Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Splendor on the Bypass

That night in 1962, my dad and I were on a mission. As we made the five-minute drive from our house to Summer Center, I once again pulled out the piece of paper which my teacher had provided to each class member and quickly reviewed its instructions. We were to purchase one clear glass candle holder and a single red candle. Then, we would bring our candles and holders back to the classroom, where we were to attach a Merry Christmas tag to the candle with a small piece of red ribbon. On Christmas Day, we would present these to our mothers as a gift. The present was guaranteed to spark joy (although we didn't really know that term back then).

Although by today's standards, these instructions might allow little room for flexibility, that wasn't the mantra of the early 60s. In those days, you just did the same things everyone else did because they seemed like a good idea, and generally, you tried to keep things simple in the process. Of course, to fulfill our shopping requirements, there was no better place to visit than the dime store.

That night, my dad and I pulled up to the TG&Y and walked in from the cold to the warm, lively store. Within five minutes, a helpful saleslady pointed us to exactly what we needed. We purchased a glass candle holder in the shape of a star and the most perfectly finished red candle I had ever seen. On Christmas morning, my mother was indeed fully of joy when she opened my candle present, and so was I. Once again, the dime store had delivered.

Dime stores, as most of you probably remember, were the elemental precursors to today's "big box" stores, and my hometown of Memphis was full of them. In their heyday, there was no kid alive who didn't relish a trip to the dime store, or as some of our older relatives called it, "the five and dime," or "the five and ten cents store." The selection of items in these stores was astonishing, even by today's standards, and everyone shopped at them. I recently read that Mamie Eisenhower, America's First Lady from 1953 until 1961, was a big fan and would procure dime store items even while living in the White House. 

For those of you too young to remember, there was actually a time when many small, mass-produced items could be purchased for no more than five or ten cents, hence the name. Many of the items stocked in these stores are now found in almost any "big box" store, with of course larger inventories. Chain store names included the aforementioned TG&Y, Woolworth's, McClellan's, Ben Franklin, and Kresge, among others. There was no question that you could walk into a dime store with a dollar and still emerge with enough change to buy lunch. But one particular dime store, the Trenton Ben Franklin, remains anchored in my mind.

West Tennessee is full of "bypasses," roads which, as the name indicates, skirt the city to (supposedly) avoid traffic congestion. Many of these were built in the 1960s, and the town of Trenton, Tennessee, where my mom's family lived, was the recipient of one sometime around 1965. Even though its population consisted of only about 4,200 residents at the time, and we'd never really noticed much of a traffic problem, Trenton made the most of its bypass. New commercial ventures sprang up soon after its completion, and truly, the alternate route did ease getting around town a bit. So, it was only fitting that a dime store might land there, and in this case, Ben Franklin was the chain to open on what was known as 45 West.

One afternoon, when I was out shopping at Ben Franklin with the family, I spotted a Magnus Chord Organ in the toy section at the back of the store. Chord organs were small instruments with a standard piano keyboard on one side and a set of chord buttons on the other. This made it possible to accompany oneself while playing. I'd started piano lessons a couple of years earlier, and even though I'd seen these organs before, I'd never played one, but that day, I decided to give it a try.

I found the Magnus to be very easy to play, and after a few minutes, my cousin walked up to listen. Then, people from within the toy aisle started coming up and asking me to play songs that they knew. Pretty soon, a small crowd had gathered to watch as I merrily played along in a kind of Magnus Trance State. The store manager, a friendly middle-aged lady, walked up and asked if I would mind moving the organ up to the front of the store and continuing to play. She said it would be nice for the customers, so I moved the organ and continued to play for probably another half hour. I was getting some kind of buzz from all this.

Thinking back, I believe that first taste of spontaneous musical performance threw some kind of switch in my young mind. Prior to that time, I'd played only in piano recitals, forced affairs in which one had to dress nicely and sit up straight. But this new manner of performing was one in which you could let your hair down and enjoy yourself while making other people happy, and that's what my Ben Franklin "buzz" had been all about. As the years progressed and I picked up guitar playing, I realized that there was absolutely nothing like the feeling I got from playing music for people. I played piano all through high school, and I loved those moments when people would come up to me after a recital and tell me how a particular piece had moved them. And there was absolutely nothing like playing guitar on a stage, regardless of its size or that of the audience.

As the years progressed, this fondness for being out there manifested itself in other ways. I found, for example, that I enjoyed getting up in front of large groups of people at company meetings and conducting business as any one of a number of fictitious characters (i.e., Rico Vermicelli) in fake accents. Over the years, many people told me they were entertained by these goings-on, and that of course made me happy. The pleasure was mine, so to speak. But, you know, I'm not sure any of that would have happened had it not been for that afternoon in the Ben Franklin and those kind folks who spent a few minutes listening to that kid from Memphis playing popular classics on the Magnus.

So, the next time you're wandering today's big box aisles at Target or Wal-Mart, think back for a second on that old dime store. Take heed if you see a random youth tinkling around on a musical instrument or giving that basketball a bounce. They may just be up to something good.