In my last post I introduced the T. L. Wells & Bros. Store, with a sample of the goings on in the front, or ‘dry goods’ part of the store.
The back section of the store was where they sold groceries. It was the part of the store that I liked best.
It was about half the size of the front section, but was packed with a full line of groceries and meats, and other various and sundry items. High up in one corner was a little "office" which Lee and Les took turns occupying, alternately napping and presiding over accounts.
The back door opened to an alley. Thus one could sneak in, pick up his groceries, and sneak out, without having to tromp through the front part of the store where all those clothes fittings were in progress.
There was a pass-through door on each side of the wall that divided the grocery section from the dry goods section up front. Along this wall, and the side and back walls, were endless rows of shelves stocked with canned goods and other grocery staples.
Three or four feet out from the south wall was a refrigerated showcase containing the meats and other foods that required cool temperatures. The frozen foods that are common today had not yet been developed.
In between the meat showcase and the back wall was a glass showcase containing candies, patent medicines, Bull O' The Woods chewing tobacco, Prince Albert and George Washington smoking tobacco and OCB cigarette leaves, Railroad, Dental and Navy snuff, sewing machine thread and other assorted products. This was all on one side of the aisle leading to the back door which opened to the alley.
On the other side was a row of straight back chairs, some with wooden slat seats, some with cowhide seats, the lot being in various states of condition, but all serviceable. These were provided for "guests". Between these chairs and the little stair that led up to the "office" was a catch-all stack of odds and ends: Work gloves, mouse traps, display samples of the latest styles in work shoes and boots, Duck Head overalls and jumpers, work caps, straw hats, and so on.
This part of the store had a sawdust floor. A little out in front of the meats showcase stood an old heater made from a large oil drum. Wood for the heater was stacked just outside the back door under a small lean-to shelter.
Back next to the meat showcase, on one side of the stove, was a large barrel containing salt-cured mullet. On the other side of the stove stood a large barrel containing sorghum mollasses.
Directly on either side of the oil drum stove sat two old swivel office chairs, circa 1890, one for Lee and one for Les. No one else sat in these chairs, for it was from these that Lee and Les held court. The guest chairs were across the aisle.
Some of my fondest memories are of the Saturday nights that my stepfather Holly and I spent down at the store, for the goings-on during those occasions turned out to be the earliest lessons in my practical education.
On Saturday nights the store remained open until ten or eleven o'clock, and sometimes until midnight. This was because many of the regular customers were of the laborer class who were paid at the end of the work week which usually ended at noon on Saturday. By the time these people got home and attended to odds and ends, it would be evening, sometimes eight or nine o'clock, before they could get downtown to shop for groceries and other items.
In the winter of 1941-42 Holly would often go down to the store on Saturday nights, and would usually take me with him. We would go down around seven o’ clock, whip down the alley, and enter through the back door. Holly always carried a small grocery order which he gave to Otis Hinson to fill. Otis would gather all the items, mark them to Holly's account, and put them in a little box which was stashed away until we were ready to leave.
Holly would assume his customary Saturday-night position in one of the "guest" chairs, and presently would make, in the manner of a casual observation, some remark calculated to elicit an extended response from Lee Wells, it being Holly's intent to wait until Lee's remarks reached the level of commentary so that he could join in with pronouncements of equal philosophical import.
Presently Lee's response would be forthcoming, punctuated as usual by his greetings to customers, with each return to the subject reflecting a heightened purpose in the matter.
And so it would continue until the situation developed into a full-blown dialogue between Lee and Holly, though occasionally a gracious recognition would be accorded some third party whose interest had been whetted to the point that he could wait no longer to express his own opinion.
Throughout it all, though, Lee was the senior statesman, and the course of the discussion was generally cued by some pivotal remark that he would make now and then, or perhaps even by the inflection of his voice.
In due time all relevant issues would be examined, and errant schools of thought held by those not present modified to reflect the proper perspective on the matter.
All this time I would be seated in some comfortable niche amongst the boxes in the catch-all stack of odds and ends located between the "guest" chairs and the little stair that led up to the "office". I could have occupied one of the guest chairs with as much welcome as anyone else, but I had decided early on that my best chance of hearing everything in the original lay in remaining as inconspicuous as possible.
The discussion of politics among a group of knowledgeable, cigar-smoking adults held a peculiar fascination for me, and the stage set in the Wells Bros. store, with the oil drum stove and sawdust floor, not to mention the personalities themselves, added a flavor that was priceless.
It was not uncommon for a discussion to digress all the way back to the Civil War, and if one gave a little rein to his imagination he might easily experience a brief communion with General Lee.
Eventually, the parade of customers would taper off, the discussion would begin to flicker for lack of additional fuel, and Lee's nod to Otis to begin covering the counters would signal the end of the evening's festivities.
Holly would take our little box of groceries under his arm, I would carefully extricate myself from my hiding place, and we would set out on the three-quarter hour journey home. Along the way I would usually pose several questions to Holly about points of the discussion that I had failed to grasp. He would patiently address every question, then endeavor to steer the conversation in a direction such as to satisfy himself that I had come to a reasonable understanding of matters.
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