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Chapter One – Ellen
Hi. I’m Ellen. No, not THE Ellen. I’m not that famous… yet. Hopefully, one day people will know me for my documentary films. For right now, I do side jobs getting B-roll for reality shows to fund my films.
I work for the contest baking show Sweets Off. I film the typical reality show stuff like background on the contestants, confessional interviews, the journey to the show, and of course, I also film before and during the show.
The producers like me to record the essence of the contestants to help them appeal to the audience. But since they only give me a few minutes of airtime to get the audience to care about the people, I look for intense emotions like conflict, friendships, schmaltz, anything that will produce a quick response.
My new subject is Cupcakes, etc., a small-town cupcake shop in the far western part of the Chicago suburbs.
I’ve been told that their baked goods are out of this world, but their magnetism for people and each other is grounded in reality and that keeps people coming back.
My job is to find out if that’s true. Well, that’s what I think my job is. As an aspiring filmmaker, I believe my lens shows me reality and I look to find the truth behind everyone I film. But what pays my rent is to find sound bites that can be edited to fit the format of the show.
Truthfully, there’s very little reality in reality shows. But I’m always looking for a real story—one that shows life, one that will move people. And when I find it, then I’ll make my documentary. But, for right now, I’ll search while I make money. I start with background research.
Cupcakes, etc. is in a town called St. Sebastian and they’re located in a kind of a mall called The Little Shoppes at Addams Place. I found the background of the town and the mall very interesting.
It all started in the small town of St. Sebastian on the riverbanks of the mighty Mississippi. The town was originally called Milltown, named for the grain mill.
Honeymooners Sebastian and Sarah Addams Simonsen came to the town in 1920 and bought the mill, which was the main industry and heart of the town. Sebastian was an intelligent, kind man with a creative mind for invention. He crafted many innovations that made the mill and the town thrive.
And while Sebastian reworked the mill architectural buff, Sarah gave the town a makeover to create a real Main Street, USA charm.
She built a town square with a large shiny white gazebo with dainty carvings of roses in the fascia below the roof. The surrounding garden and park has green grass, flowerbeds, and sculpted bushes around the perimeter. It’s a beautiful focal point and a place for everyone to gather and enjoy.
She worked with the wives of the town leaders and shopkeepers to add new shops and mold an attractive and cohesive downtown area, converting the dusty dull brown wooden storefronts to whitewashed bric-à-brac with accents of corbels, carved archways and pediments to announce every family store sign with prominence and panache.
And she helped create a majestic town hall building at the end of the square, the anchor of the street and the pride of the town. The red brick building has two-story Roman columns on either side of the entrance, holding up a triangle pediment with a big clock in the center. The clock chime on the hour appropriately keeps the beat of the town’s pulse, like its heartbeat.
Milltown became the epitome of a quaint early century hometown, complete with barbershop quartet and band concerts every week and an ice cream sociable every Sunday.
Even through the Depression, no one in Milltown lost their house or their job and not one person went hungry. Sebastian used his own family fortune to keep the mill alive and the town afloat any way he could. He kept retooling the mill to manufacture anything that would sell, and the workers pulled together to learn new skills.
Until the end of WWII, they built, produced or assembled anything to keep going. And when the business was finally operating in the black, Sarah and the town ladies once again built and tweaked everything to make Milltown over in her idyllic image.
But in 1960, Sebastian died. The town changed the name to St. Sebastian to honor everything he did for the people. To change with the times again, Sarah turned her grief into action and completely remodeled by combining their adjacent Germanic-inspired home with the factory building. She mirrored the circular roofed turrets in her home and added them to the other three sides of the new building to make it symmetrical. The old factory entrance was converted into a grand entrance with round columns and a triangle pediment, similar to the one she designed for the town hall. When it was complete, she welcomed people into her new artisan’s workshop.
Sarah encouraged her employees to use their skills to create and show their wares in the workshop, making them entrepreneurs. It was so popular, it quickly attracted other artisans who would make the town their new home to craft and sell their handiwork. Word traveled and soon customers were drawn to the unique shopping center from nearby towns and even the big city of Chicago. It created a destination for the town to grow and prosper with new business prospects far and wide. She named it “The Little Artisan Shoppes.”
After Sarah passed in 1980, her daughter, Jane, renamed it “The Little Shoppes at Addams Place.” Like her, the shops were named for Sarah’s favorite suffragette, Jane Addams, and coincidentally, Sarah’s maiden name.
Residents say the town is not that different from how it looked in Sarah’s day. The downtown area, the square and the town hall remain the same mainstay of an old-fashioned Main Street, USA.
From my perspective, I agree with them. In so many towns, progress has a propensity to demolish the past to make way for the future. The cohesive blend of old and new is a vanishing breed. But driving through St. Sebastian, you can practically hear the tinny echo of “Mr. Sandman” and “In The Good Old Summertime” music playing in your head.
Some of the downtown stores offer modern merchandise, while others sell the same tried-and-true products they’ve stocked for decades. There are some old signs mixed with new and some modern touches here and there, but among these streets, I have the warm feeling that I traveled back to a time when people still walk down the street, wave to other townspeople and know their neighbors by name.
I can see why the ladies of Cupcakes, etc. call St. Sebastian a magical place. A rare blast from the past where kids can still play in the streets without fear of danger—simply a wonderful small town unspoiled by modern pessimism and personal distance.
Believe me, as someone who grew up in gray institutional landscapes, this quaint little hamlet is a refreshing change from the cold steel and glass of urban centers, both the buildings and the people.
