History of the Walper Tobacco Shop
as told by Mike Koebel
Good morning folks! The city of Kitchener tells me I am now 98 years old. Maybe I don't look like it from King Street in 1989 but I sure feel it. If you look behind my false ceiling, and the new drywall, and the paint job, I have the aches and pains of any other old fellow at ninety-eight.
Perhaps, you would like to hear about my colourful past.
The Walper Tobacco Shop was first opened in 1891 by George O. Philip. I was too young to remember when he sold me to F.W. Wahn, or L.A. Mehlenbader. I vaguely remember the First World War, and the people coming in off the street, talking about their loved ones who never returned from the war but made the city proud.
One event that I will never forget was in 1916 when they changed the name of the city from Berlin to Kitchener. What a fiasco that was! I was 25 years old then, just a young buck, just trying to keep my light on and doors open. Then, along came J.J. McCallum. Gee, he really had a good staff - Win Stumpf, Art Plomske, Irvin Kaufman, and Albert Hahn - better known as Hahnie. Could they ever shoot the breeze! They were good but did they ever make me work. They had me opened at 6:00AM until midnight, 6 days a week. And my hardest day was Saturday night. You would not believe the people on the street. Parents would bring their kids into the store to shop for whatever, and the kids would be screaming for candy. They would spit their gum on my floor, and then Art of Hahnie would get that damn scraper and scratch me until they would almost take off my polish. Yet, I really enjoyed the kids with their happy faces. Maybe some of them are yours.
Do any of you remember prohibition time? Well, I do. My best buddies - the ladies and the men's beverage rooms - and I sure thought we would go down the tubes. Thank God for Joe Zuber, who managed to pull some strings to keep us all afloat. He even made some money and still managed to be one of the best-dressed families in town. There was Mary, now Mrs. Ted Witzel, Gloria, now Mr.s dietrich, and little Joe and his pretty wife - yes, I miss seeing all of them.
Well, time marches on and then we came into World War II. By then I was 48 years old, well established in the community, and if my doors were not opened on time, there was Hell to pay. Don't forget, by then if I didn't have the magazines, cigarettes, or your favourite pipe tobacco, no one else would either; always lots of pressure.
The morning that Hahnie told Win that he was drafted to go and fight in Italy was one day that neither I nor Hahnie's girlfriend Hilda will ever forget. He would really keep me in top-notch shape. In 1945 Hahnie returned home, safe and sound, and married Hilda Hahn, Win Stumpf's niece. Everything was running pretty smoothly by then, I saw Win go to Walkerton once too often, but he always left me in good hands. We soon discovered that he had a young filly up there, Florence Stumpf, whom he later married. Mr. Stumpf passed away in 1953 and I do miss him. The store landed in Hahnie's hands, and I was all set to go with new direction once again. By then I was 62 years old, no pension to look forward to, just maybe another paint job. Oh yes, and don't forget my buddies on the wall - my three speckled trout friends, and Mr. and Mrs. Deer heads. They were always afraid when someone would take them down and dust them, fearing they would not be put back. But they always were! Then we would have a good chuckle, especially when some of you came in the store and chatted.
The good old days sure bring back fond memories. I sure don't miss the old dirt roads, and the horse manure that people used to track all over me. But I did enjoy seeing the horse and buggies tied up in front of the store on a cold Winter's day. And the sound of bells in the distance as they once again left for home.
Can any of you remember the old Auditorium on Queen Street before the fire? There was a good hockey rivalry between Kitchener and Waterloo, and the people used to drink all kinds of suds between periods and then run into the smoke shop and buy their cigarettes, and slam the door on me. When Kitchener won the championship, I forgot their name and year by now, but I will never forget the goal they scored to win. The noise that came from the building shook me all to pieces. When I finally dozed off, if those damn fire trucks didn't come roaring down the street with the siren with all the hockey players swaying side to side. I said to myself, "that damn Henry Strum," (the Kitchener Mayor at the time), "WHAT A HOCKEY NUT!"
Talking about fires, the Woolworths and Metropolitan block sure lit up the sky and I believe every person in town was there. I was left unharmed, except for the coughing and sputtering.
1956, what a year! Elvis Presley's picture was on every magazine cover in the store. I thought my shelves would fall off until the kids would purchase the magazines. So we finally got Elvis slowed down when Beatlemania came along with the flower generation and the bare feet, no shirts, and long hair. YUK! Hahnie fixed them fast. He posted a sign: "Shirts and no bare feet allowed." What a relief!
At this time I would like to mention some of my business associates who have since closed for different reasons over the years: Berberick's Smoke Shop on King, United Cigars across the street, and oh yes, Kellehaus Smoke Shop. I had three favourite smoke shops. One was Art's recreation in Waterloo. Art worked in my store for 20 years and really was well liked by the customers and was especially well liked by the ladies because of his personal manner.
