The cramped wooden office filled with desks and accumulated objects was lit by the sun streaming in the open door as Mike Costello waited for customers.
Costello sells ice, nothing but ice.
Crushed ice, cubed ice, dry ice. Ice in small bags, big bags and 300 pounds of solid ice. He sells blocks of ice for sliding down hills and ice luges for parties.
It's a slow time for business right now, summer being the busy season and
"The ice business used to be a good business, but not anymore," said the Huntington Beach resident.
Costello, 64, and his wife, Ellen, are the owners of Brewster's Ice, a store that sells to restaurants, residents and tourists who need to pack their ice chests for the day. The store is nestled on the corner of Lake and 6th streets, set back from the street and easily missed if one is unaware of its location.
The store is the second-oldest family-run business in the city, having opened in 1945, but that legacy looks to be coming to a close with Costello's children uninterested in continuing on with the ice business.
"It will probably end with us," Costello said.
An unexpected career
Costello started working at Brewster's Ice more than 20 years ago. In Mammoth Lakes at the time, Costello was offered a job by his soon-to-be father-in-law, Virgil Brewster. Brewster was getting older and wanted Costello to help him run the store in Huntington Beach.
It wasn't hard to learn the business, he said. He learned how to use the crusher, how to run the machines and where to order the ice from.
"It took me all of a week," he said.
He never thought it would turn into a career, but Costello said he didn't have too much going on at the time anyway. He stayed throughout the years and now runs it with his wife.
The job is something he enjoys, he said. There is no dealing with frustrated or angry customers. People who come for ice are generally nice and in a good mood. Even those who are getting ice for a funeral are never in that bad a mood, he said.
There is a lot of down time at the store with about five customers a day, but Costello said he is never bored. He keeps himself busy reading mysteries or books about exotic fruits and vegetables, or making bird houses, signs and the like in his office.
What's kept Brewster's alive is its prices, which Costello said are the cheapest around, adding that they have to be.
"We're cheaper than most; actually, we're cheaper than all," he said. "We have to be inexpensive because there are so many other stores."
Also, something less tangible is on Brewster's side — nostalgia.
The business, which Brewster started in 1945, still retains the quaint atmosphere of a simpler time. With only one product, choice is pretty limited and prices are plain and simple, displayed on a small sign up front. Tax is even included.
The store is open every day, but closes during the winter every Tuesday and Thursday in the middle of the day while Costello bowls.
Brewster's has a number of regulars and has been a way for Costello to meet a lot of people. He isn't as much of a talker as his father-in-law, who was charismatic and could talk for hours about the good old days, he said.
The store itself has also been a draw in the community, bringing several companies, including a jewelry store and Harley Davidson, to film commercials in front of the place, using its old-fashioned look. Couples have taken wedding pictures out front, and just the other week, a family was taking Thanksgiving pictures.
He also doesn't dare repaint the far end of the store, as its old-timey look makes it a favorite spot for artists to capture through painting and photography.
Time running out
Costello and his wife took over the store to help out family years ago, and now they run it, making it the second-oldest family-run business in the city. Both Brewster and his wife, Lucille, have died.
But Brewster's Ice looks to be giving up that title soon.
Costello is ready to retire. He's been ready for the last five years. The business and its land have been up for lease, but no one has bitten.
His two grown stepsons, Steven and
So the business is up for grabs, but Costello said the lessee wouldn't have to keep it. A new owner could tear the building down and put up something else.
Even though it's a tough time for the ice business, Costello said, it could be more profitable with a little more effort.
Right now, Brewster's doesn't advertise and never has, and with his retirement looming, Costello said he hasn't wanted to look into expansion.
Even with the right motivation, though, Brewster's isn't the only game in town. There are a lot of places that sell ice, including gas stations and grocery stores, and most people have an ice machine on their refrigerator — practically everyone but Costello.