A couple of years ago I wrote the following story for a magazine, but it never saw print. I wasn’t paid for it, so I still own it and it is an entertaining piece, if I do say so myself and I’m not bashful.
It has to do with the things in our lives that make living enjoyable or easier. A lot of us hang on to the old because it is comfortable and because learning new ways is often hard, even traumatic (think “computer”).
Please note that my good friend Keith Ferrell has died since this piece was written, but his contribution is no less valuable and is a good remembrance of him.
Some people simply can’t give up artifacts that work, raising the question: Why would you want to toss something that does what it’s supposed to do?
Many of us—maybe most of us—have one or two items in our lives from another age, goodies we hang on to, even as technology and the Cavalcade of Man pass us by. It might be an ancient Zippo lighter, a fountain pen with nib and inkwell, an old Dodge Power Wagon pickup truck, a 33 rpm vinyl recording and turntable, rusting hand tools, a typewriter, a cathedral cabinet and vacuum tube radio, a Western Electric Bakelite rotary telephone, a Sunbeam hand mixer or a 70-year-old Electrolux vacuum cleaner.
Some of us still use Western Union (especially to send money) in an age of the iPhone. You can smell the smoke from wood stoves as fall turns to winter. Your fixation could be your dad’s razor or your mom’s iron skillet. There are accessories to living that some of us simply won’t part with. How about a shoe repair shop for some instant nostalgia?
We went looking for people in the Roanoke Valley who own working antiques—or just old stuff—that they use on a daily or mostly daily basis and came up with some glimpses of our culture as it was and as many of us would like it to be again.
Here is some of what we found.
Sweating out the photo
Professional photographer Sarah Hazlegrove has not gone digital. She uses a medium format (3.25-inch negatives) Bronica portrait camera for her work, the same type of camera she has used for many years. She has been a noted professional since 1990 and these days tours the world, working on contract for corporations, shooting people, turning commercial photos into art, often stunning black and white portraiture.
She pretty much taught herself how to use a camera, film from Day 1, and she “can’t get away from it.” She uses digital cameras for video and owns high-end digital still cameras, but the Bronica is her baby. “A film camera makes you sweat to produce something of quality,” she says. “There’s a lot to be said for being a dinosaur,” admitting it’s “kind of cultish.” Some people, she says, think being a purist is almost a fine art in itself, “even if the photos suck.”
Type and chop
Franklin County-based author Keith Ferrell, who has written two dozen books (including a NYTimes bestseller two years ago) says, “I am between typewriters, but expect to have one in working order before long. My first four books and countless articles were written on a Smith-Corona manual, the next five on a Facit single element. I installed a small program on my PC that makes it sound like a Selectric with every keystroke and line return. Part of the typewriter’s appeal to me is auditory.
“An equally deep appeal is tactile. The Selectric-style keyboard provided both: firm and resistant keys that click when depressed, accompanied by the sound of the ‘golf ball’ striking the paper.
“For fiction and serious nonfiction, I actually use far older technology for first drafts: pencil or fountain pen and paper, as well as 3-by-5 index cards. Then, every few thousand words, I move to the computer and type up the by-now heavily marked up and annotated pages. I do almost all editing on paper, printing a manuscript, marking it up with colored pens, then entering the corrections on the computer.”
Ferrell, who owns a farm near Rocky Mount, received a hand-made, old-style scythe as payment for a story a couple of years ago. He calls it “the best payment I ever got for a magazine story.” He adds, “None of this, I think, makes me a Luddite which is good, considering how much of my career I’ve spent writing about technology.”
Eric Fitzpatrick has been Roanoke’s best-known and, likely, most prolific artist for the past 30 or more years, throbbing with a variety of styles and topics, always studying. He is as much an art historian as he is an artist and he brags that “I do it the old way, using a sketch to build a painting around; no camera ever.”
He insists that if you use a camera, you wind up copying its image. “How about earth pigments and paintbrushes as opposed to computer graphics?” he asks. “Artists have been doing the same thing for centuries, with little change; if you are a traditionalist like me at least.”
Fitzpatrick uses volume after volume of sketchbook, detailing nearly every moment of his life and then going back to find the essence, which often winds up on canvas. His books are prevalent throughout his large home that is simply packed with his works, his tools, his side projects and his wildly varied interests. The house is as much museum as home and a tour is a highlight of any given week.
“My tradition is the same as that of my heroes, like Degas, Bellows, and John Singer Sargent. And the lessons from these geniuses are as follows: Art is all about learning and growth, and your evolution as a fine artist only comes from constant study and hard work. Those who are truly serious about their art must strive every day to become better. A mastery of materials, draftsmanship and color, are only the starting points toward finding a unique voice that speaks to your love for what you encounter in your life, and how you truly feel about it. Emotion harnessed with great skill is the end game.” All that and the tradition of materials and methods.
