Monday, January 11, 2016

The Shop With a Story

This is a short story I wrote based on the location of a small shop on Main Street in my town of North East, MD. It is a very old building and I could just imagine finding a treasure in one of its dusty closets... I hope you enjoy it.

The old glass door swung open with a jangle of bells as I pressed the worn brass latch down and pushed gently. I stepped over the worn threshold letting my hands pass over the solid wood of the tall doorframe with its height of eight feet or so that reached almost to the ceiling. The floorboards were wide pine planks with plenty of knotholes showing through. The cool air felt refreshing as I stepped out of the humid summer heat.

“Hello, dear!” came a cheery old lady’s voice. “Come on in and cool down.”

“Hello and thank you,” I answered, trying to focus on the slight figure behind the counter, pushing my sunglasses up into my hair. As my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness of the shop, I saw a slim but well-wrinkled lady with a head full of gray curls. She had a pen in her hand and was writing in an old leather-bound book that looked like a ledger. There were two or three other people in the shop looking at some antique blue pottery vases in the corner.

“Let me know if I can help you,” her voice encouraged me.

I smiled at her and stepped over to look at some hand-blown glassware she had in her window display. The objects in the store were beautiful but nothing that I found useful so I meandered around, just enjoying the chance to cool down. I had hoped that this was the shop I was looking for, but there was no evidence of any books anywhere. I snooped around, looking in all the dark little corners of the shelves stacked creatively with a mix of handcrafted items and beautiful antiques.

The doorbells jangled as the mailman entered the shop.

“Hello Marg! Here’s your mail for today.”

“Can you stop for a drink of water?” she asked.

“Well,” he paused, “I guess a drink won’t slow me down so much.”

Marg shuffled out from behind the counter so I could see her over the shelves. She was dressed in a light blue cotton blouse and some loose linen pants that reached just the tip of her shoes. I was curious where she was going to get her water from and watched as she opened a solid wood door on an inner wall that looked like it might have been an exterior wall at some point in the shop’s history.

Feeling a little guilty for my snoopiness, I decided I had better move on and started walking towards the doorway.

“Oh no, dear, don’t leave yet,” she called to me. “I’ll get you a glass of water, too. Just hold on.” 

I couldn’t argue with her. The mailman smiled at me and shrugged his shoulders. I walked over to the sales counter where he was standing.

“Wow! What a beautiful piece of woodwork.” I exclaimed as I ran my hands over the oak surface, darkened by years of use. The counter ran for at least twelve feet where it joined up with another shorter section that ran another six feet to the front window of the shop.

“I think it is over a hundred years old,” the mailman commented. “This used to be a hardware shop and this was the work bench.”

“You like my work counter?” Marg joined us with two glasses of water in her hands. “Here you go,” she said as she placed the wet glasses in front of us.

The mailman drank his glass in one smooth gulp. “Thanks, Marg. See you tomorrow.” He set the glass on the counter and adjusted his hat. He nodded his head at me and left with the jangle of bells behind him.

Marg smiled at me. “So where are you from?” she asked a bit abruptly. “This town is so small I always notice a visitor’s face.”

“I am actually from Connecticut, but my family is originally from here.”

“Oh, Connecticut, huh? Lots of people have been in here from up there.” She motioned to her guestbook lying open on the counter on the far right of the counter.

I sipped my water, grateful for the coldness but anxious to be on my way. I had a book to find and if it wasn’t here, I had to check out the other shops in town.

“How old is this shop?” I asked trying to be sociable.

“Older than me,” she laughed. “I think this place dates back to the early 1800’s. When my grandfather had it, he sold hardware here. That’s why you see all these little drawers everywhere. They used to be filled with all sorts of screw and nails and bolts.”

“Really. I can see that. It’s a beautiful shop. I love that you still have all the old plate glass windows.”

“Yes, we have lost a couple due to break-ins over the years and one from a bullet about seventy-five years ago, but it still looks pretty good in here.” She took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes.

“A bullet hole?” I questioned.

“Yes, I’m ashamed to say that was from me.”

“What?” I wasn’t sure if she was telling me a tall tale or the truth.

“Yep. I was a crazy kid back then. My grandfather would have me watch the shop once in a while when it was a nice summer day so he could go fishing. I partly liked the job but back then, there was no such thing as liking or not liking what you were asked to do, when you were a kid, you know. So my job was to sweep the floor and wash the windows among other odd jobs.” She was leaning towards me with her elbows on the counter.