Customers would ask for Art Plomske's whereabouts 10 years after he left the store. Need I tell you how much we missed him. Next was the Imperial Pool Room which just closed five or six years ago due to the passing of its owner, Nick Angeloff. Nick was proud of his company and ran a tight ship, but when your health fails, that's something you can't control. We were great competitors, but we certainly had respect for each other which seldom exists in today's market place. Their store was owned and managed by Harold Arnold and Ward Dunbrook. It's too bad you didn't get the chance to hear their history, but the Oxlea development took care of that building.
Time passed rapidly, and one night, when I was 73 years young, everything in the store that winter night was just like normal when this young whipper snapper, in a long overcoat and suit approached the counter and asked Mr. Hahn for a job. He introduced himself, Mike Koebel from Hanover, a high school dropout, and a Toronto Maple Leafs fan. He would not accept $55.00 per week to start. He said he would settle for only $60.00. I thought what a nervy little chap. Mr. Hahn agreed, and who would ever expect Mike to be here to celebrate my 98 years in business. Mr. Hahn worked with Mike to show him the ins and outs of the business for two years. I must say, he tried hard. In 1966 Bob Fyfe, a former employee, was rehired. What a good salesman and practical joker! Mike and Bob really enjoyed working together. Bob and Mike were working towards a partnership to but the company. In the four to five years to follow, complications arose and Mr. Hahn offered Mike first choice to buy the company, and Bob left despondently to renew his future. Bob and his wife Ellen left for the North, his first love. They moved to the town of Haliburton and now run a successful sporting goods store. If my ceiling, walls, and floors could clap, we would give Bob a standing ovation. I will never forget him.
April 4th, 1970, Mike and Barb Koebel exchanged wedding vows in Walkerton Sacred Heart Church. That same year on June 1st, Mr. Hahn sold him the business. Time marches on and I was feeling old and a little decrepit at 79 years old. Mike and Hahnie made a decision to hire Ross Majury from the barbershop. Ross was disgusted with the long haired hippies. Every company needs a strong backbone and Ross gives 100%, dealing with over 500 to 700 customers a day, along side his maintenance abilities ranging from oiling my hinges and doors, to changing the light bulbs.
Four and a half years later in October, Mrs. Hahn phoned to tell Ross that Hahnie had a heart attack and passed away at home. What a jolt for Mike, Ross, and Ivan. The Friday of the funeral I was in darkness with my last 35 years of memories of Hahnie, and there were so many. I felt an emptiness, maybe you have felt it before, but Ross and Mike opened the next day to keep the customers accommodated and my legend rolling.
Women's Lib approached in 1975 and the store needed an employee so Mike and Ross hired Elayne Chalmers, after 88 years of all male employees. That was just what I needed; someone to organize and pamper me. The best memory I have of Elayne was when the Oktoberfest committee wanted to change the parade route from King to Charles Street. If no one opposed the change, Fred Ryan told us it would be settled at City Hall. The same day Elayne decided to write a petition for customers to indicate where they wanted the parade. It was no contest. Mayor Rosenburg and his Aldermen believed in us and the petition, so it was passed the following Monday by a 9-2 vote in our favour. Elayne went on to another position.
Mike then hired Marie Angeloff. "What a workhorse" I thought. Six days a week was rough but Marie always enjoyed working Sundays at the Imperial Pool Room. So there I am, ninety one, open seven days a week - no rest for the wicked - but I really enjoy the town folk after church on Sundays when they come in to pick up their New York Times and magazines. It sure was a different pace.
The Walper Hotel was closed then, except the barbershop and me. The hotel always kept me warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The people in the city were very disgusted with the appearance of the hotel. We thought the ball and chain was heading for us any day. Mr. Fred Lafontaine bought the hotel in 1982 and there was a sigh of relief. Mike decided to expand the smoke shop to give his customers a more relaxing time to shop and to give more room for variety. In November 1983, the two sides were put to use, giving me the largest magazine selection in this part of Ontario, plus the most pipes and cigars from twenty different countries, with complete climate control.
With the government raising taxes on tobacco, Mike had to regroup and start selling more men's gift items, such as wildlife displays of local and Canadian artists. Mike even went out to purchase Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin in 80% marble busts from Sudbury. People showed a lot of interest.
Today's companies must diversify to exist, and I am proud that Mike has done this in order that I may reach 100.
Ah yes, 1891 to 1989 is a long stretch. Thanks Kitchener, for recognizing my company. You caught me by complete surprise. I'm not quite sure, but I do believe I'm the oldest smoke shop in the country. There is no other place I would rather be than on the corner of King and Queen in downtown Kitchener.
Mike Koebel, 1989
After closing on the evening of June 30th, 2021, the Walper Tobacco Shop moved from its historic location to its new home at 603 King St. E, Kitchener. We spent Canada Day setting up the new shop, and opened up without missing a beat the morning of July 2nd.