A Catskill Catalog: December 21, 2011

The old Margaretville Department Store would fill up, on Christmas Eve, with young husbands seeking last-minute gifts. If a fellow went down there around 4 in the afternoon, he’d meet several of his friends and acquaintances around the sweater shelves.

It always seemed to be the young guys who converged on the women’s department in the east end of the store, looking for something we knew we should have picked-out weeks before. Shopping thoughtfully, in advance, seems to be a skill learned with age – at least for a lot of guys I knew 30-40 years ago.

Hank and Helen Wern ran the Department Store in the years I’m remembering. The old wooden floor creaked a bit as you walked through. The place was open and airy, with sight lines across the big front selling floor.

Then, display cases, shelving units, and racks divided the floor space into various departments; women’s, children’s, men’s, shoes, stationery, and the like. Today, that floor is divided into four or five different store-units in The Commons, the adaptive re-use of the old Margaretville Department Store.

Toys were in the back, where Home Goods is now. It was the perfect place to pick-out “something from Daddy,” as darkness filled the late afternoon sky, and storefront windows lit up Main Street.
The Department Store wasn’t the only place for night-before-Christmas shopping. Bussy’s, on the corner of Walnut and Main, was mostly known as a locally-owned grocery, with the best butcher in town. Kenny Miller would cut to order your Christmas roast. He’d also sell you a Woolrich shirt. I still have a nice one I bought from him.

Stop to get a soda at Christian’s Drug Store, on the corner where the Sluiter Agency is today. Joe’s famous Mexican Sundae might hit the spot on Christmas Eve. Just sitting on a stool, for a few minutes, at the soda fountain would be fun, listening to Joe grumble and gossip, irascible and likable and full of his own idiosyncratic energy. Nobody else was like Joe.

Maybe Coach Al Nelson would come in. He usually did, late afternoons, to pick up The Evening Press, the afternoon daily out of Binghamton. He and Joe would hold court for a while, the sports talk and current events review open to anyone who came in the store. Of course, it was Christmas Eve, so folks might linger.

George Bloodgood’s Hardware Store, across the street, carried small appliances and some kitchen stuff. Maybe a last-minute gift could be found over there. Main Street looks festive, with the wreaths on the light poles and the store windows ablaze. It’s getting lively up at Murray’s Hotel and at Bob Lange’s bar and grill. A small town is really alive on Christmas Eve.

I was thinking of all this as I sat, last weekend, at a bistro table in 768 Main, “The shop on Main with a vintage vibe and an eclectic mix of irresistibly cool stuff,” the pretty-darn-accurate web description of the retail-store-cum-coffee-bar that now occupies the old hardware store location.
Margaretville’s changed a lot, sure, but there are still places to go on those few days before Christmas to buy last-minute gifts, and run into your friends doing the same. There may be no more Mexican sundaes, but home-baked muffins and sticky-buns and good strong coffee are staples at 768 Main, as are local handcrafts and cool vintage stuff.

Across the street, Rick Locasto continues his father’s tradition of offering a wide variety of good, estate-quality jewelry in The Commons building. The Catskill Artisans’ Guild offers all sorts of jewelry and handcrafted items, including handmade soaps and lotions, and regional books.

(Okay, I’ll admit I looked on the shelf for my book, A Catskill Catalog, Purple Mountain Press, 2011. I was disappointed when I didn’t see it, but felt better when the volunteer clerk told me she had sold one that morning. At 18 bucks, I think it’s a great gift idea; but I’m biased.)

What matters about a book is its contents. If it’s gently used, a carefully selected book makes a gift that says, “I chose this just for you.” Margaretville’s Bibliobarn Too is a real bookstore, with thousands of books organized in a way that makes shopping simple, efficient and fun. With a pile of books in my arm, I ran into a friend there.

You never know who you might run into, doing that right-up-to-the-deadline shopping right here in town. I guess in that way, things haven’t changed all that much.
Merry Christmas.