My Uncle Clifford ran the City Barber Shop on Main Street, right on the courthouse square, in the little town where I grew up in northern Georgia. He manned Chair No. 1, where my Daddy put me once a month to keep my hair in a perfect flattop.
When I started first grade at age 6, I decided right off I no longer wanted a flattop. It was 1967, three years after the Beatles arrived on our shores, and there were kids in my class who were sporting Beatle cuts. But I would endure the flattop until I was 12, when Dad finally relented and let me grow some bangs. For six years, I chafed at the enforced flattop, and every visit to City Barber Shop filled me with resentment — not just at the hairstyle, but also at Uncle Clifford’s choice of reward for every kid who got a haircut there: a stick of Fruit Stripe chewing gum. I hated Fruit Stripe; I favored Wrigley’s Spearmint.
But what I didn’t hate was the mystery that sat in the back of City Barber Shop’s block-deep building: my Uncle Bob’s wirehouse. That, anyway, is the way I understood the word, and thus imagined a room filled with spools of wire. It took me a while to learn that everyone — we all had syrup-thick mountain accents — was really referring to Uncle Bob’s warehouse. The warehouse sat locked during the barber shop’s business hours, behind the door just past the Coke machine. The warehouse was the headquarters of another family business, Bob’s Dry Goods & Notions, owned by my Uncle Bob.
Bob was a wholesaler. The dry goods part of his business consisted primarily of T-shirts, boxer shirts, blue jeans and bib overalls. The notions business was boxes containing packs of chewing gum or Tums or candy bars, plugs and pouches of chewing tobacco, cartons of cigarettes, bottles of aspirin or Alka-Seltzer. Essentially, if a country store needed it and you couldn’t wear it, then it was a “notion,” according to Uncle Bob’s theory of business. And the reason I never got a peek into the warehouse was because Uncle Bob was out doing business during barbering hours, riding through the mountains of North Georgia in his big box truck.
Every day, Bob traveled a daily route from one small country store to the next across about a half-dozen counties, supplying his dry goods and notions to the local retailers.
If memory serves, I got my first peek at the wonders of the warehouse after my Mama died when I was 11. After that, my two dozen aunts and uncles on Daddy’s side of the family all pitched in to give me a little guidance, a little love, doing what they could for me. My blind Aunt Mary taught me a lot about life while I helped her with the canning and putting up during harvest season every year, but Uncle Bob provided a more consistent presence for me than any of them.
This happened because Uncle Bob decided he could use a sidekick in his box truck. I spent countless days riding shotgun while Bob told stories, or we listened to a radio station that played gospel quartet music by the likes of Hovie Lister & the Statesmen or the Blackwood Brothers. Fandom of such music ran high in my family, and Uncle Bob and his wife, my Aunt Doris, had even teamed up with another husband and wife couple to form a quartet that actually recorded an album once. We’d both sing along. We both knew the lyrics and harmonies of nearly every song we heard, and the singing came naturally to us.
But the life lessons I got from riding shotgun with Uncle Bob didn’t come from what happened inside the truck. They came from what happened inside every country store where we stopped.
Uncle Bob did not run his business by stopping at the retailer and simply offloading goods. Every stop, at every store, was a visit. It was a chance to grab a Coke or a Mountain Dew or a Nehi Grape and chew the fat with whoever owned the store or happened to be manning the counter that day. And like most such stores, there would be a few men sitting around a wood stove talking about their crops: Lord, when will the rain come? Or, Lord, why are we getting too much rain? Or local politics. Or maybe inquiring about each other’s families. Earl, how’s Myrtle doing? I heard she’s been down in her back.
No matter which store we were in, Bob engaged. He joined the community conversation, no matter where we were. We could be three counties away from home, and the men in the store would greet him with “Howdy, Bob!” And after I started riding shotgun, it would be “Howdy, Bob. Who’s your little sidekick?”
I’ve always been able to get myself comfortable in conversations with people I’ve just met, and I know I must have learned how do to that in the country stores along Uncle Bob’s route. Because the old men invited me into those conversations, asking me what I liked in school or what I was good at, telling me jokes that were fit for kids (and maybe a few that weren’t).
Riding the route, I believe, was the first time I believed I could do grown-up work. See, Bob never took orders in advance. He knew from repetition that so-and-so’s store usually needed, say, two boxes of Bull of the Woods plug tobacco, or size extra-large boxer shorts, and he would pull the customary items off the truck before we first walked in and the howdys began. But always, other stock was needed, or maybe the owner still had enough Bull of the Woods to get him by for another week. And quickly, it became my job to take the unneeded goods back to the truck and come back with the needed.
But the most important thing I learned were that these little stores were places of communion, where the folks who lived within a mile or two this way or that came to check in on the community. Newspapers came out once a week and covered the entire county. The store was where you came to get the close-up news on crops, on people’s health, and to take the temperature of where your closest neighbors stood on the issues of the day.
A couple decades ago, a term came into vogue in the corporate world: “third space.” I think it was the Starbucks people who came up with it. The origin, I believe, was that your home was your “first space,” your office was your “second space,” and a coffee shop like Starbucks was the third space. After that, a bunch more businesses began thinking about how to add “third spaces” to their retail locations. Can we put a McDonald’s in the Walmart so that people have a place to hang out in a third space?
I spent a lot of time in my career listening to such corporate nonsense, but “third space” was truly off the rails. Why? Because you cannot commoditize all the things that happened around all the pot-bellied stoves in all the country stores we used to have.
When I visit my hometown today, I am always struck by the irony that the barber pole still spins in the very same location at City Barber Shop, but that a business like Bob’s Dry Goods & Notions could never exist in the 21st century. I’m actually quite proud of the fact that City Barber Shop still beckons lifelong locals who need a trim — and some of the hipster urban gents who have become part of my hometown’s fabric as its economy migrated to tourism. You take your dollars where you can get them, and some of the old places, like City Barber Shop, can stay in business.
But the country stores are mostly gone now. The mountains today are strewn with Walmarts and Dollar Generals, selling the locals goods through automated supply chains and inventory systems that span the globe. You do hear conversations that begin with “I ran into so-and-so at the Walmart, and he told me …,” but even if that Walmart has a third-space McDonald’s or Subway inside, it's a poor substitute for the genuine feeling of community that came from the conversations that ran from opening to closing every day at the old country stores.
I hate to sound like an old coot just longing to put things back the way they used to be. In fact, we live in a country where much of what used to be was never right, and I’m hoping we can find within ourselves the grace and empathy to remember — and emulate — how those small communities made sure folks at the bottom were cared for as much as those at the top.
I also know this: I thoroughly despise how the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us all of our ability to commune with each other, to hug each other, to tell folks how much we love them and how much they mean to us. And through all this, I can’t help but thinking of all those country stores Uncle Bob and I visited and the community — deep, genuine community — that existed inside every one of them.
Uncle Bob has been gone from this earth for 37 years now, but this pandemic has made me miss him — and what he taught me about the common good — more than ever.
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