Karsh's Bakery Closes: Farewell to the Valley's Best Jewish Bakery

People are wistful about endings. "It's the end of an era," people will say when someone they loved dies or when the movie house they visited for decades is razed. In the 21st century, even a middling network television show ends with a much-ballyhooed Final Episode.

The usual references to eras ending were made when Karsh's Bakery closed for good last month. People lined up for hours on March 26 to buy this Jewish bakery's black-and-white cookies and rye bread for the last time. TV journalists wandered among the crowd, asking how to spell hamentaschen and what shoppers planned to order, while their cameramen filmed people buying mondel bread and crying.

I stayed home and telephoned Arnie and Gloria Gardner. The Gardners bought Karsh's from Jack Karsh in 1961 and owned it for nearly 45 years before selling it to Wayne Kindig, a bread baker who had worked for them since the mid-'90s. I talked to the Gardners about changing times and about how sometimes the only punch line to an era ending is a loaf of supermarket pumpernickel with no flavor.

I telephoned Arnie and Gloria's daughter, my friend Michelle Gardner, to wax poetic about how we take for granted the best things in life. Michelle said she thought people are getting used to "less than." I added that convenience has become more important than quality. We made jokes about carbohydrates, about bread being evil. There were long pauses between our halfhearted proclamations.

"I'm glad we were able to do it," Gloria said of Karsh's. "But today, Arnie and I just feel kind of sad and old."

Arnie Gardner's grandfather, who emigrated from Poland, owned a bakery in Cleveland's Jewish section. His only son, Arnie's father, eventually moved the family business to Los Angeles and, later, to Phoenix when he heard that Jack Karsh was selling his bakery, known for its superior challah and cinnamon-nut rugelach.

"My father used to say to me, 'Never be a baker!' So I went to New York and worked in advertising sales," Arnie told me. One day, Arnie's father called to say, "Come to Phoenix. I bought a bakery and business is booming." Arnie went.

Back then, Karsh's was located on Central Avenue and Glenrosa, next to Gross's Deli. "It was an old building that wouldn't have passed any health code," Arnie remembered. In 1980, he moved Karsh's to what was then the Cinema Park strip mall on Seventh Street at Missouri. Business improved.

Gloria started working at Karsh's when she was 22. "Arnie and I had just started dating," she recalled. "His mother asked if I would like to come help her pack macaroons for Passover. And that was it. Arnie hates it when I say this, but I like to joke that his family wanted us to marry so that they'd have another employee in the family."

She remembers her father-in-law telling her that people who visit a bakery want to see the owner's face. "We may have been an ethnic bakery," Gloria said, "but everybody came there. Maybe not everybody. People who appreciated good food."

Karsh's biggest day of the year was Christmas Eve. "Some of the Jewish customers would complain, 'Why are there so many goys in here?'" Gloria recalls. "One time I said, 'Hey, I don't walk into Dillard's and say, 'I'm Jewish. I want a sweater. Why do I have to wait in line?'"

She could talk like that to customers because she was like family to some of the people who bought her baked goods. "We made their wedding cake, the bar mitzvah cookies for all of their kids; they knew us," she said with a shrug in her voice. "Where will you find this at the grocery store bakery?"

For years, Karsh's was an approved bakery, which meant its ingredients were inspected by Phoenix Va'ad HaKashruth, an Orthodox nonprofit that oversees kosher certification. "They kept on hocking me about becoming kosher," Arnie remembered. "I finally did, at the end. I went through the whole rigmarole with the special pans and everything else. But I had to be closed on Saturday, and business suffered. We lasted eight months, kosher, and I finally said to the HaKashruth, 'Can't we just go back to what we were?' They said, 'No, you can't,' and they took our certification away. We didn't die without it."

Arnie Gardner saw the future coming. "Before I sold, I wanted to add an online-ordering element to the business," he confessed, now that it's all over. Before he could, Arnie was diagnosed with throat cancer. "I don't know why I thought I could go on working while I recovered from this illness," he said. "I was wrong." He offered the bakery to his son, a successful local radio personality, and his daughter, Michelle, an actress who'd moved to Los Angeles to work in television. Both declined.

