Its time to sell it. The roof leaks and is caked with so many layers of tar that any more weight would bring the whole thing crashing down in a pile of 90 year old timbers and splinters. It would be foolish of me to put another dime into this place. A new roof would cost a small fortune. Inside, the building smells of mildewed carpet, the ceiling panels are falling to the floor exposing the wiring above and its full of four generations of family junk. It is also full of a lifetime of memories.
One of those old vacant rundown buildings along what used to be main street, the 4000 square foot red brick structure at 309 7th Street was home to my Father’s business for nearly 40 years. Before that “the shop” as we call it housed my grandfather’s feed and seed store. Daddy was a gunsmith and more than that, he was a craftsman. He could build a firearm from scratch and was a master at restoring old, collectible Winchesters.
His business morphed over the years from simply a gun repair shop to an outdoor supply store/repair shop, and then into a craftsman’s workshop. I remember the shop in its heyday, when it also sold outdoor supplies-not just shotguns and rifles but hunting clothes, duck calls, ammo, pocket knives, binoculars, fishing gear. Anything the southern sportsman would need.
The shop was one of those places where men gathered in the late afternoon when their jobs were finished but they weren’t yet ready to go home and face their wives. As such it served a purpose in the small community. A place for good, mostly clean male camaraderie. It was full of life.
There was Jerry, the rotund and jolly mailman, who stopped by on his route and dawdled long enough to tell his latest fishing tale. My grandfather stopped by every afternoon and sharpened his pocket knife on the sharpening stone that sat atop the glass display cases salvaged many years before from his father’s hardware store. For a while old Snooks Lewis kept the store up front and held court among the cast of characters assembled there while Daddy worked in the back.
This old building was my day care center. I’m sure that sounds horrifying to some. Both my parents worked so from about the 3rd grade I spent my afternoons here after school. I would hang around up front and listen for a while to the stories of the men who dropped by. Or I would go into Daddy’s office where I was supposed to do my homework. More often than not I would lounge around on the couch or in the floor and watch Tom and Jerry or Popeye cartoons, maybe a few Three Stooges shorts. I distinctly remember lying in that floor one afternoon when I was 10 years old, horrified that my cartoons were interrupted by news coverage of Ronald Reagan’s attempted assassination.
The coffee table in the office was full of old outdoor magazines and hunting and fishing catalogs. I would daydream about being an old man with a pair of bird dogs and a Labrador retriever. I would browse through the catalogs and pick out all the hunting and dog supplies I would need to live a life of leisure as a southern sportsman.
Daddy’s desk was on one side of the room and another large, antique roll top desk made of oak sat against the opposite wall. Even at that age I could see what a finely crafted piece of furniture that was. How I coveted that desk. The roll top was stuck and wouldn’t roll down but I would sit at it, opening and closing drawers, pretending to house all my important papers there. The desk now sits in my home, salvaged from the shop after decades and before the roof started leaking. A wedding gift from Daddy, who had always known of my fondness for it, even if the roll top is now missing from it.
Almost every afternoon when my grandfather arrived, we would walk down to the service station at the end of the block, where he would buy me pack of peanut butter cheese crackers and a Dr. Pepper in a glass bottle. The next day we’d do the same thing and return the bottle for a deposit. One or two afternoons a week, after this ritual, we’d ride out to the farm and look at the crops, walk the fields looking for arrowheads, or fish from the dock at the cabin. We’d return by the time Daddy closed up the shop around 6:00.
On the sidewalk out front, there remains to this day a broken up section of concrete the size of top of a small coffee table. It was damaged long enough ago that I don’t recall it not being there. The interesting thing about this is that the hole broken out of the concrete is in the exact shape of the state of Georgia.
At Christmas-time the town hung those big Christmas decorations in the shapes of various Christmas themed objects. Still in use among many small towns, these decorations were full of lights and covered in some sort of flimsy plastic fringe. They always hung the one in the form of a red candle in a green and gold candleholder on the lamp-post in front of the shop.
Sometimes on late afternoons when a thunderstorm would pop up, the men would all gather at the large plate glass doors and windows, twisting their necks as they jockeyed for position to watch the dark clouds gather. “Its coming up a storm”, one of them would mutter. And as if that brought some finality to it, they would shuffle away from the doors and windows to resume their conversations.
Trains have always passed by on the railroad tracks crossing 7th street several times a day. As they passed blowing their deafening horns the men would have to momentarily delay their conversations while the traffic stopped out front. But they didn’t mind. They were in no hurry and the pause allowed the tension to build in whatever story was being told.
Behind a plywood door, Daddy’s workshop occupied the northern half of the back of the building. It was filled with metal lathes, a sandblaster, buffing and grinding machines, an air compressor, drill press, vises, home-made workbenches, tools, and bluing tanks, vats which held boiling solutions of bluing salts that turned the silver polished steel barrels into their familiar blued, black steel.
One of my earliest memories is of Daddy coming home with bandages on his eyes after the bluing salts splashed into them. He had to wear the bandages for weeks but his vision, fortunately, didn’t suffer any long-term damage.
For a time Daddy employed a teenager named Richard, who wanted to be a gunsmith too. There was a hole in the wooden floor in the back of the building and you could see clean through to the ground below. The hole fascinated me and as I examined it one day Richard said, “you better be careful around that hole. I saw a whompuss cat come out of there.” I didn’t know what a whompuss cat was but I decided I didn’t want to find out and was always afraid to approach the hole after that.
The south half of the back side of the building was mostly just a warehouse or storage space that held stuff left over from the feed store—old plows, a small engine, wood crates, a large old safe, along with various other odds and ends. Since I’ve always loved old things, I loved to pilfer around back there.
I come from a family of packrats and over the years more of the detritus and overflow of our family accumulated in the shop. Old cedar chests, my great-great grandmother’s spinning wheel, a jukebox, tables, chairs, Indian artifacts collected by one of my great grandfathers. Furniture, display cases, and entire hand-carved cowboy, indian, and horse figurines set in various scenes carved by that same great grandfather—reminders of his youth in Wyoming.
A while back I moved some of the more valuable stuff out. Threw away a lot of things too. Things that I re-discovered in the cleanout. Things that were hard to get rid of. Things I had forgotten about yet still jarred me back to a time when all these loved ones were alive. Things like the old dresses, polyester outfits, and shoes that had belonged to my mother. I hadn’t seen them since the 70s but I can still see her wearing them.
You see, I’m afflicted with severe cases of sentimentality and even worse, nostalgia. That longing for a time and place that probably never existed as we remember. I’m trying to work up the gumption to place a For Sale by Owner sign in the front window. If you see it and you’re interested in an old, fragile building on a forgotten downtown street in a small, southern town, give me call. But forgive me if I linger. I’m saying goodbye to some old friends.
©2020 Lenny Wells