Linda Cook has become the vessel of her town’s rich history.
By Sasha Johns
When Linda Cook arrived in Columbiana 32 years ago with her husband and two kids, she moved her small business to town, too. Little did she know that her presence in the heart of downtown would span more than three decades and eventually make her the unofficial memory keeper of Main Street.
Before the Cooks moved to Columbiana in 1987, Richard recognized that Linda needed a new challenge and some room to grow beyond the daily demands of motherhood. He encouraged her to purchase an established business that was ready to sell in town. That business became Busy Hands Needlework and Framing.
In the early days, her inventory reflected a rise in the popularity of cross-stitch and other kinds of needlework. Upon her arrival, she rented the space the Morrison and Spann Law offices now occupy on the corner of College and Main streets. As time went by, the trends changed and the needlework became less popular. She eventually rolled the stitching patterns out and replaced that inventory on her sales floor with an assortment of gifts and home décor, allowing her to put a stronger focus on meeting the framing needs of her community.
The small historic and artistic town lent itself to a wide variety of framing jobs that went beyond the needlework she sold. Not only was she framing family memories, but she was asked to frame unusual antiques and work done by local artists. Each job came with a unique back story. “I’ve framed everything from snapshots of times gone by on Main Street to human hair,” she says.
As the framing side of her business grew, her need for a new space did as well, taking her across the main intersection of town to a portion of the building historically known as the Columbiana Leader Department Store, where she met Sonya Leftkovits, her new landlady. Norman, Sonya’s husband, and his family had done business in Columbiana since the early 1900s. Their department store had been a staple on Main Street for decades until it closed its doors in 1980. It wasn’t long before this landlord-tenant relationship between Sonya and Linda led to a rare, surprisingly close friendship over the next decade.
Sonya, in many respects, was the original memory keeper of Main Street. Having been a constant figure in Columbiana for a generation, she knew more history about the town than just about anyone on Main Street at the time. She became a dear confidante and mentor to her tenant, Linda, often guiding her in day-to-day changes in her store. “She was very observant and could predict business trends in town before they came to fruition,” Linda says of Sonya, emotion brimming in her voice. “It usually paid to listen to her advice. She was always very in tune to Columbiana and wanted the best for this town.”
Together they weathered change and growth and decline and more change on Main Street—and in their personal lives. Norman passed away after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, and the two women became closer as Sonya navigated widowhood. Sonya had always been the go-to person for questions about things in town. For instance, when UPS first began delivering to town, the drivers always sought out Sonya if they couldn’t find their destination. When someone had a question about businesses that had come and gone in town, Sonya usually had the answer they were looking for. When Sonya died, the job naturally fell to Linda.
These days, Linda often pays homage to her old friend by keeping a well-dressed mannequin – just about the size of the tiny Mrs. Leftkovits – near the front door to greet her patrons. It makes her smile to have Sonya represented in her shop. “I feel like she’s always here,” Linda says.
But Linda’s life began to change again nearly seven years ago when, after emergency surgery for a ruptured spleen and severe stomach ulcers, Richard began to show signs of early-onset dementia. “He was never really the same after that,” Linda says. “I really miss having him around the shop. You really don’t realize how much you can miss a person who is still around, till something like this comes along.”
As it became clear Richard needed to spend more time at home, Linda taught herself to construct the frames that her husband had always built for her business. She mostly runs the shop by herself with occasional help from her four grandchildren during busier times, plus a small army of friends and family help with Richard while she mans the store – the second oldest business on Main Street in Columbiana.
Thirty-three years in the heart of town has given her a vast mental compendium of local stories and remembrances of the county seat. An afternoon stroll on Main shouldn’t go without a stop into her store for a quick chat … or, maybe, a not-so-quick chat. If Linda can tell you anything, it’s how precious such conversations – shared moments of life encapsulated in spoken words – are in a world often dominated by social media posts in lieu of face-to-face interactions. And it’s these conversations that feed into the local history that’s not necessarily best preserved on the pages of books printed and placed on a shelf. Sometimes, the best place to store memories is with someone who wholly appreciates their worth and makes their preservation a priority. For Columbiana, that person is Linda Cook.