"Lately I've been thinking, What if I had said yes? Would the bakery have stayed open?" admitted Michelle, who has appeared on Six Feet Under, House MD, and The Mentalist. "But you can kill yourself with that kind of thinking. We made the choices we made."

"Wayne did a good job," Arnie said. "And you know something? He went back to being a kosher bakery, but he got to stay open on Saturdays. Because he's not Jewish!"

Phoenix has never been lousy with Jewish bakeries. You could write all their names on the back of a matzo and still have room left to list the Ten Plagues.

"There was never a lot of competition," Arnie said. "When we first opened there was one other Jewish bakery, Ronay's, at 32nd Street and Camelback."

Before Ronay's, there was Sun Valley Bakery, located downtown and usually referred to as Phoenix's first-ever Jewish bakery. "My grandparents had Sun Valley in the late '40s," Gayle Shanks remembered. "People still talk about their rye bread."

(Shanks, by the way, did not go into the bakery business. She co-founded Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe — and coming soon to Phoenix.)

Sun Valley, which closed in 1962, begat Ronay's, owned by Shanks' aunt and uncle. Ronay's was shuttered after a 1998 fire and never reopened. After that, if you bought challah somewhere other than Karsh's, you were probably getting it from one of several come-and-gone Jewish delis around town.

In the late '70s, when bagels broke out as a fad food, there were bagel shops all over town, some of which offered the occasional rye bread or black-and-white cookie. When Karsh's was still on Central, a deli called New York Bagels (which later morphed into Munchabagel) opened up, but Arnie didn't lose much business.

"Enough of our customers knew the difference between a bagel shop that sold challah and a Jewish bakery," he offered. "They came back, for a lot of years."

Those days are gone. So, you buy your rye bread at some other bakery. Or the supermarket.

"But going into the corner bakery," Shanks moaned. "That's a piece of the culture that's going to be gone forever. People won't know what real rye bread tastes like, because they won't be able to buy one if they live in Arizona."

Passover is coming up, and Shanks is worried. "I noticed that Zabar's has macaroons. Is that what I have to do now? Order my Passover macaroons from New York City? Or, you know, do I make my own?"

It wasn't until she went away to college that Michelle Gardner realized how good her parents' bakery was. "I would go into a bagel shop and look for the rugelach," she said, laughing. "I'd go, 'Oh, no hamentaschen here!'" She'd buy the egg bread, and it wouldn't taste like egg bread.

"There's a very specific recipe for a seven-layer cake," Michelle said. "And if you don't care about that, I can't talk you into caring. Karsh's had one location because we couldn't do a chain and have our product be as good as it was. Everything was made by hand, that morning, and you tasted that."

Convenience has replaced tradition, Michelle said. "It's Bashas' instead of a bakery. And that's just how the world is evolving."

Michelle's mother tried to be polite about how most people buy their baked goods at the supermarket. "I don't know how you sell a sandwich roll for five cents," she sighed. "What are they made out of? You can get used to rye bread made out of air, I suppose."

Like a lot of us, Gloria is trying to imagine Phoenix without Karsh's Bakery. "Everywhere we went in this town, everyone had a story about a cake or a loaf of bread we made for them," she confided. "We did their wedding cake, their baby's first birthday cake, their bar mitzvah."

She let out another long sigh. "I don't know what we're going to talk to people about now."

I did not join the people who lined up to say goodbye to Karsh's. On that day, I went instead to Chompie's Kosher Deli, to get a glimpse of my future. I was afraid if I went to Karsh's and someone in that long queue said to me, "I can't believe they're closing," I would have to ask, "But when was the last time you shopped here?"

I stood in front of the long, gleaming glass-and-chrome case at Chompie's, staring at cookies and trying not to feel defeated. The rugelach were gorgeous. The neatly exiled pareve were piled high. Hamentaschen beckoned.

Not buying something seemed churlish; it was not, after all, Chompie's fault that Karsh's was closing. I bought a babka. I sat in my car and ate it. It was a perfectly serviceable babka. Good, even. With each bite I told myself, I can create new loyalties. I can learn to like not-quite-as-good rye bread. I can drive farther and come home with less. Things change. Today is today, and tomorrow is gone.

Another part of me wanted a better babka. It was the part of me that knew that, in this town at least, that would never happen. Ever again.

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