hen I recently grabbed a magnifying glass to see some details in a picture of the Bargain Store on the corner of Main Cross and Main my eye caught sight of Ern’s newsstand. It was a smallish building that was built over the several steps that led from the street to the level of the sidewalk in that block. The building was barely roomy enough to hold Ern Compton as he sat on a chair in front of his little window. I remember him always facing south in that iconic little structure. Because he was a fairly large man, at least to me at the time, there was little room inside to maneuver. He weighed perhaps more than two hundred
pounds. He had a missing arm which I’m sure made working a challenge. Making matters more difficult he was also blind. I was told by someone that he was hurt by an explosion of a dynamite cap he was holding in his hand during a New Year’s or July Fourth celebration before my time. I believe that fireworks were hard to get in those days and were illegal. I guess that blasting supplies were more commonly available. The life-changing incident may have happened some other way, but this is what I was told growing up.
I was always impressed that he handled his money by holding the cash drawer with the stump of one arm while sorting through the paper dollars and coins with the other hand. He often put whatever he wished to manipulate under the stump and he then maneuvered the items with his good hand. I witnessed this multiple-times because I was a regular customer and friend during my teen years. The lenses of both of his eyes were clouded so very little light ever got though, making him all but totally blind. During my high school years doctors had learned to transplant lenses, so he became an early candidate for this new kind of operation. I remember praying for him and waiting to hear the good news that he had his sight back. The surgery did improve his ability to see, but did not accomplish all that was hoped for. He described to me that he could now see shadows and blurry figures moving about, but not well enough to necessarily identify people until they spoke. I thought about the fuzzy pictures that the French artist Monet painted late in his life. One story suggests that as his vision weakened the paintings became more blurred. In Monet’s case it helped start a whole new genre in art. After the transplant attempt, Ern was left to get along as he had for the years I knew him. He had a good sense of humor and a wit that showed occasional sarcasm, but behind a little gruffness, he was a nice man that was loved by many.
His success at building a business and operating the newsstand day in and day out was an encouragement to me that life and its tragedies can be overcome. Now, I see the real miracle was actually for anyone to operate such a stand in such a small town and make a living! I don’t know if he might have been an easy mark for fraud given that it was a problem for him to know the denominations of paper money, but he seemed to prosper. To make life a little tougher, competition was only a block away, just across Main Cross that another newsstand existed. Hack’s Newsstand was between the front of the County Courthouse and the Methodist Church on the corner. It was the loading/offloading place for northbound buses, and also the town’s only taxi stand.
During those days it was a depressed era economically for this little town. I wonder how two stands could make enough money from the sales of newspaper and magazines to support several people. I knew that a side business that Ern Compton had was to make ‘payday’ loans to people who were a little short of money. In essence, he bought the next paycheck from several teachers and others about town. I have no idea of whether his rates were fair, but the loans were easy and quick to get when compared to running to the bank.
I don’t know if Hack Moore did the same, but the taxi was something useful since many families in Louisa didn’t have a car. Most places in town were within walking distance, but if you wanted to see someone off to other points, the bus route or train route were the only means. If one lived a good ways out of town a taxi was a handy thing. The rough and tough taxi car driver, Willa Bell Heston (I think was her name), was a woman who could stand her own with any man. Her talk was tough and she was one of very few women I ever saw wearing pants in those days. Back then, ladies and girls wore dresses and skirts, except for younger girls out on the farm doing chores. It was pretty much my generation when that started to change. I think that Hollywood helped to usher that in, too, along with the magazines that Ern and Hack sold.
I had asked Fred Jones about his memories of the newsstands and he responded: “I used to go by Hack Moore’s almost every day and carry out the garbage. He lived in the basement of that building. Not many knew that. Norman Pack’s wife used to cook his meals every day and Mary Ann took them to him. Newman Marcum used to loaf there all of the time with Hack. I last was at his building in 1963 and he gave me a graduation present. When he died they took the building down. Later they took down Ern’s News Stand. I have the sign that was on it here in my garage. ” Just hearing those names brought back memories of people I hadn’t heard anything about for years.
I think Ed Land also sold some magazines, but otherwise I don’t recall seeing any carried by other stores. Back then most grocery stores were not truly self-service so they didn’t use the ‘point of sale’ displays you see today around the registers. By that, I mean you went in a grocery store and gave the person behind the counter your list and they collected and bagged the stuff. By the time I was a senior in high school, the IGA Supermarket had been built. They and some of the others allowed folks to pick out what they wanted and put it on the counter. I remember when Andy York told me that when women came in for hygiene items they got them themselves and put them on the counter. Then, if they had other things to buy they gave Andy the rest of the list for him to pull. Modesty prevailed in those days. Now food lines at the supermarkets are lined with every kind of magazine. Traditional newsstands have turned out to be a section in the stores, usually need the checkout lanes. Apparently they still sell well enough to maintain their ‘floor space’ in these very competitive outlets.
I remember a few practical jokes we got from Ern that we used to surprise, or trick houseguests, or classmates. One was a spoon that had an open bottom, so when tea was served, the spoon rested in the sugar looking perfectly normal. When the guest lifted the spoon while engaged in conversation they moved the spoon over their tea and dumped . . . nothing. The sugar had run out without their notice. I remember one lady trying to add several spoonful’s before she looked down and caught on.
I remember Ern selling me some bent nails that were twisted together in such a way it seemed they could not be separated, but I was assured there was a way. After a frustrating hour or so I stumbled on the solution and was able to repeat it over again. It was time to take this to my friends to see how they did. Later, when I was walking downtown, an old farmer called me over to make a wager that I couldn’t get those two nails apart. I looked at it and told him I thought I could do it. I did, but told him he could keep his money since I’d worked out the solution days before. I left him sitting there as I walked away thinking that he would have been less generous if ‘the shoe was on the other foot.’
We got other tricks from Ern. I think I bought other stuff from him when I stopped by to talk. Sometimes he was very friendly, and other times a little gruff. It’s likely he had to work at his job and didn’t need a kid hanging about.
You can take some meat or vegetables and put them in a pan, pour water on them and bring up the heat. In the end you’ll have soup, but how much better the soup would be if you added a few other things like salt, pepper, pasta, flour, sugar, beef stock, onions, and countless other things each bring their own flavor and enrich the soup. It takes all kinds of people to make a town. Louisa had its characters and was richer for it. Each person was important in their own way and each one was missed when they left. We all leave behind our stories, sometimes seen from different perspectives, but all enriching the soup of life.