Connie Kross and Carol Johnson laughed and smiled as they looked through wooden cigar boxes and told stories of their years working at Ralph's News Stand & Trophy House. “That's what I'd like to take, a cigar box and some Halloween makeup,” Johnson said to Doris Seats during an interview last week. Doris Seats is the widow of Ralph Seats, the man who owned and operated the store from 1952 until his death last year. Kross, Johnson and Seats recalled, sometimes through tears, the bond they share by working at the shop at 664 E. Lincoln Highway in downtown DeKalb. Ralph's, described by former employees and patrons as a DeKalb institution, will close its doors Friday after 55 years in business. Ralph Seats passed away about a year ago at the age of 83, about four years after his longtime co-worker and close friend Jimmy Dalrymple died. “This store is what kept him going towards the end,” Johnson said. “Some of the bookstores said they couldn't compete with the big stores, but he never complained.” In an age of convenience, people who were a part of the store's family believe convenience ultimately undid what they described as a staple of DeKalb. With a small number of street parking spots near the store - and an influx of chain stores offering some, but not all, of the same services as the shop - Ralph's is yet another signature mom-and-pop style shop to shut its doors. “He was a businessman and he understood that it happens, that other businesses come in and we make the best of it,” Kross said, “He loved it, loved the people.”
Collector's spot People who frequented the store - whether they worked there or bought goods and often stayed to talk - describe Ralph's as a unique business. Vintage Halloween masks adorn the top of the wall near the front door, from Richard Nixon and Laurel and Hardy likenesses to a black-horned, red-faced devil. Lock de-icer can be found next to chewing tobacco. Toward the back of the store are rows of cards offering warm praises for birthdays, graduations and other life events. Sitting among chewing gum is an old-fashioned rotary-dial phone with a detachable ear piece connected to a cord. Trophies for a wide swath of feats - including baseball, bowling, ballroom dancing and horse shows - are in long rows along the basement floor. Ralph Seats brought a collector's sense to his business. An avid hat collector who also appreciated of Halloween masks, he housed a random combination of services at his business, including lottery tickets, trophy engraving, Western Union service, tobacco, magazines, newspapers and a tube tester from the years when TVs needed tubes to operate. Regulars of Ralph's said they go for the products and services they need, but also for the camaraderie. “No matter who you were, what you did, this was a community spot for many people,” Johnson said. “This is DeKalb, you have a lot of different people. There's the college students trying to buy cigarettes even though they weren't 18, or trying to buy X-rated magazines. Or you had the school presidents coming in to get cigars.” People stop Kross and Johnson on the street and say they know them from working at Ralph's, even though Johnson stopped working there eight years ago and Kross hasn't worked there since 1997. “The joke was he would never hire anyone who didn't have a master's or above,” Kross said. “A lot of people that worked here were working on their master's or doctorate.”
The characters Johnson and Cross worked at Ralph's while studying education at Northern Illinois University. The two said they remember jokes and hilarious stories more than anything told by Ralph and Dalrymple - especially their stories about serving in the armed forces during World War II. “They were characters,” Johnson said. “They would yell at each other, and then step away and have cigars and be OK, like brothers.” Ralph told people stories about being stationed in Alaska and using a dog sled to go the nearest town and get supplies. Dalrymple used a jeep to get around while stationed in the Philippines. “He took the captain's jeep and got snockered,” Johnson said. “He woke up in a village and didn't know where the jeep was. The captain said if he didn't find the jeep he'd go to the brig. They both had these World War II stories that were just hysterical.” Ralph Seats was born in Clinton, Ill. He spent time in the armed forces before moving to DeKalb in 1949. Seats worked at the Fargo Theatre and the DeKalb Theater before 1952, when he opened the first incarnation of Ralph's - farther west on Lincoln Highway, toward the middle of the block between Sixth and Seventh streets. Shortly after opening, Dalrymple became the unofficial manager of the store and came along when Ralph's moved to the corner of Seventh Street and Lincoln Highway. “Even though Ralph owned the store, Jimmy ran it,” Kross said. “Jimmy used to call himself the west side mayor.” Dalrymple is remembered by friends and co-workers as a blunt, honest man who didn't shy away from voicing his opinion. He grew up in Philadelphia, Pa., and also spent time in the armed forces before moving to DeKalb. Dalrymple spent several years working as a janitor at NIU, as well as his managerial duties at Ralph's. “He liked you or he didn't like you,” Earl Sullivan, owner of Sullivan's Tavern at 722 E. Lincoln Highway, said about Dalrymple. “He was a good person. I really enjoyed seeing his smiling face.” Ralph and Jimmy practiced a form of compassion layered with glib remarks that might not be considered politically correct today, Johnson said. They both were described as generous and friendly - although Jimmy would not make things easy if he wasn't promptly paid back for a loan. Ralph loved big-band music - often taking Doris to dances - and he insisted the big-band radio station be on at all times. “We would set our watches to know when he'd leave and when he'd be back, so we could change the station,” Johnson said.
Saying goodbye For decades leading up to the days where Ralph's health began to fade, the store was open from 5 a.m. until midnight. The clientele included people coming in for a newspaper right as the store opened, to patrons visiting, and often stumbling, later at night from Sullivan's Tavern just east of the store, Johnson said. “People were always in and out,” Kross said. “It didn't matter what hours you worked, it was always hopping.” While it's hard to shut Ralph's doors for good, Doris Seats said it's time for her to move on. “I've heard it so many times, how many people are going to miss this place,” Doris Seats said. “‘Oh you can't be closing, this is a landmark.' And it is, but it's a little more than I can take. It's sad not having him here. I miss him.” “You have to be here practically 24-7, and you can't do that anymore,” Johnson said to Doris. “There's a lot of people I'm really going to miss,” Doris said. “Everybody had a routine when they'd come in. They'd get their paper and lottery tickets, take the same steps in and out. And everyone was real nice to us.” Doris and Ralph married 19 years ago, while she was working at the Village Commons Bookstore. She brought her friendly smile, as well as her cleanliness, to the business when she retired from the bookstore six years ago and started working at the newsstand. “This was the place they called ‘Dirty Ralph's,'” Johnson said. “But it got a lot cleaner when Doris started working here.” John Johnson first came to Ralph's in 1974 when he first moved to DeKalb and needed to find a Western Union branch. He said he enjoyed the atmosphere and started visiting regularly for cigars, lottery tickets, cooking magazines for his wife Buffy and often just to talk. In time, a strong bond grew between the Johnsons and the Seats. During August's flooding, Johnson helped fix Doris' sump pump. “Everyone told me to go to Ralph's when I first moved here,” John Johnson said. “There have always been good, honest people here and the freshest cigars. Just the other week I came in for a lottery ticket and spent a half hour talking with Doris. This place really is an institution. My father doesn't know where he's going to go anymore.” Benji Feldheim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.