Paul Buenger

Location: Paramount Jewelers

Paul Buenger: This business has been here since 1946 and the man who lived here, he knew, and I started working here in '79, so I knew obviously and then he had his buddies working temporaries that had lived back in this area until the 1930s and they would tell you about the old guys before that so I've heard a lot of stories. Some may or may not be true

Mia: So just to start off, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Paul Buenger: I've been in the jewelry business a pretty long time, my entire adult life. I started here in 1979. I had already been in the industry making jewelry for about ten years before that so I started as a kid cutting stones, rocks, and making belt buckles and things which were really popular in the 60s and 70s. And I just apprenticed and learned the industry here and in other places in St. Louis, and then I started here in '79.

About five or seven years ago the son of the original owner started talking about wanting to get out of the business, so he and I worked out a deal and I bought it from it from him almost about five years now.

Mia: So you didn't grow up in Maplewood?

Paul Buenger: I did not grow up in Maplewood. Maplewood was all new to me. I do like history so I always paid attention to the couple of things I had heard.

Ann Marie: Did you grow up in St. Louis?

Paul Buenger: Yeah, I grew up in St. Louis County, unincorporated North County by the river and stuff like that.

Mia: OK, gotcha

Paul Buenger: It was kind of in "nowhere Ville" at the time. Anything south of Highway 40 was foreign to me.

Mia: And so, why have you stayed in Maplewood? Is it the close community feeling?

Paul Buenger: Well, the industry. I like this business. It gives me the opportunity to make things for people. You need one-of-a-kind things. I do a lot of that as well as you get mesmerized by the beauty of this business. For me it's just like nuts and bolts if you work at a hardware store. But you've got to remember these nuts and bolts are like $10,000. It's more challenging. I forget that what I'm looking at has that kind of value.

Also, everything that I sell has meaning to it. It means something that you're gonna have for a long lifetime. It becomes special to the families and the many generations. We sell to 5th generation people here.

Mia: That's incredible.

Paul Buenger: Yeah it is.

Mia: Just as a business owner, what has been an incentive to keep the business in Maplewood? Had you ever considered....I know you've been in this building, but had you ever thought of moving the business to St. Louis or another suburb?

Paul Buenger: Well, Maplewood borders the City of St. Louis. So Maplewood was one of the original first suburbs. So it was a real shopping district in the 50s and 60s. And then there was a big fire here that leveled half of that side. Do you know about the fire?

Ann Marie & Mia: No, I don't think we've talked about that. Can you tell us about the fire and when it happened?

Paul Buenger: Well, it happened in the early 70s in what used to be a Goldie's Department Store. Goldie's Department Stores were like...they weren't quite like a Famous-Barr, but they were a local chain. They were around St. Louis. And that was at the time that department stores weren't attached to malls. They stood alone. Then around it were all of the blocks of buildings like this. The side street was exactly like that on the other side of the street and this several blocks of Goldie's was in the next block on the north side. And it burned down. When it burned down a lot of what was across the street here from my understanding also faded away for some reason in that fire. Or that fire caused some of the damage up and down the block. I'm not sure how extensive it was.

Anyway, they had to tear it all down, and when they did, they rebuilt it where there was a K-mart across the street and this real dark, danky parking garage out in front. So you had this thing over there, and then you had this set of cool buildings over here. And they just didn't work together. It made this whole street in front of it dark.

When you look out there now, you can see the sunlight. There was literally just a facade that went straight up that was a parking garage. It was not visually attractive. It fell apart, the garage did. We would park our cars over there, and after a while, the ceilings were breaking up. The concrete would fall apart and the city was having to pay for new cars all the time because the garage belonged to the city.

Mia: So they would have to pay for damages done.

Paul Buenger: Right. So it became an issue. And finally K-mart moved out into the city. When they did, they tore it all down. Shop and Save went in. It's modern and it looks new. It doesn't have the old-timely look. So yeah, in the 50s and 60s, this was the place to shop.

Mia: Is that when street cars were still around?

Paul Buenger: Yeah. The tracks are still out there underneath the middle of the street. About ten years ago they had to repave it. They gouged it all out and they got down to the original brick cobble stones. So you can see they just covered up the original tracks. And you can find out from Mr. Harsh. He can tell you where the circles and the loops were for the turn-around of the cars.

There was a loop right at the city limits. There's a funky area where you go, "What's this? Why is it like this?" It's because there was a street car turnaround. And then you go down Manchester to Sutton and you make a left, then go past a bunch of different buildings. On the right side it looks like a park almost and that's the other turnaround. That's where the cars ended.

Mia: And that's where the patch of green space is?

Paul Buenger: Yeah. That was it. So when they paved that all over Metro link buses used to be parked there, and there would be 10 buses there in the afternoon waiting for their route. So it has always been a functional area.

Mia: Can you tell us a little bit about Route 66 at all?

