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A Day's Work

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The Commonspace

Oct 2003 / a day's work :: email this story to a friend

A Life in Junk
By Kristen Naiman

Of the dozen or so handwritten signs that hang in the basement of Nick Nacks and More on East Meramec Avenue, my eye went directly to the one that read, "'Please' put cigarette buts in Ash Tray not in Floor." Perhaps I was drawn to the sign because I smoke, though out of respect or possibly habit, I couldn't bring myself to light up as I wound my way through the aisles of bric-a-brac, housewares, hardwares, books and clothing. It is never stated directly that it's permissible to smoke while perusing the tidy, if saturated, second-hand store, nor does there seem to be any urgency on the part of the septuagenarian proprietors, Darlene and Loretta, to empty the full ashtrays that punctuate the bargain table offerings. These types of niceties are beside the point at Nick Nacks as is our cultural peckishness about smoking, which goes unnoticed or at least ignored in favor of a more libertarian approach to retail management. In the bi-level double storefront where ceramic spoon rests go for 50 and miniature dioramas constructed from seashells are $3.00 the sales ethic is realpolitik.

When I stopped by on a recent Tuesday afternoon Darlene was sitting in the back room eating lunch. Loretta's daughter-in-law, Vicky, manned the check out counter. Vicky was watching an old TV that sat next to a folding banquet table covered in costume jewelry, dubbed self-help videos, errant linens, silk flowers and empty La Vosqienne bon bon tins. The merchandise seemed to be closing in around the TV as though the boundary between profession and pastime was being purposely blurred. The fall sale was in full swing. No one noticed me enter the store until I reached the back of the main room. Vicky looked up from the TV, nodded a demure but warm hello and then returned her attention to the local news, inviting me to deduce all I needed to know from the multiple signs that directed the rules of the sale. "Storewide 50% off." "Everything over 50¢." "If you or your kid breaks it you buy it."

I took several runs through the warrens of industrial shelving, makeshift dividers and old picnic tables. The volume of merchandise nags you to dig deeper; it is impossible to see everything, and the sheer scope of the hunt assures you that a treasure hovers just beyond some corner. Loretta followed a few customers downstairs, cigarette dangling, to show them a lamp. She stood squarely in front of a printed poster, which hung from the ceiling at chest level. "Don't Straighten Our Mess ... You'll Foul The System."

Back upstairs more customers had materialized. Darlene greeted them by softly signing out "How are you, Josephine?" to the tune of a slow lyric ballad. Josephine smiled and unselfconsciously stuck her head behind the counter to peer at the plethora of taped receipts and notations that wallpapered the inside of the desk. "I owe you, don't I?" Darlene responded with a sly smile as she pretended to search for the IOU by gliding her finger across the old reminders. Josephine located it first, though by that time the two women had begun chatting. The number scrawled on the sheet was $1.08. After a run down of the weather, the day's lunch and an update on the progress of the sale — Darlene reported that it was "movin' on" — Josephine made her way towards the back alley entrance to the second store front and disappeared. It seemed the bill would remain, there was no reason for it not to. Josephine, by all indicators, would be back the next day.

Nick Nacks and More is a ten-year old family endeavor. It is run by Darlene and Loretta, who are sisters, though it seems, at least literally, to be the creation of its namesake, Nick, who is Darlene's husband and the man responsible for keeping up the stock through his near constant estate sale buying. He has a keen eye for collections of any type — a display case crammed full of salt and pepper shakers of every conceivable shape and material; a suspiciously large number of kitchen items, including a bread box and coffee mugs bearing a cow print motif; and a wide variety of paintings, wall hangings and statuettes that are all in some way renderings of owls. One customer picked up a plastic cookie jar in the shape of a shark, which, to her delight, played a computerized rendition of the "Jaws" theme when she opened it. The merchandise is for the most part — but not exclusively — displayed by grouping, which creates the feeling of methodical accumulation, though Darlene concedes that most of the collections, like the assortment of etched fiftieth wedding anniversary tokens, (which include an ashtray, tea cup, creamer and platter), were acquired in single buying trips. When I asked if she was responsible for choosing the merchandise she stared at me a skeptically, looked around her store and replied, " No honey, where would I get the time?"

