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Dishing out a history lesson at the end of an era

Traudie Kauntz took over the Household China and Gifts store from her father in 2006. Her daughter, Shannon Rea, joined the business in 2013. FAISAL ALI / The Observer]

Everybody knew George Kauntz. In towns and villages miles out of Waterloo-Kitchener, it seemed everyone knew the wandering trader as a straight shooter, a man of honourable repute, and also, especially amongst the women, as a bit of a roguish charmer. If you needed anything in the way of quality crockery, a set of fine china for the hope chest, or something sturdy to cook with, he was the right man to talk to.

“My dad was a real flirt,” recalls George’s daughter Traudie Kauntz. “He just loved people and people loved him. Like he was very respected in the community, and very low key, very humble.”

Together with his family, George built the business up, opening the Household China and Gifts store in Waterloo, and for 60 years kept it going on the strength of that reputation. But after 60 years of a successful run, Traudie says they decided to close the business for good.

The business has changed, as has the very nature of retailing. Throw in her personal battle with cancer – an untreatable metastatic melanoma – and the decision seemed obvious. It was time.

“We’ve had a lot of fun,” she says. “And obviously lifestyles have changed.”

Traudie, who took over the business in 2006, said that it was simply time to move on, especially as none of her children wanted in, though her daughter, Shannon Rea, has been helping out in recent years.

Not only had the times changed, but the economy and even the city of Waterloo itself had transformed immensely. The high-rises and business had just sprung up all around them so that the current store, opened in 1980 at King and Hickory streets near the universities, was suddenly in the heart of the city. The small farm they had besides their building was now a parking lot, and there was no more use for a hitching post any longer.

In that way, it feels like the definitive end to an era, closing her father’s business.

“It was mum and dad,” Traudie adds. “I always say dad, but mum did all the bookwork and she was the strength behind the office. So she kept it together.”

While George passed away a few years ago, it’s clear from speaking to Traudie that his principles – and his salesmanship – live on. His reputation with the women in those days, though, was something else entirely.

“He would just literally go in and say to young girls, ‘have you bought your cookware yet?’ because at that point everybody had a hope chest,” says Traudie with trace amounts of a daughter’s embarrassment. To this day, people still came by the store with stories of buying cookware from her father 50, even 60 years earlier, that still worked like brand new.

Traudie recalls one particularly embarrassing story from a woman who crossed paths with the venerable salesman while in Kitchener.

“And this sounds terrible – and as she’s telling me this story I am dying! She says, and this guy rolls by, stops his car, rolls his window down – and she was there with her friends, she was in high school – and said, ‘hey do you girls have your cookware yet?’

“I’m like, you pervert!” exclaims Traudie. They all say no, and so George offers to show them his cookware.

“And she says, not only did we invite him to the apartment where we were living in … I’m like mortified! But they invited their friends and he did a cooking demo. And I think three or four of them bought their cookware from that. It was a different time then. And that’s how they all got to know George.”

Incidentally, notes Edith Kauntz, George’s wife and Traudie’s mother, whom Traudie calls up to offer some stories, parents were usually glad to see their daughters investing in their future rather than splurging on luxuries. Though she admits that wasn’t always the case.

“Not everybody was a hundred per cent happy for him to show up and sell their daughters some stuff. I’m talking about the parents, but those cases were maybe one in a hundred,” she says.

The girls, though, always loved their purchases, and of her husband’s sales ability, Edith paints a vivid picture.

“I went along [sometimes] and of course he was a talker. I mean, he was the smoothest talker you could ever imagine. So he would show them the set and I just sat there silently and watched the whole procedure. And then they started to talk about farming and what have you, and I thought to myself, ‘well, they got off the subject. He talked himself right out of a sale.’ But surely enough, at the end he came back to his cookware, and he sold the girl,” she says with a laugh.

But that was George and those were the times. The family is now working on sorting through all the myriad plates and dishes and glassware and decor that they still have in stock. Traudie notes humorously that they were still finding boxes of merchandise her father had packed ages ago in straw, and hidden behind old barrels of wine.

They’re planning on selling off the fine goods at a series of auctions, the first set for April 7. Traudie is also interested in donating useful items in her store to help out small charities, like church groups and kitchens.

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