Tuesday, December 27, 2005

The Bluff Springs store

I think it was about 1978 that my father-in-law Tom Sutherland bought a country store outside of Austin. It was near his house. I drive by it several times a week. I don’t know why I thought about it when I drove by today. Maybe because the area seems quiet and empty during the holidays, so it’s easier to see and hear the previous inhabitants. My father-in-law’s store is no longer a store; somebody lives there now. It’s a small place--almost too small to be lived in.

For some reason Tom--my father-in-law--had imagined the store as a kind of office where he could sit behind the counter and drink scotch and smoke cigars while he set about translating the great Gaucho epic Martin Fierro--a project he never finished--undisturbed by wife and young children at all, and by customers but little. He had retired from his job as an English professor.

As soon as he got the store, however, he was overtaken by the desire to make money from it. One Saturday morning he had gone to a downtown flea market, where elderly people had little stalls overflowing with knick-knacks, garage sale junk, and he decided to buy an entire stall, all its goods, and move it out to his new business. He told this old lady he wished to buy her out. She said make an offer. They settled on a price, maybe a thousand dollars, I don’t remember now, and he was the new owner of a ton and a half of old flat-irons, bedsteads, Readers Digest Condensed Books, lamps, porcelain dolls, candlesticks, hair rollers, costume jewelry, stamp collections, boxes of polished rocks, coffee mugs with sayings on them, old gilt-framed faded prints of dramatic paintings of St. Mark's Piazza, ornate tins full of ornate buttons, stacks of glass saucers no two alike, several office swivel chairs with the vinyl cracked and degraded ill-smelling granulating spongy foam coming out, a selection of used Bibles, and much more.

Tom put all of it into the store that would fit alongside the troublesome cooler and the canned goods and the rack with potato chips and put the rest in the tack room of his stable where he kept a mare no one could ride and a pony which bit children.

He had a new family which consisted of seven people besides himself. He was living in a big chaotic house 200 yards across Onion creek from his store, with his second wife and her three children from another marriage and her three young children that he had sired in his old age, much to the dismay of six of his seven original daughters, my wife being the undismayed exception.

This second wife was the widow of one of Tom's drinking buddies, a colorful character himself. She was 30 years younger than Tom, and bore him three children pretty quick. It would be fair to say that their relationship was tumultuous. Disorderly. They both tended towards impulsiveness.

But Tom liked the disorder of a house with six children. He was not the sort to grow old gracefully. His house, and despite his original intentions, his store, were noisy and exciting, and all his life Tom liked noise and excitement, which is possibly why he never finished writing a book.

Both house and store were not so far from Austin's only volcano, a smooth and grassy basalt knoll called Pilot Knob about two hundred feet high, extinct since the late Cretaceous. Some pretty bad characters lived out there in those days. One was murdered a mile or so away from the Bluff Springs store and then beheaded by unknown assassins during the bucolic days of the homegrown dope trade in Austin before all of it but the manufacture and sale of methamphetamine was outsourced south of the border in an early wave of globalization. I think I mentioned this once in an earlier post. The murder victim owned some monkeys that got loose, and neighbors discovered the murder when they saw the monkeys playing with the decayed head.

This was an atmosphere my father-in-law must have felt to be inspiring for his translation project. But he being old and moreover tending to enjoy being distracted, I doubt if he got more than a chapter into it. I don’t think anyone knows where the manuscript went. It’s not like Martin Fierro has never been translated into English, though.

But to get back to his business, it failed for the simple reason that he had a catastrophic personality quirk for a person setting up in a retail trade. It was this: whenever anyone wanted to buy any of his used stuff, he felt that by virtue of the fact of someone wanting it, it must be valuable, and that, if it was valuable, the would-be buyer was trying to pull a fast one and get it too cheaply. It would be best, therefore, to hold onto it.

So he always refused to sell things that people wanted to buy. Except for things like potato chips and candy and drinks the cooler did not quite keep cool enough. Not only did this no-I-won’t-sell-it-to-you trait ruin his career as a storekeeper, it ruined at least two giant garage sales my wife and two of his other daughters arranged to save him from being overwhelmed in his own house by stuff he accumulated and never let go of.

It was very paradoxical. My wife observed it at the garage sales. The higher the offers went, the more adamant he became in rejecting offers to purchase. My wife and her sisters were almost in tears with rage when he refused an offer of maybe a hundred dollars—this was many years ago—for two non-running rusting automobiles, surrounded by weeds, in his back yard. His daughters did manage to sell off a small amount of household junk without his noticing while he was occupied bargaining with some of the more persistent (and perplexed) would-be buyers of other items.

But all-in-all the garage sales were failures, like his store. Failures from an economic standpoint, that is. From his point of view, which I can understand better now, none of it was probably a failure at all, even though his business was finally closed down for good by the health department because of the cooler. As far as I could tell he enjoyed every minute of it.

Sometimes I think of knocking on the guy's door who lives there now and telling him a little of the history of the place. And then I think, "nah." So here it is in my blog instead.

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