Antiques, Darlene's catchall term, does little justice to the nature of the business, which was originally a side project for the two sisters. They started out selling at flea markets on the weekends "just for fun." It's clear from the sheer breadth of stuff that the hobby hovers somewhere closer to passion, though Darlene's attitude towards the project is matter-of-fact, as if the store were the logical application of a family talent for finding the worth in other people's objet trouvé. The sisters were introduced to Dutchtown, the neighborhood where their shop now resides, just over ten years ago, when the manual labor involved in loading, unloading and setting up stalls at flea markets became too much. Their friends Wanda and Shirley, who had an antique booth available in the now defunct Alexander's just across the street, offered them a permanent home on Meremac at a time when it was locally referred to as Junk Row. Darlene and Loretta set up a shop of their own when the space they currently occupy was vacated ten years ago by a dime store and, against the turning tide of the neighborhood, have remained there ever since. At one point they occupied three storefronts, which housed their expansive collection, though times have gotten tougher. Now, flanked on both sides and ruptured in the middle by empty storefronts, Nick Nacks is just eking by.

Meramec Avenue south of Chippewa and east of Grand has a ghost-town kind of feel, though what remains is well worth checking out. Nick Nacks' closest neighbor is a Las Vegas-style wedding chapel, "Simply Beautiful," which requires a reservation but boasts a twenty-four hour turnaround time. A few shops down in the other direction is Tower Grove Antiques, which is currently holding a 30% off sale on all books, and whose prices are negotiable. Schaefer's Hobby Shop used to be down the street, though it recently closed its doors in favor of the ostensibly more trafficked Gravois Road. The linchpin of the area seems to be the Feasting Fox Restaurant, whose owners are also Nick Nacks' landlord. Of the Feasting Fox, Darlene said, "Ya can't beat em," and smacked her lips conclusively. When I asked Darlene about the shifting fortunes of the neighborhood she gave me a befuddled look, admitted that she was perplexed by the rapid slowing of business in the past year and chalked it up to the dwindling economy. She worries about the future of her business though you'd never know it from her demeanor, which is restrained at first but welcoming, very much the small town proprietress whose reserve is less a function of unfriendliness than of familiarity.

Nick Nacks' clientele is fiercely loyal if not robust. Darlene reports that they have one "gal" who regularly drives "all the way from Kentucky." On a recent afternoon Mary Carter and Ralph Balcom, who live near by, returned for the third time after discovering Nick Nacks a few weeks ago. Initially it was the sale sign that drew them in though they admit they're now hooked. The day I met them they emerged from the shop with a barbecue pit, a radio, shot glasses for Ms. Carter's collection, an electric knife, a red, white and blue flag umbrella and a "Seal-a-Meal Vac Pac." When I asked about the Seal-a-Meal, Ms. Carter explained it was a device for packaging food. It goes for $149.00 at Sears. She paid $1.50 with her sale discount. The total for all their items came to $14 and she swore she would be back: "Oh, yeah. They got the best thing going, better prices than the Salvation Army even without the sale, and I mean, those ladies are real nice."

Darlene and Loretta bear a strong physical resemblance, though it is their neat and unique sense of style that marks them as undoubtedly related. On the day I was there Darlene was wearing a red shirt with black clovers, which was cinched at the waist by a gold slinky belt over black shorts, white tube socks and black sneakers. She had tacked a butterfly brooch and a small angel pin onto the placket. Loretta wore a similar Henley-style blouse, though it had a purple and aqua pattern. A customer commented that Darlene looked thin. She wryly explained that the cause was her recent shift in weight from 110 to 108 pounds. She has been watching what she eats at the behest of her doctor, who recently diagnosed her with diabetes. She is thin, as is Loretta, but more than that they're both sturdy. They perform the tasks of the shop owner interchangeably, though they possess separate talents. Loretta chats and rings up the totals, while Darlene nudges her along by shouting out the prices. There is a warm bickering that goes on between them, casting the shadow of a perpetual family dinner over the store.

Though I did not smoke, I did make some purchases during my initial visit to Nick Nacks and More. The grand total for a set of eight yellow nut bowls, a carved Moroccan hot plate, and a blown glass mustard dish with a spoon and a double-headed brass desk lamp came to $8.08, with the sale discount. As Loretta rang me up she called out each item to Darlene. Darlene asked if it was "for the little girl," which meant me. Loretta calculated my purchases on an old adding machine while Darlene, already ahead of her sister, made change of a ten in her head. Loretta seemed pleased that I had found some things I liked and joked with a man waiting to pay that he could have the whole place and everything in it for $40,000. Darlene wrapped each of my items carefully in old newspaper, taking her time and warning me to "mind the glass spoon." Loretta and the man bantered on. He shot back that it was going to take all weekend for Darlene to update the inventory books after he'd "got done payin'." I slid out the door much as I had entered and clutched my finds, admiring the obvious joy they got from small increments.

Kristen Naiman is a writer who recently relocated to St. Louis from New York; she plans to get to know our town through intensive retail study.


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