“I’m a big proponent of the double-edge safety razor, fountain pens and Zippo lighters,” says Chris Henson. The clincher here, though, is the old safety razor and what would be called a “shaving system” these days (razor, blades, brush, shaving soap) and would cost about $150.
Chris bought his four Gillette shavers (50-90 years old) on Ebay for about $4. He has several others and he opted for the double-edged safety blades and razor just out of college (“because it was cool”), but “kept cutting myself” and gave it up until 2013, when he jumped back in with a certain level of gusto.
These days, he says, double-edge blade shaving is “the kind of thing hipsters do.” He has become something of a technique geek and even designed and printed an eight-page brochure that he gives to accompany his Dirty Christmas gifts each year. (He works at Access, an advertising agency, so the brochure was a natural for him.) The brochure features a section called “Directions for the Perfect Shave” and gives chapter and verse to that end. There’s more to it than you might imagine.
Old is good
“I love the older technology because it’s easier to service and frankly, looks prettier,” says Jay Saunders, president of Saunders Productions. “The modern aesthetic of streamlined everything is so boring. I keep multiple vehicles with body styles from the 1940s through to the ’60s. I still use my grandfather’s vacuum tube hi-fi for my 33s and 78s [those are record speeds for old vinyl].
“I still show 8mm home movies in my man-cave, and there’s an analog clock in every room. While I do keep an old brass telephone in the phone niche built into the wall of my 1930s home, it’s not hooked up. I’d guess [the brass phone] dates to about 1930. I found it at a flea market in Rocky Mount many years ago. There was an old guy there who still worked on vacuum tube systems for fun.” His 1930s-era floor model radio—which he still uses to listen to AM radio—tops off an antique-filled home in Raleigh Court.
Jason Garnett is one of the very few remaining expert movie house projectionists from the pre-digital era. Even though “every commercial theater has moved to digital in the last 5 to 6 years,” he remains available—with his bulky projector—to show movies at special events.
He “ran film at the Grandin Theatre in Roanoke from 1997 to 2010 and worked changeover projection at the North Theatre in Danville and Hull’s Drive-In, which is also digital now. My most recent stint was being hired by Boston Light and Sound to run a limited engagement of Tarantino’s Hateful Eight’ on 70mm film in Florida. I was offered the gig of running ‘Dunkirk’ in 70mm but I had to commit to a four-week run out of state and that was too much time away from my family.”
He is “on a shortlist of projectionists that Boston Light and Sound hires out whenever special engagements like ‘Dunkirk’ are released on film. I was in the booth of the Grandin recently and Ian Fortier [the GM] briefly mentioned the idea of running film for special occasions but I’m not sure if the cost is worth it.”
Driving the dream
Purcell Barrett, a 70-year-old Norfolk Southern retiree, has been living his youthful dream since 1971, when he bought a new white Z28 Camaro. In 2002, he magnified the dream by buying a 1973 red Z28. He did not buy the cars to put them on a shelf and show them off. “I get criticized because I drive them,” he says, “but I’ll drive them until I die.”
Both are in need of paint jobs and the 1971 has some bumps and bruises.
The cars are eagerly sought by collectors and Barrett estimates their value at $55,000 each. The red one—used—cost $18,500 in 2002 and the white one was $4,400 in 1971, which would equate to $26,690 today. They “are not for sale at any price,” he emphasizes. The 1971 Z28 has 455 horsepower and the engine has been bored and stroked for maximum speed.
Barrett says the cars are not just toys, they are practical (although he owns two more modern Volkswagens). “They’re easy to work on,” he says. “I can figure out what’s wrong in five minutes and fix it in two.”
When he was a kid, “I always wanted a Z28, but all I could do was dream.” Until that day came when he didn’t have to dream any longer.
Pam Martin begins every day at the pencil sharpener. She is director of digital marketing for New City, a high-end, high-tech marketing firm and her job revolves around a computer. But she can’t function without a set of finely sharpened pencils and a stack of notebooks. “I can’t think without them,” she says. “I hoard Blackwings, Caran d’Ache and Ticonderogas,” all brands of pencil. She looks hard and finds pencils made of wood, which is unusual today. They’re most often plastic or metal.
She has a callous on the fingers of her left hand from writing. Her job involves evaluating spreadsheets and she says, “I can’t look at a spreadsheet without a pencil in my hand.” She takes notes she never again refers to. “I’m one of those people who can’t think unless I’m writing. There’s something about a pencil that makes my brain work.”
