When you’re a teen in a small town, there isn’t a whole lot to do with your time, so you do a lot of driving. When you do a lot of driving, you do a lot of thinking. And when you do a lot of thinking, you think about getting out.
You feel guilty about it when you do. Somehow its always yours. You tend to drift back because its yours. But this gets harder to do with time and responsibility. Your visits become less-and-less frequent until you eventually move on without the town. Then the town moves on without you. You know when it does. You pack up the family and take the same route you always have. You tell them the same stories and make the same pit stops. You arrive eager, pointing out every landmark, and torturing them with the “way things used to be”.
Then you reach Main Street and realize you don’t know anyone.
You don’t know the businesses either. You may recognize the building or name, but you don’t really know them. Small town businesses aren’t branded and crammed into boxes like their big city counterparts. They are the reflections of the people that own them. That is what makes them special. But people move out and move on. They change their minds. They get divorced. They sell out. They fall on hard times.
Its an eerie feeling…to be haunted by places you used to haunt.
My family owned a store on such a street – “Viau’s Clothing” – next to the Kingston Theater in Cheboygan, Michigan. Dad owned, operated, and was a tailor. My Grandfather did the same. My Great Grandfather before that. I spent my entire childhood in that store. I vacuumed and wiped the racks and mirrors for baseball cards and comic book money. I watched Star Trek on an old black and white TV, while they hemmed pants. I stitched little pouches out of the scraps piled up beneath the ironing counter. Sometimes, when fresh inventory would come in, I’d nail the boxes together with roofing nails and turn the entire back of the store into a fortress. Grandpa loved that one, especially when I didn’t pick up the nails. I got my hair cut the same way by Larry Roberts (aka “Larry the Barber”) at the barber shop a few doors down. I watched hundreds of matinees at the Kingston and bought candy at Rivertown Cargo across the street.
I had coffee with Dad and Grandpa at Kretchman’s. They alternated, which meant walking there several times a day for a doughnut and a chance to sit at the counter like an adult. I learned a lot about being a man at that coffee shop: how to harass your friends for no particular reason, how to ease drop a conversation and tell someone what “actually happened”, and how to agree on how bad the weather was when there was nothing else to agree on.
When I wasn’t actually in Viau’s, I was calling it. The store had three phones located in strategic places and you never knew who was going to answer. I used to dial the number and bet on who would pick up. Sometimes you got Dad; sometimes Grandpa; sometimes Grandma; and sometimes you got a combination. Grandpa was my favorite. He always answered the phone the same way with the same mellow tone: “Good afternoon Viau’s. John speaking.” It never changed. When it was one of us kids he’d say, “juuuuuust a minute,” mutter something under his breath, put the phone down on the counter, and yell at Dad through the service window. It didn’t matter where he was. The reply was equally hilarious: “WHAT? What do they want NOW?” No one on this earth could rant, rave, and carry on like my Dad and Grandfather. And they didn’t care who was around to hear it. Not that it would’ve mattered because the customers expected it.
Leaving for college was difficult. I loved life in Grand Rapids, but my compass still pointed North. I missed my family and my friends. They became my reasons for the trip when the independence of a college campus begged me to stay. I loved coming home more than anything in the world, especially during Winter break. I loved the drive – even in the nastiest of holiday blizzards – and the thought of Mom’s beef stew on the stove. I loved spending Christmas Eve with two sets of family and waving to old friends at midnight mass afterward. I loved the annual Christmas Day Monopoly games with my brothers and the brawls that followed. And I loved that damn store.
There was something about Viau’s on the holidays. Everyone worked late, which meant taking in the festivities of downtown Cheboygan. I loved how the flurries caught the lights of the Kingston and how the wreaths on the street lamps made the air smell like pine. I loved the sound of Christmas commerce most of all. Watching dozens of smiling people buying gifts for their loved ones left a mark on me. I think that was what kept the store going. It may not have made a lot of money, but it made up for it in memories as a staple of the community.
But, as Pony Boy Curtis discovered, “nothing gold can stay”.
I graduated, got married, and had children. The economy tanked. Gas prices soared. Tourism declined and the store began to fail. Dad did what he could, but had to move on. He was offered a job as the floor manager of an outfitter and had to take it. It hurt him. I know it did. It was just something he had to do. Grandpa hung on awhile because the store was what he knew, but there was no denying it was the end.
I couldn’t ignore the cloud of inevitability that hung around it. I avoided it like a downed wire, stopping only to give my grandparents a hug on my way out of town. I hated myself for it, but seeing it linger was too painful. This went on for a few years until Grandpa’s health began to deteriorate, which signaled it was time to close up shop and rent the building until someone bought it outright.
I tried not to dwell on the news when Dad gave it to me. Being 200 miles away helped, but I’d have to come home at some point. It was difficult when I did. Driving by the building and seeing another name painted on the window was strange, especially with the old, wooden “Viau’s Clothing” sign still hanging above it. Grandpa passed soon after. My timeline is hazy, but it feels right to link the events together in my head. Its difficult to imagine one without the other. I tried not to think of either one after the funeral and avoided downtown as often as possible.
A call from Dad would bring me back home in March. The building had finally been sold, but needed a new boiler to complete the deal. He and my uncle had found one and asked if I could give them a hand getting it into the basement. I agreed, but wasn’t looking forward to going back inside. I’ll never forget the way my stomach knotted when I stepped through the door. It felt the same at Grandpa’s wake. There was so much of him still there. So much of my father. So much of me.
It still smelled like Viau’s. The red and black diamond-patterned carpet was the same. The box shelving, which once housed hundreds of Levi’s, was the same. The back room with the obnoxious orange counters was the same. The old hand-painted driftwood signs above the bathroom and dressing room were still there (including the “Poop Deck”). And the wooden boards and iron table-leg that barred the back door since before my birth were still being used as the primary security measure.
You couldn’t help but laugh about it, which was exactly what we did. We joked around. We reminisced. We finished the job. That was that. I walked out the front door, chimed the bell, and knew it would be the last time. The town I knew was gone and a chunk of my life was over. The quiver once filled with three decades of experiences was empty. The task of filling it belonged to someone else.
That was okay with me.
I had parted ways with Cheboygan and found the separation was mutual. I didn’t leave it. It didn’t leave me. We just moved on. That is the blessing of small town America. It leaves a mark on you. You leave a mark on it.
Our mark was Viau’s Clothing and it was a damn good one.
Do you have a small-town story you’d like to share? Feel free to do so in the comments below.