The last people left me in the dark for so long. They packed up their signs, emptied their shelves, turned off the lights. And then, the drafts blew in, echoes in the long, long night. I was empty, dark, and creepy. I felt so alone, a monstrosity near the lakes waiting for inhabitants, waiting to be given new life.
And then Jim Hiller bought me and remade me in his vision. I am the Union Lake store, the seventh Hiller’s market.
It was a long journey from my former existence to what I am today. I am sometimes amazed at how a structure of bricks and mortar, built to withstand elements, offer shelter, and fulfill needs, can be either a glaring error or a beacon of low-lit warmth. The process of change is one that cannot be rushed, one that is guided by heated discussion around an oval table and long hammering nights under glaring light.
People drove by me perhaps in anticipation, perhaps not wondering at all what I would become, how I would factor into their convenient lives. They may not have seen me at all along Commerce Road and Union Lake Road, on their busy ways to somewhere else.
From the outside, I was like a pursed mouth, not revealing my secrets, not speaking a word. But inside, I teemed with energy as I took shape, my shelves pushed into place, my little worlds come alive under the vision of a team of dedicated people.
I came to love Victor more than the rest, for he was the man who spent every day of a year with me, barking orders, massaging my walls alive, supervising stroke upon stroke of paint until I shone. From my ceiling unfurled banners and flags, symbols of a community of people come together inside my embrace.
I became the hulking hold for little neighborhood shops, giving character to the diurnal. At my open jaw, a captain’s table as running narrative. My whisk-white dairy aisles, in perfect order and formation, supreme variety and selection. But that’s the Hiller’s hallmark.
In my former life, I was nothing but a store, a place people buzzed into out of necessity. Under Victor’s careful watch, implementing the Hiller vision, I became a gathering place for community to build. I became a possessor of options, of flavors and tastes.
Victor represents Hiller’s to me. His waves of salt and pepper hair, his shy smile beneath blond mustache, his urgent listing meander up and down my aisles, form a portrait of someone who’s fashioned a life inside the framework of a mission. He has been a Hiller’s man for 45 years.
I’ve heard the story: how he came to America from Italy in 1952 and became part of the Hiller’s family in 1963. How Sid Hiller offered him $1.89 an hour to manage produce, even though he’d been earning $2.19 at another grocery. How after two weeks, Sid raised his pay. How he worked his way through department jobs, store management, every shift and task, until he ascended the ladder to chief of operations – and got the chance to build me.
I could see in his eyes how much he loved the challenge of creating a beautiful something out of an unfortunate nothing. I was clay in his hands. He threaded my veins with wires and pipes and at the end, Victor threw in among the hourly workers stocking my shelves with boxes, jars, cartons, and promises.
I opened quietly on a warm spring day. The first tentative people peeked inside to see what I offered. They walked slowly among my colorful rows. They saw that I was a perfect partner who understood their choices, understood their right to choose a way of living, didn’t judge their choices.
“Give the customer what they ask for,” says Victor, quoting Sid Hiller, his first mentor. That’s what I can do. If you’ll let me.