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Country Store, Pass By

The icy hand

The icy hand

Renton Western Wear has closed.

An era's skeleton

An era’s skeleton

I lived in Renton, the next city down from Seattle, from 2004 to 2010. It’s greatest claim to fame is the Boeing 737 plant at the north end of town, the place where every 737 has come from. Established from farms as a pleasant hamlet of little wood homes, Renton is an archetype for American post-war life. The center gradually drained away as big box retail and car lots sucked the air out of the old downtown, and every lifeway the downtown model allowed to flourish. Renton is struggling to have a renaissance: the city and county have placed a bus transit center in the middle of town, and there are many restaurants and assorted low-fi stores, mostly junk shops and tattoo parlors, with a few bars and comic book store thrown in. I passed Renton Western Wear innumerable times on the painfully wasteful short drive from my home on the hill to the transit center (a disgustingly short drive but far too long to walk). Afternoons getting off the bus, I would dally sometimes in the old downtown, matching fuzzy memories of Maysville, Kentucky’s similar little downtown, its little shops and nose-in parking spots bustling in the early 1970s. Almost forty years later, I walked past and looked in the windows of Renton Western Wear on the way somewhere else. I never went in.

Storing nothing

Storing nothing

I’ll admit with no shame the store was not my type: it would have actively repulsed me as a kid and young adult. As an adult, to go inside and peruse it would have invited an unmalicious schadenfreude as I looked at the pearl button shirts, the boots, all the accouterments of the country life. In high school, in North Texas in the Eighties, the pejorative was roper. We, which I think means a few others who felt themselves superior or chosen or somehow marked for the greatness our test scores indicated, had no interest in giant belt buckles or cowboy boots or Stetson hats. It had no relevance to me, wherever I was going, the getup and the dreams of those who wore it, which I remember involving horses and “ranches”. Of course, that is a while ago. Memory shifts and blurs.

I have no animosity toward country people now, though when around them it is clear we live in different worlds. Their politics and model of the world often baffle me, and I wish both were more sophisticated. I don’t dislike horses, though they seem like especially expensive dogs, and pickup trucks have their place. It took me a moment to remember the word roper. I can’t have used it for over twenty years.

Street view, pre Google

Street view, pre Google

I noticed the store had giant CLOSING signs plastered over the windows a few months ago. Stopping and looking registered for a moment, but not deeply enough to be remembered on the way home. Now that the place is closed and empty I wonder what I would have found. The button-up shirts with those patterns and the metal-rimmed pearl buttons, leather belts and implements of every type, and a cornucopia of jeans–all part of the water I swam in when younger, but water for others. I have only the fuzziest knowledge of these things.

This first June Saturday I am determined to get a haircut, one both decent and cheap. Renton’s old downtown features two barbershops, though only one is a true barbershop, the green glass columns of BARBERCIDE holding skeletons of combs. The other–mine–is barebones and unrehabilitated, single pane glass and pipes hanging from the ceiling, the once-beautiful brass doorknob painted over and the door sticking in the jamb. It’s a diner for haircuts. Both are owned and run by Vietnamese women, sisters maybe: barber sisters to honor the Sisters Trung. They do a brisk business, between the surviving specialty bike shop and the haute cuisine bakery and cafe that never had a chance, the space still FOR LEASE years later. Men bring their male kids here; women bring their male kids and watch. $10 gets a man a haircut, $8 if it’s your first time.

I don’t recognize the older woman that seats me, peering over her glasses secured with a fine gold chain. She says in a thick Vietnamese accent: been long time to see you. I’m startled. The other women smile their dark-eyed smiles. An how you like your hair cut? The work is fast and perfect. I feel free, as if shorn of a helmet. The tiny little desk with the pocket calculator credit card machine hums out a slip; I add two bucks. Thank you very much. Hope to see you more often.  A younger woman with a perfect waterfall of hair smiles at the door as she sweeps. Have a good day. 

Buoyed by friendliness, I walk down the half-sunny street, pickup trucks with big mufflers rumbling down the one-way two-lane. It isn’t busy. I cross under lights held by poles painted dozens of times since the Fifties, paint bulging over bubbles of rust. Then I face the empty store.



Ranch gate

Ranch gate

Echoes of what the store was shine out from the otherwise indistinguishable fixtures. It was from a time when there were more farms closer, when a trip to Renton was the event of the week. Renton had two theatres back then, no doubt showing a newsreel and a cartoon before the Saturday Roy Rodgers feature. In the Sixties kids and grownups alike thrilled to Gunsmoke and Bonanza, ran around in backyards in cowboy getup chasing the schmuck kids stuck with the Indian role. But that was the beginning of the end. Now we have the internet, and those interested can have their wares drop-shipped from China.

Some time ago I was in the Fort Worth Stockyards. Inside a tack store neat with leather smell, a man had saddles on display, fine things with inlay and beads and tassles–not overdone, but stately, as if described by Larry McMurtry. He was dusting them. I remember looking at one demure price tag: as much as a middling used car. It was a slow day, and the old man with hands as wrinkled as a peeled orange struck up a soft conversation. Oh, yes. Tough to convince folks to go with me. You know, you can get a saddle just like this for a tenth the price. Custom made in China. They ship it right to your house. He wiped his work with a cloth. Hell, you’d be a fool not to. 

Local commentors suggest the loss of an era, the decline of Western civilization (“Western’ available to multiple interpretations), today’s kids doomed to narcissism and menial jobs.  Maybe. Everything is changing and always has been. Smokey and the Bandit is an old movie now, that harmless, stupid fun replaced with the Tea Party and a willful ignorance turned cruel. But not everywhere.

I bet Texas still has stores like this, out in the little country towns. People go there as they do with church. It is a rock to stand on.


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