“Well, back then, we had a lot of drunks here in town. Some of the lazy fishermen would drink after they fished for a while, you know - just enough to make a little money. They would start in the evening and drink through the night.” She shook her head. “Since mostly no one had cars, it wasn’t drunk driving that was the problem - it was the fighting and loitering through the night and into the morning.” She was smiling and her eyes sparkled as she told her story.

“Anyhow, one morning, I was minding my own ‘pees and ques’ when this drunk fisherman came stumbling through the door. Those are still the same bells we had back then, too, you know,” as she pointed to the front door. “I had seen the man around town always with a red face from too much whiskey. He came up to the counter smelling like he spent the night in the whiskey barrel.” She stepped back and put her hands on her hips. “He walks up to here and asks me to give him a dollar. I knew my grandfather would sometimes give money to folks who needed it, but not to a lazy drunk so I said, ‘Sorry, mister. I can’t do that.’ Well, you would have thought that I punched him in the face. He was so mad at me. He started calling me a punk and all kinds of mean names. He started pounding his fist on the counter and threatened to give me a flouncing if I didn’t give him a dollar.” Marg wagged her finger at me.

I smiled at her, “No, way.”

“Oh, yes. And was I mad. I had a hot temper back then, you know. He kept hollering at me and then he started leaning over the counter to try to take the money out of the cash register himself. I wacked his hand with the dust broom in my hand. Oh, dear.” She clasped her face in her hands. “You would not believe how red his face got. I knew he was crazy with the whiskey in him, so I reached under the counter for my grandfather’s shotgun. I was not supposed to touch it, but I was desperate. I cocked it and pointed it right at his face and told him to get out.”

I had a hard time see how this kind little lady could have ever pointed a gun at someone, especially a shotgun, but she was telling her story with great conviction.

“He laughed at me and told me to stop acting like a stupid brat, so I pulled the trigger.” She had a funny little smirk on her face as if she was somewhat proud of herself as she reenacted holding the shotgun. “I had never shot the gun myself so I thought I killed myself at first when the gun’s kick knocked me off the ground and the boom just about made me deaf, you know.” She laughed at herself and then went on, “I stood up slowly and peaked over the counter and there he was laying on the floor right where you are standing with blood on his face and glass all over the place. By that time, all the townies were running in here to find out what the gunshot was all about. I was sure that I had killed him but my grandfather told me that the rock salt in the shotgun had only wounded his pride since I missed hitting him directly. I ended up costing my grandfather more than a dollar since he had to replace the window, but he said he was proud of me.”

“Wow. That is just crazy. It’s so cool to hear the history of these old buildings,” I said. I had enjoyed hearing the story almost as much as she enjoyed telling it.

“So you say your family is from this area?”

“Yes, but it’s been a long time,” I explained. “My great great-grandfather was born just outside of town and he used to have a bookstore somewhere on Main Street.”

“I can’t say that I remember any bookstore around here, but it could have been before my time,” she offered.

“Yes, I suppose so,” I answered. For some reason I decided to tell her my story - I am not sure why, but I had already spent so much time with her that I no longer felt the need to rush out. No one else was in the store, so I let loose.

“I am actually in town looking for a very special book. As I said, my family is from the area but then they moved to Killingly, Connecticut. My great great-grandfather apparently owned a bookshop here in town. He got involved in the abolitionist movement in the 1850’s and I think he was influential in the Civil War. He bought land in Killingly, and had a huge farmhouse built, planning to move up there to raise a family. 

“That’s a beautiful area up there,” Marg commented.

“Yes, it was a big farmhouse but they never actually lived in the house as everything changed when the Civil War started. They stayed down here during the war so she could be with her family while he helped in the war efforts. She ended up dying during that time giving birth to their first child. My great great-grandfather hired a nanny to take care of the baby and then ended up dying himself in the Civil War.”

I felt a little guilty for taking up her time but she was looking at me expectantly waiting for me to continue.