Luthier Patrick Toole is involved in a profession that pretty much dictates how he works, primarily using hand tools that haven’t changed since people made the first fiddle. He uses a drill press that is electric, but everything else in his shop is driven by Toole Power. He builds, repairs and restores violins/fiddles and other stringed instruments at his shop in Roanoke with planes, gouges, chisels and the like.
“I’ve been carving since I was a little kid,” he says, and as an adult, he has been trained at trade school and worked as an apprentice. He cooks and mixes resins, making his own varnishes “the same way an oil painter would,” using techniques from the 13th century. He has been a toolmaker (blacksmiths often make tools for luthiers). “Tools are expensive,” he says, pointing to a $900 set of clamps, “but they pay for themselves.”
“Some processes can be quickened” with power tools, but they don’t always produce a better product, he insists. Toole plans to consider some of those updates in technology “when I have more space.” For now, though, it’s about his hands and the tools that fit nicely there.
Amanda Cockrell, who teaches children’s literature at Hollins University, likes good shoes so much that she is hard-pressed to dump them when they wear out. Most often, she takes them to the Sole Man and has them repaired.
It saves money and preserves good shoes, she says. “The cost is about $55 to repair a pair of shoes,” she says, “and these Birkenstocks [she points to her shoes] cost about $120. I’ve had flats re-soled three times. One of the reasons [she tries to preserve shoes] is that I’m hard to fit and when I find a pair I like, I try to keep them.”
It’s not just the shoes. “Thrift shops, always,” says Cockrell. “Twelve-year-old car. My day planner is a legal pad, one sheet per day. I mend clothes and sometimes I make them. My Waring Blender was my father’s and is possibly older than I am. I burned out six or so modern blenders before I inherited that one.”
Writer/photographer/dancer Anne Sampson puts it simply: “I love my 1960s Electrolux vacuum. This vacuum was a thrifted [purchased at a thrift shop] replacement for my mom’s original blue 1960s Electrolux. I can’t imagine the original having given out. I use mine all the time, like driving a ’52 Chevy as your everyday car. It’s a magnificent machine.
“I’ve had contemporary, plastic Hoover uprights, with filters that become obsolete, and hard-to-clean canisters that make a noise rivaling the sound of a jet revving on the runway. Somehow my all-metal, reasonably quiet, well-suctioned workhorse of an Electrolux is preferable.
“I get bags online. I also have an early 1970s model Electrolux at my dad’s house. Plastic chassis, same reliable, workhorse performance. Swedish, like a Volvo. And yes, I love old things, especially old things that work. I have my mom’s old Oster blender, and I use one of those little hand-cranked nut choppers. I try to carefully weigh whether an old thing will perform better than a brand new thing. I don’t use old just because it’s old.”
Retired librarian Steve Urquhart bought his human-powered push mower at a Farm supply outlet about 25 years ago and has used it frequently since, though not so much lately. The lawn in his new home is a smidge thick for the mower to be as effective as it might be.
The mower still serves a solid function, mowing the strip of grass where Urquhart’s wife parks her car. It’s not much, but, hey, the mower is old, a bit rusty and its wooden handle wore out and was replaced by a metal bar and duct tape. “I used to have a push mower that mowed when you pushed it and sharpened the blade when you pulled it back,” says Urquhart.
Urquhart’s family was from England and the push mower was an integral part of English gardens, he says. “My dad said that when Churchill came on the radio to announce World War II had begun, all that ‘clickity-click’ from the push mowers working in England stopped while he spoke.”
In the mix
When VA Hospital substance abuse counselor Kay Iroler’s foster mom and dad died during her teen years, she hung on to the 1960s-era Sunbeam electric hand mixer that her foster parents loved. “I remember my mom and dad using it to make the weekly Sunday cakes and meringue for banana pudding. I still have it, still use it. It’s the only mixer I’ve ever owned and have no interest in another. There’s something sentimental about it.
“I never thought about buying another mixer. When things work well, why buy a new one?”
I don’t normally like to include myself in these little fun stories, but I can’t resist here, since I’m an antique myself. I use a lot of old stuff, but my favorite begins my day. It is a General Electric coffee percolator that I actually bought new at Penney’s about five years ago. I don’t have one older, but it’s not from lack of trying. I scoured the thrift store bins and flea markets for about a year before I finally broke down and bought one that looks like a dead ringer for the one Mom used most of her adult life.
Mom loved coffee so much that she often drank instant when “cowboy coffee” (her term) wasn’t available and I was raised with the smell of coffee and bacon wafting into my bedroom about 6 a.m. every day. Nostalgia? You bet. Great coffee? Ah, not so much. That depends more on good water and properly roasted coffee more than it depends on the pot. Still, not much looks as inviting as the coffee perking through the glass bulb on the top of the pot.