When you walk through the front door of The Little Chocolatier, the air teems with popcorn, sweets and fresh-brewed coffee.
But as I chatted with Andrea Adami in the back of the throwback confectionary, what I got was a breath of fresh air.
Click here to listen to the podcast of the interview with Andrea Adami. (To download the mp3, right-click the link and click "Save link as").
The Sterling fixture reminds me of a store in my hometown of Manitowoc, Wis., called Beerntsen’s. Except Beerntsen’s offered deli sandwiches, too. Not once did I ever consider having a sandwich there. No self-respecting kid would.
But more so, Adami’s penchant for keeping things old school is refreshing, and that mantra couldn’t better fit the store. What it has to offer is as delicious as it is simple. A real person answers the phone when you call. Noticeably missing are frills, blaring top-40 music and, especially, digital screens. I couldn’t find one in the whole place.
It seems these days that one can find places like this only in areas like the Sauk Valley. In bigger cities, stores are presented as a throwback, but it’s really just kitsch. At 317 First Ave. in downtown Sterling, it’s honest.
Whether it’s because of that genuine feel or not, Adami says the holidays – like Valentine’s Day, guys – have never been busier.
As the kids say – and I know they don’t – it is what it is. The regulars always seem to buy the same thing. Even if they’re buying boxes of chocolates, they know what they’re gonna get. (See what I did there?) Much like the store and its manager, they carry the mantra, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
But someone needed to keep it that way. Enter Adami, who started working at the store part time in 1985 as a fresh-faced youngster who had recently graduated from Newman Central Catholic High School and had a fortuitous baby-sitting gig. She cared for the 4- and 6-year-old children of Dennis Little, who owns both stores – the other is in Rockford.
She progressed into full-time work, then management, but always kept it real. As numerous youngsters graduated and said goodbye to their part-time job and the Sauk Valley all at once, she steadfastly kept things the same.
There’s still no point-of-sale system. In order to conduct business that way, one must have utmost trust in the employees.
And, despite Little’s urging, Adami still has a month-by-month minutes plan in her dumbphone, as she calls it.
Sure, a smartphone might help her look into work-related inquiries from right behind the counter. But it would also open Pandora’s box.
She says she fears for kids who holster the Internet and oodles of games in their pocket at all times.
I do, too. I’ve been told I’m an old soul. And that’s probably why it took me quite awhile to leave the store, long after I turned off my recorder.
Andrea and I rapped about the lost art of human interaction and the precious commodity that family time has become.
We commiserated. We wistfully talked about bygone days when phones never left the house. When video games were confined to the mall, which actually got foot traffic.
Eventually, I had to get out of there.
But not before buying some peanut butter cups for my main squeeze. All but one of them made it home. I’m only human.