“However, I am just learning about this history. I was an only child and my mother died when I was only five. My grandmother raised me until I was seventeen. Well, my father has since died and I have been doing a lot of research, trying to trace my family’s lineage. I found an old newspaper clipping with our family name and a picture of what might have been my great, great-grandfather receiving a set of ten three-dollar coins from Abraham Lincoln as a reward for his help in outlawing slavery. If it’s the same name, I will have traced my family back to then. I think it might be my great, great-grandfather because my grandmother spoke of a special set of coins that her father carried around in the cover of a dictionary for safe keeping that he hid in the bookstore, but she was never allowed to touch it.”

I paused when another customer came in the door. Now I was committed and had to finish my story. I waited around for Marg, looking at some curios on a shelf.

“Now where were we?” she asked as she came back to her spot by the register.

“I think my great, great-grandfather’s bookstore might have housed that dictionary and since I can’t find any record of the sale of the shop, the books might still be here.” I knew I had to finish up, but Marg didn’t seem like she was in any rush so I continued.

“My hope is that since the store was never sold, some of those books, including the old dictionary, might be still tucked away somewhere here in town. I know it’s a long shot but none of the museums have any record of the coins so I figure they are still out there, and very valuable, too!”

“Well, that would be amazing. What did you say your family name was?” she asked.

“It was Fisher.”

Marg clapped her hand over her mouth. “You know, I could have sworn that this used to be called the ‘Fisher Store.’ Glory be! Do you think it is possible?” She looked at me in amazement.

“Really?” I was just a little encouraged to say the least.

“You know, now that I think about it, my mother’s maiden name was Fisher. Do you think it is the same family? You are right - they did inherit the store, but I never knew how or who from. My mother could have been the sister to your grandmother, which would make you what, a distant cousin?”

I couldn’t believe how the puzzle pieces were coming together.

“Oh, but we don’t have the books,” Marg commented in a discouraged voice. “No wait. What am I saying? I do remember some books up in the attic where we store some of our stuff. I never bothered them - always thinking that I would get around to them someday.” She turned and shuffled over to the front door of the shop and locked the bolt and turned around the Open sign to read Closed.

“Let’s go check,” she said excitedly. “I haven’t had this much excitement in years, you know.

I think she might have matched my enthusiasm at that point. She took me to the back of the shop through the big wood door. There was a narrow staircase in the corner. We ascended the steps quickly and went through a door at the top. There were two doors at the landing.

“This is an apartment I rent out,” Marg said pointing to the first door. “This one leads to the attic.” She pulled out a set of keys from her pocket, fit them in the lock and opened the door to reveal a wooden staircase. I followed her up the ten or so steps into an open room that ran the length of the house. It was amazingly hot and I felt the heat sucking the breath out of me.

“Let me open this window,” she said as she threw open the back double-hung window. I felt the cooler air immediately as the hot air from the attic rushed out the window bringing the cooler air from below.

“Here we go. There’s not much left anymore.” She walked over to a shelf in the corner. There were about ten boxes of various sizes. I went to work immediately, my heart racing to think that I might actually find the dictionary.

“Look! Look! Look here!” Marg was almost jumping. “I found an old dictionary.”

I stumbled over to her. Yes, she was holding a very old dictionary and the binding was still in great shape. She handed it to me. 

“You look,” she said.

I opened the dictionary and immediately felt the weight. It was more weight than the four hundred or so pages, I warranted.

“Well, he was supposed to have hidden them in the binding,” I said.

“Let’s take it downstairs where it is cooler and we have better light.”

I quickly agreed and followed her down the stairs to the much cooler shop. We opened the book carefully on the counter. There on the back cover was a lining of thick black paper neatly glued in place. I could feel the round ridges of the coins under the paper.

“They are here!” I looked at Marg. We looked at each other in amazement. “I better take this to a specialist in case the dictionary is valuable, too.”

“Yes, yes. You are right. This is so exciting,” she said.

I looked at Marg, unsure of how to continue.

“What? No. Don’t think of it. The book is yours. It belongs in your family even though I think we might be distant relatives. I only ask that you come back and let me know what happens.”

I thanked Marg and left the shop with the bells jangling behind me. Yes, the coins were in the dictionary and yes, I had found another link in my lineage. How much were they worth? Well, let’s just say they could pay for a couple of houses and then some. I still have them tucked away safely for my kids. And yes, for those of you still wondering, I did tell Marg and I now visit her at least once a month at her little shop on Main Street.

2016 copyright. Use only with permission.