Farewell to Seitz's
With reflections on Chelsea's changing downtown
by Shelley Daily
Published in September, 2019
Seitz's fans took to social media to mourn the closing of the 103-year-old downtown tavern in June. "Oh no!" wrote one poster on a townie Facebook page, imagining their grandpa "playing euchre in heaven in honor of such a great Chelsea place!" Third-generation owner Randy Seitz, who'd run Seitz's for forty-five years, announced his retirement and sold the property to an investor who plans to open a food establishment.
It was 1916 when Randy's grandfather, George, bought Tommy McNamara's tavern on W. Middle St. In 1924, in protest of a rent increase, he had its cherry wood bar hauled--with the help of eight men--across the street to its current location. It's rumored to be the oldest stand-up bar in Michigan.
Seitz's deer-head decor, Formica-top tables, and antique beer signs were sold at auction. But memories of its wafer-thin burgers and scalloped-potatoes-and-meat-loaf specials--and the beer--live on in the minds of its regulars.
George Merkel, a manager at Merkel's--and great-grandson of founder Ferdinand Merkel--was one of them.
"I was probably there too much," laughs Merkel, thirty. He's also a musician and enjoyed late-night Seitz's gatherings with his band after gigs at the Chelsea Alehouse. Common Grill waitstaff also dropped in after their shifts, along with Jiffy Mix workers.
Seitz's was a workingman's bar--a good niche when downtown was ringed with factories, less so as industry gave way to condos. But while Randy Seitz chose to close, other equally venerable downtown businesses have evolved.
"I remember the rumblings back when the drugstore left downtown--and the mall [went up] by US-12," says Mark Heydlauff--who manages Heydlauff's, the Main St. appliance business his grandfather started in 1928.
In the early 1990s, Heydlauff helped launch Chelsea's downtown development authority. Nurturing new businesses like the Common Grill and the Purple Rose Theatre, they helped remake downtown as a leisure destination. "The retail mix will change, it has to with the times," Heydlauff says. Randy Seitz, who couldn't be reached for an interview, "can leave
the business with his head held high and enjoy life," adds Heydlauff, a lifelong friend of his.
Tim Merkel, George Merkel's father, recalls that when he started working at the family store in fifth grade, it sold hardware, sporting goods, and furniture. The first two are long gone, and Merkel's has reshaped itself into a fine furniture and flooring store that draws customers from a wide radius.
Tim took over the furniture side when his father, Jack, and his uncle, Bob, retired (Bob's son, Howard, handles the flooring) and is now "striving toward" retirement himself in the next five years. "It would be a mistake for me to dwell" on the business just as a historic landmark, he says. "What will [Merkel's] be in ten, twenty, thirty years? Who am I to say?
"What's really important for any place like Chelsea," he says, "is a regular addition of new people, new energy, new creativity, and new ideas."
Just down Main St., Mike Jackson is celebrating his twenty-fifth anniversary as owner of Vogel's & Foster's. There's been a clothing store in the building since the 1880s, but Jackson looks forward, not back: "I try to pleasantly surprise people," he says, with new items like colorful socks, funky shoes, and a women's fashion line from Amsterdam.
Back over on W. Middle St. a peek in Seitz's windows in mid-August revealed a barren space awaiting renovation. Though its loyal patrons have moved on, George Seitz's iconic wooden bar still remains as a tangible link to Chelsea's past.
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