At the corner of Baptist Valley and Adria Road sat a place that was magical on many levels, Buddy’s Music & Variety Store, in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Buddy Hyman was the proprietor, along with his wife Louise. Buddy ran the music side of things and smoked cigars while he repaired musical instruments and picked and played guitar in his spare time in the shop, trying to sell his goods to those who came in to check them out. Louise sold fabric and sewing goods on the other half of the store, while smoking Virginia Slims. The fabric store slant interested me some, but not to a large extent, as I was honestly not very talented with a needle and thread. What I was talented with, however, was their gumball machine at the checkout counter. For five cents, you got three gumballs. I loved gumballs. Their gumball machine was special, though. If you got a speckled gumball, you got money for it. A red-speckled gumball was worth a nickel; a blue-speckled gumball was worth a dime; and if you could get a green-speckled gumball out of the machine, it was worth a whole quarter. I never saved the money when I won big, despite Louise’s question to me, “Will you save it today, or put it back in?” 

Buddy would always cheer me on, “Put it back in!” 

Louise would playfully slap him on the back and tell me that it was my choice to make. But almost always, I put the money right back into the gumball machine, looking for the next speckled gumball, all of which had to be returned to them, so they could get their money back from the vendor who stocked the gumball machine, of course. I loved that gumball machine, and since the store was two doors over from Mamaw and Papaw’s doublewide, I started hanging out there all the time. 

In retrospect, Louise probably couldn’t get much done with me hanging around all afternoon, every afternoon. So, she took it upon herself to invest in me the way I invested in that gumball machine. She and Buddy lived in the back rooms of the Music & Variety store, which made it seem even more magical to me. She had two big oak rockers on the fabric side of the store and asked me to sit down with her one day. She asked me what grade I was in. I told her fourth. She asked if I liked to read. “Oh, yes, ma’am.”

“So do I,” she told me. “I love Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Have you ever read them?”

“No, ma’am, but I’ve read Cherry Ames and the Boxcar Children.”

She nodded her head. “Fine series. I’ve enjoyed those, myself. Why don’t you come back here with me to our living room? I’ll show you my bookshelves.”

It was like heaven opened up to me when she took me behind the curtain that closed off their living quarters from the store itself. There were bookshelves everywhere, filled with every book imaginable. She started me out on Nancy Drew, and I made my way through several before asking to read some of the Hardy Boys, which I had seen on television, and really enjoyed. She would leave me back there every afternoon with her books while she and Buddy conducted their business, just reading away, solving mysteries with my new friends, building worlds and relationships with these extraordinary new people who didn’t exist in our neighborhood.

Inevitably, Papaw would come looking for me, saying, “Louise, let me get her out of here and out of your hair! She shouldn’t come over here every day bothering you like this. It can’t be good for business, having a kid in here talking away to everyone all the time.”

Louise would smile and point behind the curtain, where I was lost in another world, not even aware of his presence until she told me later that he’d been over to check on me. “Arthur, you’ve got a reader in there. As long as you put a book in her hands, she’ll sit still for hours, lost in whatever she’s reading. She’s good company for me. My grandkids all live off from here, so I get to share with Chrissie what I can’t share with them every day. She’s smart, too. And she loves to write poetry. She shares her poetry with me every day. Pretty good at it, too.”

Papaw nodded and said, “As long as you’re sure she’s not in the way.”

I started going to the Music & Variety Store straight from the bus in the afternoons, bypassing going to my grandparents’ house altogether. The sooner I could start reading, the happier I was. And if I had a nickel, I still stopped at the gumball machine – it was the foundation for my later intrigue with slot machines, I know. I still had a knack for finding speckled gumballs, picking up a nickel, dime, or quarter here or there. But now I moved on after a spin or two, because there were books to be read in the back. There was a notebook and a pencil and poetry to be written, then to be read to my friend, and feedback to be received. There was a connection made there in that shop that hadn’t yet been made elsewhere on such a personal level. I had a library card, but this was less formal. This was some sort of personal acquisition, which was different from the public library, and she talked with me about each and every title. This was readers advisory supreme! But this was sharing reading and characters with a friend. A friend who saw a spark in me, who nourished something in me that my family didn’t understand at all. What easily could have been seen as a nuisance, Louise turned into a life-altering adventure behind the curtains in the backrooms of the shop. I hung out there for years and enjoyed watching her paint while I read and wrote, never getting the hang of sewing, but never feeling pressured to do so. I sat there reading, writing, and listening to her and Buddy play music, smelling the cigarette and cigar smoke commingling in the close confines of the shop, enjoying my afternoon reality, apart from anything else in life.