Seasons of change

John Kihslinger’s kiosk has survived two decades of ups and downs in Calhoun Square. Now he’s battling cancer in the hopes of extending that run after the center’s rebirth.

If it happened in Calhoun Square during the past 20 years, John Kihslinger probably knows about it. He was probably there, in the middle of it.

Janet Jackson and Jimmy Jam catching dinner at Figlio on a Saturday night, a man leading a cow through the mall, a guy jumping into a giant sandcastle display, bubble bath in the fountain, people from all walks of life doing all sorts of things — he’s seen it all from his kiosk, Seasons in Calhoun.  

“Very unique folks come through here,” said Kihslinger, now 65. “And they always treat us well. I don’t get tired of the craziness.”  

For the first time since launching his seasonal accessories kiosk in the mall in 1987, Kihslinger is selling his sunglasses, hats and other apparel from a store — a temporary space set up because of construction work underway as part of Calhoun Square’s long-awaited revamp. But another change has Kihslinger’s family, friends and the mall community more concerned. In May, he was diagnosed with acute leukemia.

He’s since undergone three rounds of chemotherapy and in a few weeks is scheduled to fly to Seattle for a bone marrow transplant. All the while, family and friends are helping to keep Seasons in Calhoun running, since Kihslinger has no intention of giving up the business.

He’s Calhoun Square’s biggest cheerleader. His experiences in the mall and the camaraderie he’s developed with tenants and community members there have made it an indispensable part of his life.  

“If it wasn’t for the future outlook here, then I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “Business has dropped some, but I know the potential here.”

Kihslinger recalled the late ’80s and ’90s, when the mall was packed with almost 60 tenants, most of them high-end shops. Celebrity sightings, such as those of Janet Jackson, who recorded with Jimmy Jam in the area, were common, he said. He gave Jackson a pair of aviator sunglasses once and on another night his son got an autograph from Paula Abdul.

He’s also seen an array of local life, from people just getting by on the street to those living large around the lakes.

“If you go east, there’s a lot of poverty starting right at this block,” he said. “If you go west, there’s quite a bit of money. So we’re in a melting pot here and I think that’s a fascinating part of it.”

Interacting with people is a passion for Kihslinger. He’s a talker and a storyteller and never backs down from a good conversation with anyone. He has knack for remembering faces and his own has become a familiar sight to Calhoun Square visitors.

“Because he’s always been in a kiosk, he was the guy who was always in the middle of the mall,” said Doug Huemoeller, co-owner and general manager of longtime Calhoun Square anchor Kitchen window. “I think he’s very much a regular personality of the mall… he knows everybody.”

His conversationalist style rubbed off on family members and others who have helped run the kiosk over the years. He said his son, John Jr., practically grew up at the kiosk.  

“John [senior] is a great guy and he and his employees are kind of like the neighborhood association for the mall,” said Calhoun Square General Manager Gayle Siegler. “They’re out there in front of everything and they visit with people and they’re friendly and he’s always positive about Calhoun [Square] and Uptown.”

Terre Thomas, a relatively new Calhoun Square tenant who runs a boutique called Fairy Godmother, likened Kihslinger to a grandpa on the porch, who knows and keeps an eye on everyone. It was hard to hear of his diagnosis, she said.

“Economically, things are so perilous… to have him leave for a bone marrow transplant. This is just one worry that I wish I could just lift off their shoulders,” she said.  

Though he’s determined to stay in Calhoun Square now, Kihslinger said he did burn himself out once, in 2000, and decided to leave the mall for a while. Management invited him back in 2002, and even as businesses left the center and retail slowed throughout the nation in recent years, he stuck with it.

His kiosk, once one of six, was the only one still doing business in the mall before he moved into a store. Though he’s making the new space work, Kihslinger said he prefers the atrium.

“I have a philosophy,” he said. “If you’re out in the middle, you get a lot of impulsive business. They trip right over you.”

Kihslinger’s wife, Carla, said for all the optimism and her husband’s seemingly boundless energy, the future of his involvement in the business is uncertain. He’s been at the store off and on since starting treatment and is now in remission, but there’s still a long ways to go. The bone marrow transplant will keep him out for months, she said.

“It’s been a pretty rough go of it,” she said. “We’ve had good days and not so good days, but we just want him better.”

Family and friends are hosting a spaghetti dinner benefit for Kihslinger Oct. 25 from
noon–3 p.m. at the Look Out Bar & Grill at 8672 Pineview Lane N. in Maple Grove. The cost is $10 for adults and $5 for children. Proceeds will go to the John Kihslinger Benefit Fund, set up through Bremer Bank, a Calhoun Square tenant. Those planning to attend should RSVP in advance to egbert@netzero.com.

Kihslinger also has a support website at http://www.caringbridge.org/visit/johnkihslingersenior.

If all goes well with his treatment, Kihslinger said he has no intention of retiring. He can’t wait to see what craziness the new Calhoun Square has to offer — and he hopes to get his business back in the middle of things.

“There’s something about it,” he said. “It’s a challenge every day. Every day is a new day. It’s like you’re starting over every day. That’s what keeps me going is the challenge.”

Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.