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September 18, 2012 | 05:17 PM
It was a cool fall day 18 years ago when Ed Schwinn decided to buy The Cheese Box. He'd spent summers in the Lake Geneva area and had visited the cheese store on Wells Street with his grandparents as a child.

"Those were great memories," he says. "We'd stop in every Friday and pick up goodies for supper."

So, when he and his wife Leslie moved back to Lake Geneva, he drove past that place of fond memories and saw that it was for sale. Shortly thereafter, they bought The Cheese Box.

Now, 18 years later, as another fall approaches, Ed and Leslie are retiring and the business they purchased might well retire with them.

The Schwinns leave behind a legacy that started in 1940 when Al Belzer, a Chicago sign painter, opened the store at that location.

"During World War II, sausage was not rationed and so, customers sent sausage to troops in Europe," Ed says.

The Belzers lived in the apartment above the cheese shop and oddly, the kitchen was downstairs. For a while, the Schwinns used the refrigerator from that first kitchen as a filing cabinet.

Now, the former kitchen is a comfortable office where we talked with the Schwinns about the end of their era with The Cheese Box.

The Schwinns are the fourth owners and have been there longer than anyone else besides Belzer.

Why are they retiring?

"It's been a great run for eighteen years but being open 'year round'..." Ed says.

Will it remain The Cheese Box?

"We're not sure yet," Ed says. He adds that there will probably be some sort of decision made in October. He's not quite sure what the next step will be for the business, the building or for he and Leslie.

The Cheese Box has always gotten friendly referrals from downtown Lake Geneva businesses and has returned the favors.

A lot of their customers are return customers, and it's the customers the Schwinns will miss most. Their extensive mail order business is what The Cheese Box has always been known for, especially around the holidays.

Both Schwinns couldn't say enough about a long-time colleague, Ruth Peters.

"She's a gem and she's a friend," Ed says. "She is retiring with us after 44 years of faithful, energetic and joyful service."

When the Schwinns bought The Cheese Box they had no experience in the food industry.

Ruth helped them start and hasn't stopped helping them since, they say.

When the Schwinns look over the store's old photos of Christmas parties, they see the faces of those who have come and gone. Because they have a staff that could always be counted on one hand, they became closer to them than they would have had they owned a larger business.

"We'll miss our customers and the people we've worked with throughout the years," Leslie says.

"The Cheese Box has been the landmark in Lake Geneva for 72 years," Ed says. "We've done a lot to maintain the charm and old fashioned service that you feel when you pull into the parking lot."

One thing that the Schwinns have added over the years are comical signs that are strung across the front counter. They say things like "Free Beer Tomorrow" and "Hippies Use Side Door."

"We've always had a lot of comments about those signs," Leslie says.

Now, a sign outside reflects a more bittersweet message.

"Available

The Cheese Box

After 72 years Retiring"

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