Eric Roang unpacks crates of apples and plums for his Library Mall fruit stand like on any other November morning. Except that it's nearly 60 degrees, and this is the last morning he'll perform this ritual after doing it for 30 years. "Thirty-one," he corrects me. "Thirty-one years of goodwill."
Roang has eyes that twinkle in the sunlight and youthful, Nordic good looks that say, among other things, that eating fruit is good for you. Selling fruit has been good to him, and that seems to be behind his unsentimental approach to his work this morning. It's 8 a.m.
The sliding doors of Roang's Chevy van are open wide, revealing the boxes of his colorful inventory. Music from student radio WSUM flows from the dashboard, creating a postmodern soundtrack for a small business tradition that, according to Roang, slowly died on the vine.
"It's been happening gradually," Roang says as he labels his display crates. Last spring, however, the handwriting was on the wall. His sales during the season opening were "flat half" of normal sales. "That was emotional," he says.
"I've employed dozens of people over the years," he says. He tilts his head across the counter to Don Helley. "Don's been with me since 1987. "H-E-L-L-E-Y," he spells, and shoots Helley a grin. Helley and Roang are two peas in a pod. "We'll sell it all today, Don!"
"We're the kind of people who like to talk to people," says Roang. "Look at the news about no commuter train," he continues. "People will stay alone in their cars. Nobody talking." Helley pops his head up from a box of bananas. "Yeah. I was counting on being an engineer on that train now that this is over."
Helley has made a living over the years selling people what may be the two best things in the world for them. Fruit, spring through fall. In the winter he sells books at University Book Store. "I'm gonna miss the people here," he says. "If I get just a few good seconds with someone. Exchange a smile. Someone gives me a smile, I give the next three people a smile."
The stand is up and running by 8:45. Roang calls out for people to sign the farewell log set up on the west side of the stand. "Good luck, Eric," says one of the first customers. "We'll miss you," says another. "See!" Roang says. "The people! I was in New York City one time and someone yelled 'Hey, fruit man!'" He slaps the blond wood countertop. It's then that I notice for the first time the beauty of the stand itself.
"Hemlock fir," says Roang. "The kind of wood that when you stack it, it makes a sound." He gazes at the stand and says, "We like to look at it like an old boat." Helley chimes in from inside the boat: "He's gonna build a retirement cabin out of it."
The third worker on this last morning is the baby of the trio: 24-year-old recent college graduate James Younger. He was born the same year the hemlock stand was built. Younger's dad and Roang built the stand together. "A couple years ago my father passed away," he says. "And it was kind of therapeutic for me to come here and experience vestiges of my father."
Younger sees several reasons for the fruit business' demise: more foot traffic is heading toward Lucky and the plaza corridor at the new University Square, where Fresh Market is fresh competition for them. And then there was all the construction, some of which continues.
At 12:30 the sun shines brightly on Eric Roang. His stand is a bustle of business. "I don't have any citrus left!" Roang calls out to a student. "I know you like citrus!" People kneel shoulder to shoulder to sign the big poster log. "I'll miss the cold mornings and the peaches," writes Lola. "I'm going to be very hungry. I love you," writes Libby. Another reads, "Thanks for being (Red) delicious from the accordion girl."
"Souvenirs here! Everything must go!" shouts Roang. "Be part of history folks!" Presents pile up on the counter where bags of cashews once were. Boxes of brownies and cakes. A bottle of sparkling apple cider.
At 3:30 it's all gone except for a box of bruised apples. I stand 50 yards away and watch the workers work as one. A hearty Madison tradition turns into an apparition right before my eyes. "Closing today isn't the hard part," Younger told me in the morning. "It'll be not opening next spring."
I ask Roang what will become of the beautiful wooden stand itself. "I'm going to donate it to a theater company for a stage piece. It's perfect for the theater," he says, then busts a huge smile. "It'd have to be a musical, though!"