My husband Dave and I ran an antique shop when we were first married. Called Antiques of Marion, we opened it in 1982 in a beautiful downtown Italianate-styled brick mansion in Marion, Iowa. We spent most weekends at auctions, where Dave would select furniture to restore and I would take photographs with a vintage 35 millimeter camera and write articles for a regional antiques journal. The journal work paid our gas to the auctions and the antique shop paid the mortgage, but little else. It was, however, a wonderful part of our early married life: we had a business in an industry that was experiencing growth, a close circle of friends and extended family nearby as we raised a family.
Our small business experience, like many of you, was also a house of cards. We paid nearly $400 each month for lousy health insurance that didn’t cover most of the cuts and bruises that make up daily life. To be honest, there were bad months in the shop when I didn’t pay our insurance- at all. We were young and healthy; the odds were with us. Paying the premium was sometimes a choice between dinner and a deductable -and with three small children, dinner always won.
This past month I met a young couple in Dubuque who live much the same way that we did all those years ago, but their house of cards collapsed around them over Christmas. It has broken my heart.
Michael Breitbach is a longtime small business owner in Dubuque, Iowa. He started an organic food store in downtown Dubuque in 1985- within a couple of years of when Dave and I started our shop in Marion. While we sold Antiques of Marion after a decade, Michael kept his store for nearly 26 years. When he decided to retire, Michael’s daughter Maple and her husband David Estafen acquired the iconic Dubuque Organic Food Store. The couple has three small children- all boys- ages six, three and a toddler. David and Maple took to business ownership with relish. In their first year of management, they remodeled the store to expose the old brick walls, then, they refinished the beautiful pine floors to accent the high ceilings and lovely glass storefront windows.
We had the opportunity to meet David and Maple only two days before tragedy struck. We’d been shopping in Galena and our daughter (who knows the family) convinced us to stop at the store on our way home to Cedar Falls. As we walked in the door, Maple’s husband David Estafen, was singing (!) behind a tall counter at the front of the store, dishing up some kind of organic spiced rice and bean omelet for a customer who was merrily perched on a stool at the front window. Wearing a trademark crazy hat, David waved his spatula at us from behind the counter as if to say, just come on in and we’ll take care of you. As we worked our way through the aisles, Maple’s brother and father came through the back door with strong handshakes, warm smiles and a nickel tour of the renovations. Maple’s father Michael would start a conversation- her brother would jump in and soon we were regaled with stories about the organic food business, the farmer’s market they have worked to create there and the way the town has come to embrace organic foods.
Listening to the conversations swirling around us that afternoon, I was taken back to our own shop some twenty-five years ago, and the days when my father-in-law would stop in and sell a dresser, answer the phone or entertain a customer when I was really busy in the shop. It was magic to be a part of the circle that made up this family, if only for a few moments.
Two nights later, on New Years eve, David and Maple experienced the unimaginable. While chasing an errant ball, their three year old son slid behind the stove to reach for his toy and was electrocuted on exposed wires from the oven in their rental house. Within an hour he was airlifted to the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics but his condition was bleak. In ensuing days the collective Brietbach/Estafen clans descended upon the hospital. David and Maple took up a painful vigil at their son’s bed side. Family and friends kept the store open informally and hundreds of people came out for a candlelight vigil for the little boy, whose name means ‘quiet warrier’. Sadly, Nakoa did not survive. This past week, the family removed life support and the little boy slipped away.
It is unimaginable to lose a child. Worse still, to face the aftermath of piling medical bills and burial costs when running a small lifestyle business with razor thin margins. My heart aches for this couple who, addition to dealing with the crushing pain of their loss, must now wrangle with tens of thousands of dollars in medical bills- costs they can never expect to pay. David and Maple didn’t have health insurance that would cover this catastrophe. They probably reasoned that they were young, healthy and the odds were with them- health insurance could wait. I get that. It was a gamble- a poor gamble to be sure- but one I am sure many of you, like me, understand.
An Estafen family benefit fund has been established. I am asking you to join me in helping David and Maple reconstruct their life. Will you join me? If we each contribute a little, this young family will benefit a lot. $10. $20. $50. We can make a difference. You can send checks to the fund at Dubuque Bank and Trust, 1398 Central Avenue Dubuque, Iowa 52001 (563-589-2000). The family fund can also be accessed via PayPal at Michaelbreitbach@gmail.com*. Thank you, Iowa small business owners.
Hug your children.
Image credits: First, The Food Store Homepage; second and third, The Food Store Facebook Page.
*Please note that this e-mail address has been corrected, the 'i' and 'e' were reversed.
Maureen Collins-Williams is Director of Entrepreneurship Outreach at University
of Northern Iowa