Retro Ruckus

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

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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.

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