Change. It's inevitable. But when change occurs in Ahwatukee Foothills, it often results in the perception that we've lost another piece of the small-town fabric that binds us.

Two recent Opinion page letters lamented a shift from a customer-friendly, family-like atmosphere in one of our local Hallmark Card stores to that of a more impersonal and corporate-driven shopping experience. One letter-writer, saddened by the absence of store employees who truly care about their customers, stated, "I can buy Hallmark Cards anywhere."

True enough, but one need not leave our village to find the friendly, customer-centric atmosphere that attracted the letter-writers in the first place.

That mom-and-pop spirit remains alive and well in Ahwatukee Foothills, in the Elliot Road card and gift store where it first surfaced 32 years ago.

It was then that our village's original mom and pop, Millie and Hank Wynberg, convinced Hallmark Cards of Kansas City, Mo. that an out-of-the-way location with a hard-to-pronounce name and only a handful of residents was the perfect place to start a new business venture.

Before there was a Foothills (or a Mountain Park Ranch or a Lakewood or a Club West), Millie's Hallmark was one of the first tenants in Ahwatukee's first shopping plaza, at the southwest corner of 51st Street and Elliot Road.

The store's November 1979 opening preceded that of Ahwatukee Plaza by two months. After years of a Circle K as its only food source, the tiny hamlet finally had its very own Alpha Beta grocery store when the plaza has its grand opening in January 1980. Ahwatukee residents danced in the streets at what would become a Gold's Gym two decades later.

Hank's long career in the trucking industry and Millie's as an elementary-school teacher meant that the newly-retired Chicago couple had zero retail experience when their store opened. "We had lots of doubts. We had to have a lot of faith," said Hank of those early years. An hour's wait between customers wasn't unusual, and three years passed before Millie's turned a profit.

With only desert on the north side of Elliot Road, they could pass the time admiring the view from their storefront to the new Rustler's Rooste restaurant and clear on to Camelback Mountain.

Combining a schoolteacher's firmness with a grandmother's empathy, Millie insisted that her young hires, most of them local high school students, be courteous, punctual and honest.

Saying, "If they don't learn it here they might not learn it at all," Millie's example of friendly, bend-over-backwards customer service set a high standard for her young charges that lives on today.

A postal service contract in 1981 made Millie and Hank Ahwatukee's unofficial postmasters, and together with the establishment of various collectors clubs such as Precious Moments, helped traffic increase and business grow.

The Wynbergs retired for good in 1987, passing the baton to daughter, Linda, and her husband, Tom Olson, and with it their passion for individualized customer service. After 66 years of marriage, Millie passed away in 2007 and Hank the following year.

Current owners, Marilyn and Don Crabtree, have kept Millie's spirit alive, along with a Christmas tradition begun by Millie and Hank in 1981.

The day after Thanksgiving, as he has for the past 30 years, Santa Claus will helicopter onto Ahwatukee Plaza's parking lot to a waiting Mrs. Claus, helping to kick off the village's Christmas season. Where Millie doubled as Mrs. Claus during the first 24 years, today Linda fills her mother's Christmas shoes.

As Ahwatukee Foothills changes with the times it's refreshing to find that the small-town, mom-and-pop spirit remains.

We can thank the pioneering Millie and Hank Wynberg for charting the course, as they cemented their status as our village's first and foremost Mom and Pop.

• Marty Gibson is author of "Phoenix's Ahwatukee Foothills." Reach him at

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