Hap Alexander: Bicycles and a wood stove layaway

Published 12:00 am Friday, October 9, 2009

I can’t remember not having a job, since I was about 13 or 14 years old.
Once I dressed as a clown for the grand opening of the Direct Service Station on West Innes Street and made $36 for two days work. It was the most money that I had ever seen at one time.
I worked at Carolina Music on Fisher Street, but I never went home with any money…. just 45 rpm records.
I started my fry cook career at Burger Chef at 15, but one of my most memorable early jobs was at Bernhardt’s Hardware Store on North Main Street. I was 14 and it was Christmas time.
In those days, folks would start buying their Christmas presents as early as July, paying a little along until everything was paid for, just in time to go under the tree. Mr. Bernhardt called this process “lay-away.” Well, all of those presents were stored on the second floor of the store. What I remember most were the bicycles. The hardware store had shiney new bikes lined all up and down the sidewalk, and we sold a lot of them ó 500 one Christmas. Whenever someone would come in to pay off their layaway, the lady at the cash register would call upstairs to me on the intercom with the tag number. The bicycles were not assembled until the call came up that the folks were there to pick up their kid’s bike.
We put together a lot of bicycles that Christmas and took them down on that old freight elevator in the back of the store. I believe that the elevator is still there and working.
Christmas at the hardware store was something really special, because the windows were decorated with all sorts of colorful, moving and musical displays. Folks would walk the streets in the evenings, just window shopping, with the kids pointing out everything they wanted for Christmas. It’s October, and I know that Mr. Bernhardt will begin setting up his window displays soon.
On Tuesday, I had the pleasure of having lunch in the Salisbury City Council Chambers for the Mayor’s Spirit Luncheon. It’s a joint venture to celebrate the city’s racial diversify and unity and is put on by the Covenant Community Connection, the mayor and City Council. The guest of honor was Paul Bernhardt, my old boss from the hardware store. As the mayor of Salisbury during really challenging times in the late ’60s, he made some profound decisions that helped shape Salisbury’s future. At 85 years old, Mr Bernhardt still goes to work at the store every day! When I greeted him, the first thing he brought up was my working for him 46 years ago.
Later in the afternoon, after the luncheon, I went by the store to visit with Mr. Bernhardt. We were in his office going down memory lane about some of the challenges he and my father and so many others faced and overcame, when a customer came in expressing an interest in a wood stove which was for sale in the store. He wanted to give the stove to his elderly father as a gift. After some negotiating, they agreed on a price, but Mr. Bernhardt didn’t give up much. He’s still as sharp as a tack. The man wanted to pay some on the stove then and pick it up later, when his brother could help with his truck. I imagine that stove is up on the second floor on lay-away.
It’s been more than 40 years since Paul Leek Bernhardt was elected mayor of Salisbury, and we celebrated his contributions to the people of the city on Tuesday. I looked around the room during the luncheon trying to see who might be the one who will be celebrated 40 years from now. Who has the work ethic of Paul Bernhardt? Who will speak up? Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I looked at all of the diversity in that room trying to figure out who in there will stand out over the next 40 years.
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Hap Alexander, who grew up in Salisbury and served on Salisbury City Council, lives in Topsail Beach.