Besides my house and yard, which were great places to play, I spent most of my time at the two stores of my father and my “Pa-pa.” The close proximity of the stores to my house and the possibilities they afforded children with vivid imaginations made the two stores natural places to play.
My Pa-pa, W.T. Arnold, owned a toy store called “Arnold’s Toys.” How many children get to grow up living down the street from a toy store that is owned by their grandfather? I remember gazing at the beautiful Madame Alexander dolls that were protected behind the sliding glass doors of the display cases. My brother and I test rode the bikes and Red Flyer wagons in the middle of the store and played with the sample “Mr. Potato Head,” “Operation,” and “Cooties” games. My sister and I played with the “Lite Brite” and “Easy-Bake Oven,” and the little toy piano like Schroeder plays in Charlie Brown. “Mrs. Beasely” dolls sat high on a shelf over-looking our fun. One of my all-time favorite toys was the “Dancerina” doll which I begged to get one Christmas (and I did). I always remember feeling like I was the luckiest kid in the world to grow up playing in a toy store.
I often spent time visiting with one of my Pa-pa’s employee’s, Mrs. Mac (short for McBride). She was always so nice and patient with me. I loved helping her as she put price tags on the new toys.
One especially exciting place to play in Pa-pa’s store was in the ware room at the rear of the store. It was a dimly-lit three-tier shelved storage room where we would imagine ourselves being on a ship, in a cave, a haunted house, or a space ship. Two, short, painted boards that were alongside each other on the otherwise unpainted floor in the ware room always served as our trap door that would lower or lift us to a new adventure.
My father, Ray Hinson, owned an adjacent hardware and garden supply store named, oddly enough, “Hinson’s Hardware and Garden Supply.” Each spring, when the ware room had been cleared of the Christmas season’s toys, my dad would stock it full of used whiskey barrels that he would cut in half to sell as planters. This was a great idea except for the fact that one could not walk through the ware room without getting totally drunk from the fumes. It was quite an unusual and powerful smell for our teetotalling family’s noses.
He opened his store on my first birthday in 1963 and he remained in business in that location for the next fifteen years. His store smelled of grass seed, nails, rubber gaskets and fertilizer. Have you ever run your hands through a barrel of Bermuda grass seed? Or bulk sacks of mustard seed? It’s the nicest feeling. It’s hard for me to go into a hardware store today without being thrust back into my childhood.
One job I had was to count the change in the old Coca-Cola machine in the back of his store. I knew where the special key was hung. And how to unlock each compartment all the way to where the Cokes were held. I had such responsibility! And yes, sometimes I was allowed to get a Coke out of the machine, just for me.
Local gardeners would bring Daddy bushels of peas, sacks of tomatoes, and other vegetables from seeds or plants they had bought from him. He kept his bedding plants out in front of the store where he watered them every morning. I still love the smell of moist soil. At the end of everyday, he sprinkled a dark, green granular substance on the concrete floor before he swept it. He said it was to keep the dust down. Sometime I received the honor of sprinkling the “green stuff” on the floor. It took me a while before I realized I was lured into a “Tom Sawyer white-wash fence” situation. My dad was a good, honest businessman. Everyone always said good things about him.
My Pa-pa was a good man, too, and I don’t say that just because he let us play in his toy store. My grandmother married him as a young widow after he had been kind to her by making sure that she and her two small children had extra ration stamps for groceries during World War II. It didn’t matter to us that he wasn’t our real grandfather, because he always treated us like his own.
I don’t remember having many conversations with him, but I do remember sitting with him in their kitchen at the counter as he spread saltines with “deviled ham” for me and him. In the summer he would buy an ice-cold watermelon from Tony’s Fruit Stand next door and cut it on a marble slab table in his yard behind his store while we sat in Adirondack chairs waiting patiently for our slices.
He always looked old to me. He was many years my grandmother’s senior, but he never acted old. He chewed cigars and he loved making coffee for his employees. On cold days he and his employees took afternoon coffee breaks around the heater in the back of the store and drank the coffee that he had prepared in a French drip coffee pot on open burners in the back “ware-room.” Around Christmas he also boiled whole hams in a big pot on the same burners. He boiled the hams with apples, bell peppers, onions, and celery. The aroma would permeate the whole store! (I still boil my hams the same way.)
But my Pa-Pa’s store wasn’t always a toy store. It was first a Plee-zing Food Store. I still have the wooden meat carving table he used. In addition to groceries he sold general store type items and “Esso” gasoline out front (Esso stood for S.O. – Standard Oil, which later became Exxon).