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The basement was one of the scarier places I worked.
In the 20 years I ran the newspaper, I moved the office several times up and down Main, always ready to find a cheaper location. A small town weekly newspaper is at the bottom of the food chain, and I was on constant vigil to make or save a buck.
Running a newspaper is like farming in that they are both professions that many people think it would be fun and/or fulfilling to do. People drop well-paying jobs or come into an inheritance and buy a farm, or just as bad, a small town newspaper. They think “How hard can it be to grow crops or print a newspaper?” The answer in both instances is the same; not hard at all as long as you have a big bank account to fund the adventure. And there’s the rub. Like the farmer who won a million dollars in the lottery and decided to keep at it until the money was all gone, anyone can farm, or run a newspaper, if they can just throw money at it. Doing it for a living is another thing entirely.
That’s why I started using the basement.
I purchased a page camera and a negative processor for pennies on the dollar. With the set-up I could make negatives the size of a printed page of the newspaper. This was the first step in the printing process at the time. After the negative was developed it could be used to transfer the image to a plate, which would be put on the press. The camera part of the machine was easy enough to operate, but the developing end was a constant problem. There were dozens of moving parts that pulled the exposed negative through tanks of chemicals. I spent many wee hours of the morning crawling around the behemoth in the dim light of the basement with a flashlight trying to coax it into producing a negative. If all went well, each negative I made saved me about $2, or about $16 total for about four hours of work. Some weeks I worked double that and didn’t make a cent as the machine chewed up as many negatives as it spit out. I worked down there every Tuesday morning for a year but I never really got over the creepy feeling the space imparted. Poorly lit and dank, it had been used as a catchall storage place for Rosemary’s Dresses, the business that rented the space before I moved in. Boxes of clothing remnants gave off a sickening smell as they slowly molded in the humidity. A half-dozen mannequins, many missing limbs, made strange silhouettes and even stranger shadows. The one bare light bulb in the middle of the expanse left corners in total darkness. Where the light did reach to the walls it revealed bricks that were slowly crumbling under the weight of the building above. Besides the one great, open area, there were two other smaller rooms. One was a small bathroom with a large sink, a toilet and nothing else. Oddly enough, the area had been used by Scott Charlie, the publisher of the newspaper through the Great Depression and into the mid-1940s. His office, like mine, was upstairs but he had an entire printing press in the basement. From talking to old-timers who knew Scott I could tell he was a true newspaperman, not some dallier. If there was one comfort to working in the space it was knowing that a predecessor also spent many hours down there as well. I would have liked to have met him, and chances are I could have when I moved to town in 1980, but Scott disappeared without a trace one night in 1945. People tend to live long lives in Solon. Rosemary– not looking a day over fifty– was in her 90s when she closed the dress shop, for example, and it’s not that big of a stretch to think I could have talked with him if he hadn’t disappeared. Rumor was that he was on the verge of bankruptcy and jumped off the Sutliff Bridge rather than face the humiliation of losing the business. The other room, Rosemary told me, was the coal bin, or so she was told by the renter before her. She admitted that she had never actually gone into the room as the door seemed permanently stuck or locked from the inside.
Then, early one morning while fumbling with a roller assembly from the developer, I dropped a small cog, which rolled through the large crack under the coal bin door. With some effort, I pried the door open with a tire tool I retrieved from my car. I found the errant part just on the other side of the door. As I stood up, my flashlight beam hit the far corner of the room to reveal a human skeleton. After the police were through, I never went in the basement again.