At Western Auto, everything sparkled, and the air smelled pungently of new rubber tires, the popular house brand, G T Radial. The store on Market Street was part of a chain created in 1909 in Kansas City, Missouri, by a man named George Pepperdine. A born entrepreneur, he staked his future on the rise of the automobile, investing five dollars in what would become an iconic success in American retail, selling parts and supplies to a vehicle-hungry nation. At one point, Western Auto’s coast-to-coast network included twelve hundred company-owned locations in big cities and over four thousand small-town franchise stores. My manager was probably a franchiser. The associated ownership program was the first of its kind.
At the time, I didn’t know any of that, or the fact that George Pepperdine had gone on to found Pepperdine University out in California, though if I had, I’d have been proud. I did know that customers liked the quality of the store brands—Trutone electronics, ToughOne batteries, Citation appliances, and Wizard tools. My family had those things at home, along with sporting goods, toys, and household supplies from that very store.
As Christmas neared, sales soared. The big seller was the Western Flyer bicycle. During my shifts, several hours in the afternoon and all day on Saturday, customers swarmed in and bought baseball gloves, tennis rackets, fishing rods, ice skates, sleeping bags, and lunchboxes. Almost anything from Western Auto could be wrapped and put under the tree: an oven mitt, a charcoal grill, a hair cutting kit. All the items were sturdy and made to last. If a shopper was undecided, I could suggest a croquet set, a volley ball, or a Thermos, and make a sale.
As the items in the display window disappeared, I helped Adrian arrange scooters and sleds in the empty spaces. We filled wagons with Lionel trains, Tonka trucks, Matchbox cars, Magic 8 Balls, and cans of Play-Doh. Tree-shaped air fresheners sold by the handful. A Junior Pool Table sold before Adrian could finish setting it up. There was always a demand for spark plugs, car wax, tire chains, and windshield wiper blades.
The cash register bing ed and hummed. I could have worked it in my sleep.
Some of these customers were new faces, strangers in town—tourists with leisure time and money to spend, eating in restaurants and snapping up expensive items that would have been a splurge for the locals. They crowed over the mountain views and the picturesque business district and promised to come back in the summer for canoe trips on the Susquehanna River, which ran broad and blue along the eastern side of town.
Mama herself had brought these people to Selinsgrove. She had accomplished something the Chamber of Commerce had only dreamed of—national publicity—and she’d done it with her typewriter. McCall’s, a famous magazine, had published an article she’d written about downtown’s “White Christmas” decorating theme, which had become an annual tradition. Teenagers did the work. Those who volunteered were given a half-day off from school to transform the plain town center into a wonderland. They draped evergreen boughs around the clock in front of Snyder County Bank, set up electric candles in the windows of stores, offices, cafés, barber shops, and beauty parlors, and festooned the doorways with swags of balsam fir. They slipped wooden covers, painted like lollipops, over the parking meters.
Mama described all of that in her article.
Much as I wanted to be among those merry participants climbing ladders and twining greenery, I was too shy to volunteer, but I rode the crest of Mama’s achievement. The voice of mainstream society, McCall’s reached eight million readers. Its focuses were homemaking, lifestyle, and fashion, with recipes and celebrity profiles, but there were also features about careers and education, and strong works of fiction. The readership was overwhelmingly female. The editors and advertisers knew that to reach a woman was to reach a family.
Western Auto’s manager was among the many merchants who benefitted. Undoubtedly, he knew about the article and may even have hired me because of it. Everybody, it seemed, was grateful. Mama was delighted but modest. Eight million readers! On Selinsgrove’s narrow streets, people greeted her, and I was thrilled. She was a star, but she was still herself, and a wife and mother first. That was expected then, and she and my father, too, believed it was best. I wanted her to write more and to keep that hat in the ring.
Only years later, when my sisters and I were grown and out of the house, did she write as much as she wanted, letters to us, of course, but also stories, poems, and hundreds of articles, many about antiques, including a weekly column for the Culpeper, Virginia, Culpeper Star-Exponent once she and Daddy moved back to Virginia. All her life, she would be glad she’d brought recognition to Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, where she’d settled when she was over forty, where the winters were so cold they took her breath away.
. . .
One night, the whirlwind of shoppers abruptly vanished, leaving the store empty. Adrian seized a football, jogged backwards up the aisle, and sang out, “Here, catch.”
I leaped and snared the ball. Adrian raised his arms, and I wound up and hurled it.
“Terry Bradshaw!” he yelled.
Because Kenny was a Steelers fan, I knew who that was. Back and forth, we lobbed and chucked, throwing hard. It was fun. When Adrian was in motion, the twist in his neck didn’t show. He turned around, bent over, and threw from between his legs. I sure wouldn’t tell Mama about that. My next pass clipped a Hasbro Inchworm.
Adrian inspected it. “No harm done.”
The door opened, and a young couple and a toddler bounced in on a wintry gust. Whistling, Adrian stowed the ball and strolled toward the front. Our game hadn’t been seen, but it was a close call. Adrian winked at me.
The child ran over to a tricycle.
“Can he test it out?” the father asked.
Behind him, Adrian winked again. I decided not to wear tight sweaters to work anymore.
I beamed at the parents. “Sure he can.”
• • •
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CARY HOLLADAY’s awards include an O. Henry Prize and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. Brides in the Sky: Stories and a Novella (Ohio UP / Swallow Press 2019) is her eighth volume of fiction. A native of Virginia, she teaches creative writing at the University of Memphis.