Paul Buenger: Yes I can. This is the original route and it started in the 20s, '26 or something like that. And it was the original Route 66 until they finally paved Watson Road. It was always supposed to be Watson Road, but Watson Road was just a gravel road at the time. And then the Depression hit; nobody had any money. So for the first about ten years, this was Route 66 so that was pretty cool.

Ann Marie & Mia: Yes, that's pretty cool

Paul Buenger: There is a woman who wrote a book that's called "From the Bridges to the Diamonds" and it talks about the Route that came through St. Louis and changed. She meant by the bridges, it was the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge, then it was another kind of bridge and another kind of bridge. Then it took this route and that turn and down this way. But you gotta remember back then there were no interstates. Everything was two lane roads. So this was the way out. And you took Manchester out to what was called "The Diamonds" and that was where the old "Diamonds Restaurant" was. And so she wrote this book "The Bridges to the Diamonds" and it outlines all of the Routes.

Mia: That's neat

Paul Buenger: If you want to research that, that would be the way to go.

Mia: Do you have any family or kids that live in Maplewood?

Paul Buenger: It's just me.

Mia: We had talked to others and they had talked about how the school district had really been improved in the last few years. Can you comment at all about that?

Paul Buenger: Yes. I guess about twenty years ago they had built this Early Child Development Center behind the Steak n' Shake. And that really became the first time any new building was built in the school district in all of like 40 years. They staffed it well and it had a very good reputation. And then they had to close and tear down the original junior high which is now where Ryan Hummert park is. That used to be a junior high school and track. Now it's a little park.

And do you know who Ryan Hummert is?

Mia: No.

Paul Buenger: That was named for the fireman who was killed in an event that occurred here about two or three years ago now. We'll get back to the schools first. And then about ten or twelve years ago they hired this new superintendent and she's come in and she's done a terrific job.

Mia: She cleaned house?

Paul Buenger: Literally, she cleaned. You know the first thing she said was, "I can't hire better teachers and better employees if I look like I'm working out of a dishwasher closet." So she built herself a nice office. So for the first year everybody thought, "Well, she's just making herself a little fluffy nest." She gained a lot of animosity because of that. And then they realized that she had a plan; that because of the size of the district, which was small, that they could offer an almost 5 to 1 teacher to student ratio.

Mia: Oh wow

Paul Buenger: Or maybe twenty at tops. You know, that was almost like private school.

AMia: That's really good.

Paul Buenger: And so they tried to become and their goal was, and she did it very successfully, was to become a private school type education in a public environment. And that was her view. Then they got monies and they rebuilt facilities. So what used to be an old, nasty cinder track out there is now a very cool track. The pool facilities are all amazing. And the building itself has been just gutted and redone. So that was really neat, and it's been a really big plus because it's drawn young people back here. And if you're attracted to the type of this antique home housing stock in the area and you don't want to have to pay Webster Groves pricing but you want something like that...and now you have this educational facility that's become a place where you really want to raise your kid...

One of the really neat things about Maplewood is that you can walk down to everything you need. So if you need a grocery store, there it is. You want some restaurants, you want to have a good time here? There it is. You need a gas station, you want to buy a car? It's kind of an environment where it's very community sensed, and it's very friendly.

Mia: We were just talking about that on the way down here because we're both from small rural towns.

Mia: It's not like the cute city. This is the cute city. It's the small community but still accessible to resources like good schools.

Mia: It's still tight-knit

Mia: Still entertainment, but tight-knit which is really nice.

Paul Buenger: Yeah, there aren't many suburban communities that are like that. One of the many reasons it survives like it is, is because it is old and it is one of the first thought of inner ring suburbia that's survived. There are a lot of...if you think about Normandy, there's also Wellston which was also a first one west of the City of St. Louis a little bit north.

Mia: Those haven't fared as well.

Mia: Didn't Wellston used to be one of the big shopping districts too in the 50s?

Paul Buenger: Yes. Very good! There was Wellston. There was Maplewood. There were some little districts in the city of St. Louis on 14th street, Cherokee avenue. But Maplewood and Wellston were the first ones west. And the street car was also in Wellston and Maplewood. University City also had a streetcar. So you see, those are the three first of the ringlets of the city limits of St. Louis and certainly of the group U. City is the largest and fared the best. But when I was growing up you didn't go to U. City period. That was was awful.

I grew up in the North County suburbs where there was...I guess today it's the Hazelwood, Florissant area. When I was growing up it was farmland. We had like five acres up there that was wooded. My dad was a farm boy and he worked downtown at the bank. And he was vice president down there and he just didn't want to live in the real densely populated things. So he drove, and of course gas was twenty cents a gallon.

Mia: So if you were talking to a younger couple that was just starting out with their family, and they were considering moving to Maplewood, what are some of the things you would tell them?

Paul Buenger: I would tell them the schools are excellent. If you like the housing stock and you like that old style home and you want something like that or you want entry level housing without wanting to have to buy in a real bad area, this is a great start. There are two bedroom bungalows around here that are really inexpensive. They are still really nice.

