Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from If This Wallpaper Could Talk, a forthcoming book about Akronites and their wallpaper by Karen Starr and Shane Wynn.
Along an industrial parkway on Home Ave in northeast Akron sits a small, nondescript white building whose parking lot is always full during daytime hours.
In 1989, a speakeasy-themed diner named Mugsy’s inhabited the building for about six weeks before shutting its doors. It seems the year Taylor Swift was born, everyone was too focused on the end of the Cold War and the beginning of Nintendo’s Game Boy era to soak up the speakeasy trend that would envelop us all in the 2010s.
Fred Spencer was 29 years old in 1989 — the perfect age to snap up that unremarkable building, slap his name on it and embark on an entrepreneurial career. Mugsy’s closed on a Friday, and Fred’s Diner opened that Monday morning. Thirty years later, Fred’s is still going strong as one of the most popular breakfast joints in town.
With such a quick turnaround for his grand opening, Spencer kept a lot of the interior decor he inherited from Mugsy’s.
Over time, he ripped out the orange carpeting and removed lace doilies and curtains. But wallpaper stripping was limited to the lower half of the walls, now painted wood paneling.
On the upper half of the walls remains the inherited multi-colored floral pattern that has become a signature part of the experience of eating at Fred’s Diner. At first glance, it seems incongruous with the vintage Coca-Cola memorabilia and rotary dial phone that set a nostalgic vibe in the cozy restaurant.
But Spencer has a ready answer for those who inquire about when he’ll change it. “Never,” he says. “I’ve been wallpaper bullied for years, but I stuck to my guns. I’ve got women who say they can’t stand it and ask when I’m going to change, but the guys — 95 percent of people who come in are men, construction guys. It’s come around to feeling like you’re sitting in Grandma’s kitchen.”
Customers are so attached to the eclectic décor that when Spencer does change something, it has to be with sleight of hand. Regulars get upset when anything is different or out of place.
Over the years people have given him items to add into the mix, but he has learned to introduce changes slowly so as to not disrupt the feeling of continuity the community prefers. Customers have come to know and love every quirky inch of the diner’s décor, and Spencer says part of the magic of coming here is the gloriously over-the-top wallpaper.
Not even time and wear can force a change-up to this aging wallpaper. Those forward-thinking speakeasy owners left behind a surplus of unused rolls of the flowery paper, a back-up investment
Spencer is grateful to have on hand, if only to defuse the argument. Over heaping plates of bacon, eggs and home fries, a few folks shared their thoughts on how the wallpaper at Fred’s Diner makes them feel.
“It looks like some old-school, down South, Mobile Alabama wallpaper,” says diner Ace Epps.
“It feels homey and inviting, comfortable,” says diner Marquita Epps. “Even the faded feel of it just makes you feel like it’s home — almost like the food is going to be so much better because of the wallpaper.”
“It’s great; it lends to our charm,” says waitress Franny Thoricht. “It’s as ugly as can be, but it really is what makes us us.”
Join the creators of If This Wallpaper Could Talk for a release party at January Paint and Wallpaper, located at 394 W. Exchange St., on Oct. 12 from 4-7 pm.
Photo at top: This wallpaper hangs in the home of Meghan Meeker and Scott Roger. Made by David E. Berman, Trustworth Studios. The pattern is “Bat and Poppy,” a reproduction of a French Art Nouveau paper. Photo in text: The wallpaper at Fred’s Diner. Photos by Shane Wynn.