The Little Shoppes have changed and evolved a little more than the town. Over the years, it went from artisans to entrepreneurs and became the jewel of the now typically suburban St. Sebastian, complete with minivans full of kids going to soccer practice and cellphone stores, but the community essence of the small town still lives.
The origin of this mall alone makes a great story. When Jane took over, the artisan movement was tapering off and the entrepreneurial business-minded eighties and nineties took over, so Jane reinvented the place once again and supported and nurtured women to be their own bosses and carve out a business niche for themselves.
Now it’s a mecca for only women-owned businesses, many of which passed from mother to daughter. Some artisans remained and, with new ideas and products, The Little Shoppes blossomed into a haven where most St. Sebastian residents shopped and gathered daily.
There’s the custom organic Butterfly Bridal Shoppe run by Becky and her cute little daughter Ali. The Ballerina Dance Studio owned by Zoe and her mother, former famous prima ballerina Molly. And the bookstore/coffee shop A Book and a Cup at the helm of runaway attorney Randa, who impulsively chucked her corporate skin one day to follow her bliss, cultivating unique coffee blends.
Former Parisian couple Antoine and Serie put her Michelin stars to good use with cozy cuisine at Frenchie’s Bistro. Woodworker Annie, one of the original artisans, and her adult daughters Abby and Evie, continue the family business turning wood into art with furniture and anything you think could be made of wood. And there’s Cousins Pots and Paints run by Carrie and Courtney who took over their grandfather’s ceramic craft store in the artisan shop and newcomer Melody who runs the music store and a dozen more interesting and multifaceted stories just like that to create this nexus of happiness and hope.
Sweets Off contestants Cupcakes, etc., owned by best friends Niki and Trudy, is the most popular store in The Little Shoppes.
Niki is a third-generation baker. Her grandfather Max started the Greek bakery in town, which is still run by her cousin George. But she had a different vision than Greek breads and simple baked goods. So, she and Trudy went from their Easy-Bake Ovens to a cornucopia of thirty different inventive and delicious hand-crafted cupcakes and pastries in this little cupcake shop.
It’s a great partnership. Trudy decorates the cupcakes and thinks up any way to market and further the business and Niki makes fabulous innovative sweets with combinations that explode in your mouth.
I’ve already sampled many of the delectable delights and gained a few pounds in the process, but it’s worth it to learn about the magic of this world Jane created. Everyone is family here. They work together, spend time with each other, and help each other, creating a magnetic field that attracts everyone in town to spend time here. It’s enviable.
The Cupcake Crew, as their customers named them, also includes Pamela, the debutante decorator and the benefactor of the shop; supermom Lori, who does the books and keeps the shop running; and young Amanda, Trudy’s cousin, who is a little lost lamb in need of direction.
It doesn’t take long to observe this crew’s interaction with regular customers and daily drop-ins who make up The Little Shoppes family. It’s simply miraculous how these people touch each other’s hearts and minds.
A regular gang of colorful characters gather at the cupcake shop every day. There’s Henry and Maude. They were married for forty years and decided to divorce, but they still have coffee and a cupcake here every day and talk. Now they’re now best friends.
Walter sits in the back and plays chess with himself all day, every day. He said he’s the only worthy opponent, so he tries different gambits to see if he can best himself. I don’t know a lot about chess, but I’ve caught him moving the pieces around in different configurations to simulate play once in a while to keep appearances up. I don’t think he ever really plays, but it completes his rouse. I think he’s just lonely and wants to be around people.
Sisters Janet and Joan dress up in hats, pearls and gloves and come for afternoon high tea, which takes place whenever they can get a break between clients at their hair salon downtown.
They’re superfans of the British Downton Abbey television series and have immersed themselves in the culture of the British Edwardian era. Speech, mannerisms, and especially the daily tradition of high tea are replicated. They try to model the dress of the times with hats, gloves and pearls, but with shorter floral dresses and lace collars.
And Caroline comes in to breastfeed her baby Emma in the afternoon and have a cupcake. She said she’s alone with her baby at home and craves a safe environment to breastfeed without judgment and to have some adult conversation.
Walter and Henry said the breastfeeding makes them uncomfortable at first, but they’re now used to it. They welcome her, but I still see them quietly wince and look the other way when she feeds.
My favorite is a couple who met here in the shop. Ron is a waiter at Frenchie’s and Ken works at Melody Music and doubles as drag queen Kendra Wild for her late-night club act.
The rest of the gang of regulars said watching their “will they, won’t they” courtship was the sweetest thing they ever experienced. Without the cupcake shop, I don’t know if these two stars would have ever collided.
Every day it’s a combination of soap opera meets neighborhood tavern. I’m so enthused to film, observe, interview and witness the ups and downs of those in this confection clubhouse.
In my big Chicago apartment building, no one talks to, cares about or knows each other. This is what it means to be part of a community.
They talk, gossip, disagree, argue, tease each other, support each other in bad times and celebrate the good times. There are new topics each day. Some come in and out and some stay for hours. But I often think the cupcakes and pastries could bake from the hot air warmth of the room, without or without the ovens.
Lately, the biggest topic of discussion is the Sweets Off show. It’s a big deal for them. The winner gets national exposure with a link on the network’s online store and a twenty-five thousand dollar grand prize. It could put their little cupcake shop on the map and elevate them to another level.
The judges vote on technique and taste, but the viewers judge their favorites in the finals. It’s my job to make the judges and the home audience experience what I see, hear and feel. I’m going to make the Cupcake Crew’s story help them sail into the competition.
(C) Suzanne Rudd Hamilton 2022