Have you been south of here to look at thou really nice homes?

Mia: On Vine St.

Paul Buenger: Vine yes, right.

Mia: They said those were like 90 or 100 years old

Paul Buenger: Everything here is a 100 years old. This spot you're in is over 100 years old

Mia: How old is this building itself?

Paul Buenger: It's over 100 years old.

Mia: Really? That's incredible.

Mia: Now have they changed a lot? Paul Buenger: Oh, yep. It was originally still an old retail area that was dying off. When that Shop n' Save was built and some of the restaurants came on and Schlafly came in, it kind of renewed and gave them a little bit of money to play with and work with. But they didn't used to have two cents to rub together to fix this town. So I give them a lot of credit for that.

The challenges they face now are on this real retail area along here. Some of the landlords are difficult to work with. They are trying to work with them on that. So that's been a challenge.

Mia: You brought this up. The college kid emphasis. Because you are so close to SLU and UMS and Webster and Wash U and everything.

Paul Buenger: I market to Wash U. I mention that we're just minutes south of the campus for repairs. I try to draw them. Them may or may not be buying rings or whatnot but anybody needs batteries for watches. Everybody needs to get something fixed somewhere along the line. Where are you gonna go? I just tell them that old town Maplewood is minutes south of the campus. I'm on their website.

Mia: And then hearing that's its only minutes away...

Paul Buenger: Yes, versus forty-five minutes out in the west county area. I get them to come in here. It's a real jewelry store.

Mia: And you have more personal jewelry service rather than just going to the mall.

Paul Buenger: Yes, don't go to the mall. Why would you go to the mall to get a battery for a watch?

Mia: What would you want to see Maplewood like in ten or twenty years? Or even how would you like to see your business. Do you plan to stay in Maplewood?

Paul Buenger: Yes, we do. I see the property values all coming back and I see hopefully some of the housing stock around here. The low end would be nice to see someone come in here and rip up some of the small old homes and build more modern style housing stock. It would help this community immensely. It would attract people because we are so close to Clayton and were so close to downtown that if that could happen. Then...Have you checked through Richmond heights at all?

Mia: Not too much

Paul Buenger: Richmond Heights has a higher quality of housing stock so if Maplewood could somehow manage to induce that to occur then I think it would be the final piece of the puzzle to really have developed this community. Big Bend North, west of big bend to Hanley there are a lot of tiny little properties over there

Mia: Kind of behind the Walmart?

Paul Buenger: Behind the Walmart, that's what they tore down. They tore down blocks and blocks of that. But that area, if that area could just be ripped up and rebuilt and put together with better qualities of buildings, truly, then I would love to see that happen.

But I think other than that, they need to redevelop more around these metro links because...I think St. Louis as a whole, Metrolinks have been a great start. But when people get off at metro link stations, what's there for them? You sit and wait. Right. What if there were coffee shops and donut stores and you know quick trip kind of things that were all designed for pedestrians. A little small group of stores that could....where that metro link station is, right on the edge of the area...there are two of them in Maplewood. One that's on Manchester and then one that's down on Laclede's station.

Ann Marie & Mia: That's the one we saw.

Mia: Is that where they are doing all of the redevelopment?

Paul Buenger: That's where they're wanting to. That was on the planned thing. I wasn't sure how it is coming along.

Mia: The story about the firefighter?

Paul Buenger: So where that junior high school used to be, they named that park for him. We could see all of the smoke coming from right here, from the store. Sgt Mike Martin, that's who you need to talk to. He was the one who was injured. He has the bullet go through his shoulder and out the other side. So he was the first police officer on the scene that day and he can give you all the details on that. But yeah, it was a very sad week here.

When they had the service for him it was at the Immaculate Conception Church right here, and then there were fire trucks proceeding down Manchester. If there was one, there was 100. I got pictures of all that.

Paul Buenger: For the last fifteen to twenty years there's been a significant turnaround (in Maplewood). About ten to twelve years ago it really started and things got bulldozed down and rebuilt and its really started since then

Mia: We talked about Maplewood in my urban politics class. My professor's lived in STL since the 50s or 60s, but he used Maplewood as one of the examples of a municipality that has turned around and done really well and redeveloped.

Paul Buenger: Also about ten or fifteen years ago there was a real emphasis with the Federal Government to help with the inner ring suburbia which is Maplewood, U City, Wellston kind of places. They identified them as cities off the edge and asked how can the Federal Government help these cities come back. And there were very instrumental in getting money to help them fix up their streets. The streets are better around here. They used to be horrible.

Richmond Heights which is the same thing, didn't suffer as much because they had a big shopping district. And when they rebuilt the Galleria to what it is today that's in the city of Richmond Heights, it's been a cash cow for them. That's really helped them build all of their facilities. They were on the cusp too.

Ann Marie & Mia: Thank you very much for your time. We really appreciate it.