Slice a banana in half lengthwise, top it with chopped peanuts and a dollop of pastel-tinted mayonnaise, and you’ve created one of my favorite dishes: the banana nut salad from the Willard Restaurant, a fixture of the Bexley, Ohio community from 1925 until it closed in 1988.
Robert Schumann captured his boyhood memories in Scenes from Childhood, that nostalgic set of 13 piano pieces he composed in 1838. Willard’s menu staple is one of many “Curiose Geschichte” (curious stories), but also “Glückes genughat” (quite happy) things that could inspire my own composition of childhood memories I made along East Main Street, the main drag of the suburban Columbus neighborhood that was founded in 1908.
At Evans and Schwartz Shoes, I was fitted for my saddle shoes with their corrective “cookies.” I waited my turn at office of Dr. Joseph Van Balen, Jr., D.D.S., playing with toys and reading picture books under the encouraging glance of a young cowboy pictured on a sign that read, “I’ll take care of this, Mom.” I got my first haircuts at Paul & Vic’s Hairdressers, which Paul Pasini owned from 1941 until 2004; his brother, Victor, joined him there in 1946. I browsed for embroidered Portuguese handkerchiefs after school at The Linen Tree. And I watched the clock at Paul’s Food Shoppe, the grocery that operated from 1929 until 1997. The original clock is still there.
Banana nut salads aren’t the only food favorites I discovered in Bexley. No pizza tastes as good as the signature cornmeal-dusted thin crusts served at Rubino’s, which stay warm under white-paper tents until they reach home. At Johnson’s Real Ice Cream, the fourth-generation family business that still has its original door from 1950, I developed a penchant for lemon ice cream, “party slices” (rectangles of Johnson’s signature vanilla ice cream decorated with icing stencils) and Nutty Buddies (vanilla ice cream, rolled in nuts and dipped in chocolate, and served on a sugar cone).
I ordered egg salad sandwiches and milkshakes at Wentz Pharmacy, the neighborhood drugstore and soda fountain. Established by Roy Wentz, Sr. in 1925, Wentz’s was best known for delivering ice cream to customers in Harley Davidson motorcycles with refrigerated compartments. Wentz’s closed in 1989, but the building — complete with its original molded tin ceiling and similar exterior signage —- has been the Bexley location of Graeter’s Ice Cream since 1991.
I also had a brush with fame in Bexley. On October 27, 1981, I met Ginger Rogers when she introduced her 1935 film, Top Hat, at the reopening of the restored Drexel Theater, the Art Deco landmark with the iconic marquee that has been showing movies and independent art films since it opened on Christmas Day 1937.
But the best finds I’ve made lately in Bexley have been at Gramercy Books, an independent bookstore offering books, magazines and book-themed gifts for all ages. From literary fiction and narrative nonfiction to bestsellers and books about music and musicians, this inviting place includes a café that serves breakfast items, snacks, coffee and Kittie’s cupcakes.
Gramercy hosts special events, monthly book discussions, poetry readings, evenings with songwriters, and visits by authors such as Jennifer Chiaverini, who recently published Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter and the world’s first computer progammer. Laurel Davis Huber, author of The Velveteen Daughter, — a novel based on the true story of Margery Williams Bianco, the author of The Velveteen Rabbit, and her daughter, famed child prodigy artist Pamela Bianco — also visited Gramercy recently.
For more on Bexley, see Images of America: Bexley, by the Bexley Historical Society, and Columbus Neighborhoods: Bexley, a production of WOSU-TV. And You Know You Should Be Glad: A True Story of Lifelong Friendship, is a memoir by award-winning journalist and bestselling author Bob Greene, who grew up in Bexley.