Williams column: W.T. Grant Co.
By Mack Williams
For the Salisbury Post
As previously mentioned, when I was growing up , my father (Bernard Williams) worked third shift at the Spencer yard office for Southern Railway, and my mother (Lorraine Williams) worked first shift at W.T.Grant Company on South Main. Woolworths, of equal “five and dime” fame, was located next door to Grants, and I sometimes heard it referred to as “the Woolworth,” just as in the film “O Brother, Where Art Thou;” however, I recall no instance of W.T. Grant Co. ever being referred to as “the Grants,” just “Grants.” The following are some of my memories of my mother’s old workplace:
Christmas Toys: Many of my toys came from Grants, and some had the “Grantcrest” label. Year-round purchased toys and those from Santa sometimes shared that label, something which I didn’t pick up on then, but perhaps I desired not to. I would browse Grants’ toy section and give my parents Christmas hints for toys from them, and toys from Santa, both of which sometimes overlapped.
To this day, I still have my mother’s old set of “Grantcrest China,” the “Grantcrest” label on the bottom of each piece. My last remembered, most frequent utilitarian application of something bearing the Grants label was my underwear at Appalachian in the fall of 1969, proving that in addition to underwear’s artistic aspirations (or rather, someone’s artistic aspirations for underwear on its behalf), it can also serve as a tab for a place in memory
Catherine’s Hot Dogs: Mrs. Catherine Swicegood managed Grants’ cafeteria and made the most wonderful hot dogs, the likes of which I have not tasted since. The brand of franks was exceptional ( I can still see them rotating slowly, as they cooked), the slaw was of thin strands, not chopped, and the chilli was unique. It was said that Catherine kept her chilli recipe a secret. I don’t know whether or not she is still in the world ( I learned back in 2010 not to make further assumptions along this line, when I mistakenly killed off Charlie Ritchie, but it was only an accident, and only in print); however, if Catherine or one of her descendants is reading this, and has the recipe, please send a copy to “Mack Williams c/o The Salisbury Post” ( I don’t care if it may be conflict of interest, I want to taste that chilli again while I am still in the world!).
Beatle Wig: In 1964 at age 13, I purchased a Beatle Wig from Grants in order to look more “British.” I think that it got thrown out years later, as its physical appearance had degenerated to the extent, that a chance, unexpected, peripheral sighting of it would have inspired someone to quickly engage the services of a professional exterminator ( or at least, set a trap themselves).
Mr. and Mrs. Blackmer: I remember my mother telling me of the times she waited on Sidney Blackmer and his wife, Suzanne at W. T. Grants. She told me that Mr. Blackmer was always the perfect gentleman, but that Mrs. Blackmer could be “somewhat difficult” with the store’s staff, and upon occasion at Grants, “somewhat difficult” with Mr. Blackmer as well.
“No One Hears You Knocking, and You Can’t Come In:” One day, about age five or so, I had to use the restroom at Grants, so my mother showed me the staff facilities in the employees’ lounge. Being somewhat mischievous, I crawled under all of the stalls and latched their doors from within, a feat which I was soon called upon to perform in reverse.
My Mother’s Work Friends: Two of my mother’s best work friends at Grants were Mrs. Ruth Koontz and Mrs. Lib McCullough. I have no difficulty remembering either of these names. Although the repetitive vowel sound in Ruth Koontz’s name, and the aliterative repetition of the letter “l” in Lib McCullough’s name could both serve as “tricks of recall,” in neither case is that necessary. My pleasant store encounters with them, as well as my mother’s fond speaking of her work friends in those years, were all that was needed to place them permanently within my memory.
Al Lisle: Grants often rotated its store managers. The manager whom I most remember is Mr. Al Lisle. He was of French-Canadian descent and always had the most interesting conversation on national events, the world, philosophy, and in retrospect, he was a great “story-weaver.” He told me that he had self-diagnosed a condition that was going to certainly lead to his death in a comparatively short time ( I think he also told the staff this, but maybe it was only shared with me). Mr. Lisle said that he had a slow, upwardly advancing pain in one leg which he knew to be a blood clot. He stated, with the calmest of countenance, that nothing could be done, and that when the clot eventually reached his heart, or one of his lungs, he would die. From time to time, he kept me informed of the upward progression of his clot, sometimes pointing to its newest location, as I became increasingly apprehensive about his health. He was still alive a few years later when transferred to another store in the Grants chain. Mr Lisle was fond of jokes, and could evidently hold a straight face for quite a while if the nature of the joke called for it. As far as I recall, the next manager was Mr. Guess, who didn’t seem to have very much to say at all ( but perhaps, this was only due to comparison with Mr. Lisle).
My Theft from W.T. Grants: One afternoon, (about age 5) when my father and I stopped by Grants to pick my mother up from work, I picked up a little plastic toy soldier and put it in my pocket. My father saw me playing with it in the car on the way home, and asked me about it. I admitted to its theft, but the store’s doors were already locked for the night. When we arrived home, my father gave me one of the worst whippings of my life. I sensed the feeling from him that stealing was bad in itself, but theft from one of the sources of the family’s livelihood was something even worse. I returned the little soldier the following day.
Fire in the Employees’ Lounge: One time, there was a fire in the ceiling of Grants’ employees’ lounge. Having visited there many times before, the sight of the ceiling, following the fire, was shocking. It was in repair, but in the meantime, the exposed wires and ventilation ducts had the frightening appearance of arteries and bones exposed in some type of horrific accident.
Water Fountain: One day, as a young child, I made my way toward a water fountain at the back of the store. One of the employees quickly stopped me and pointed me toward another fountain directly across the way. I wondered at the time, if the original fountain of my choosing had perhaps gone dry, or if some chemical had poisoned its water. I was later to learn that it was that particular employee’s heart which had evidently dried up in certain areas, and whose mind had apparently been poisoned by certain ideas.
Lingering “Sign:” The W. T. Grant Co. chain later went out of business and my mother’s old workplace became a furniture store. The sign out front was removed, but for some years, I could still make out its letters due to the tracing of the original letters onto the brick by the cumulative, built-up grime from traffic exhaust on South Main Street.” That addition of the words “onto the brick” tells the reader exactly what sort of surface it was upon which those grimy letters were later seen. In Rome, the ancient monuments are dealt with harshly by such exhaust “eating into” the marble, making the outer portions crumble, then exposing fresh layers underneath to further pollution and crumbling. In the old store’s case, car exhaust was kind of a short-term positive force, making a sort of temporary memorial signage to what had once been there, in the form of faint, shadowy letters, still reading: “W. T. Grant Co.”