a third the size of Suite Lorain. Rather than fussing with multiple dealers, she featured only her own stock.

By the time winter blew in, it was clear to Deering that Lewis had no intention of making good on his payments. Not only was he stiffing her to the tune of $50,000: He was giving her a hard time about getting back merchandise that he'd agreed to let her store at Sweet Lorain.

"I thought we'd be working together. We had such a good relationship. I thought I would be helping with the transition," says Deering. "He did not want me there. And he would not let me get my stuff."

Glazen backs her up. He says he and Deering's boyfriend, Velvet Tango Room owner Paulius Nasvytis, accompanied her to Sweet Lorain. "I went there with Paulius to witness him denying her the ability to get merchandise from the store which is clearly hers," says Glazen. "That was the first and last time I ever met the guy."

Fearing she was out of options, Deering filed a civil suit against Lewis in December — the same time criminal charges were filed against him for stealing from Presser.

Lewis has dodged the charges for most of 2011, responding in a legal filing that Deering had committed fraud, misleading him about what was included in the sale and about how well the business had been doing before it changed hands.

When reached at his store, Lewis declined to talk about his dealings with Deering or other vendors. But in court filings, he said she falsely claimed that items in the store belonged to her when they actually belonged to other vendors, and that she "surreptitiously removed" items that were included in the sale. Deering responds that Lewis was well aware who owned what, yet he took items that were hers for his own collection. He admits he's done that, but says he claimed the items as his own "in lieu of cleaning up her crap."

Lewis' court papers added more vague claims that Deering had been "frightening and/or upsetting vendors, causing them to leave."

In fact, many of Deering's 16 former vendors have left Sweet Lorain for a variety of reasons. One of them is Dave Jackson, a dealer of tiki-style collectibles. "I tried to work with him, but he's a manipulator," Jackson says of Lewis. "People he can't manipulate, he forces out of the store." He adds that Lewis has given many ex-vendors a hard time about retrieving their merchandise.

Lewis says he now works with a half-dozen vendors, with the majority of the store's stock consisting of stuff he's acquired over the years.

At the new shop in Tremont, Deering struggled. And when her landlord raised the rent, she moved again — this time to a former florist shop on a red-hot strip of West 25th in Ohio City, in the middle of a block of hip locally owned businesses that have all opened in the last year: among them a vegan bakery, a bicycle shop, a store specializing in custom baseball bats, and a Mexican restaurant spun off from a stand in the nearby West Side Market.

Over on West 25th on a Saturday evening, Deering and a longtime associate are tackling the piles and boxes of merchandise she's moved into the new space in anticipation of their early October opening. She's painted the new place a soft retro lavender and brought in her collection of old clothing, her boxes of '50s and '60s movie stills, her menus from long-gone restaurants where the whole family could eat for less than ten dollars. She's got plans to use the old florist refrigerator as a display case.

On top of one box, there's a large fishbowl filled with anonymous old snapshots of ordinary people with a sign reading "Instant Relatives — 50 cents."

That, she says, was Tom Wilson's idea — an example of his wry Ziggy humor. The fishbowl back at Sweet Lorain is among the stuff Lewis won't return to her.

Despite the acrimony, Deering says she loves the changes Lewis has made to Sweet Lorain — the way he's grouped merchandise by type and era, rather than separating dealers into their own spots, as is typically done in consignment shops. But she doesn't understand his reluctance to honor their deal.

"He's obviously doing well," she says, noting the full parking lots at his store most days. "It's not like he doesn't have the money. He's arguing over hangers."

Glazen doesn't get it either.

"Cindy is a good, honest woman," he says. "She has had a lot of struggle and a lot of success, and is really into what she does. To see someone take advantage of that says something about him. Why would you cheat someone like Cindy? Redwin's a bad boy."

On August 25, Lewis pleaded guilty to stealing from Presser, who settled for restitution of $5,000.

Deering's civil case is ongoing. In early September, Lewis agreed to put payments into an escrow account while he and Deering resolved their differences. Deering says he finally did so at the end of September — well after the court-ordered deadline. A pretrial hearing is set for October 28.

On September 27, Presser appeared in court for Lewis' sentencing.

"I made it very clear I did not want to see him go to jail," Presser recalls saying before Judge Lance Mason. "I made it clear I wanted to get my money quickly — not in dribs and drabs over a long period of time."

The judge agreed, ordering Lewis to pay the $5,000 over five months in $1,000 increments. Presser was taken aback at what followed.

"Now is the time to say you are sorry,'" Presser remembers the judge demanding to Lewis.

"He wouldn't. The judge asked him again in a nice way. He wouldn't. The judge said, 'I don't like sending people to jail, but I also have to let you understand that most victims who come to court ask for a jail sentence. This one is being nice. You already admitted to guilt, and you're showing no remorse.'"

The judge asked again, and again Lewis refused to make nice. So Mason slapped him with 45 days in jail. He was cuffed and taken away, then granted five days of freedom to handle business matters. On October 3, he reported to the Cuyahoga County Jail.

"All he had to do was turn around and look me in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry' — even if he was lying," says Presser. "Even if he had his toes and fingers crossed."

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