Sunday, September 22, 2013


I was on my knees this past Tuesday afternoon, painting (and cursing) an old bookcase that obstinately refused to be anything close to useful. I happened to glance up and saw her standing there, silently, watching me.
            “He’s gone.”
            The shop was closed. It always is on Tuesdays. But I had left the front door unlocked, because you never know who is going to wander in. Obviously, today was her day. She had let herself in and found me there, paint-spattered, on my knees and gently damning this inoffensive piece of furniture.
            “Sunday afternoon. He died in his sleep.”
            I let out a groan and got to my feet. I didn’t really know what to say.
            They were an older couple (“older” being a relative term as I close in on that realm myself); maybe mid-80s. I don’t think I ever got their names. But they had been coming into the shop on a more-or-less regular basis for two or three years now. I’d see them every month or two.
            It was always he who bought the books. He’d walk around and look in several areas, but he would always find his way to the same spot; the same books. He would delve into our Treasure Chest.
            The Treasure Chest is really just an old trunk that I found in one of the storage rooms shortly after we took over the place. The handles are missing. What hardware that is left on it is rusted. It certainly doesn’t lock ,and it really is pretty well beat up. Its glory days are long past.
For the first year or two we were operating the store, I would drag it around, trying to find a spot where it might fit. But nothing seemed to work. It wasn’t tall enough to be a display stand. It was too rickety for a table of any sort. And while it did have a certain texture and charm (as in, “I’ll-bet-that-was–really-something-in- its-day” way), it was now, simply, in the way.
Until, that is, we re-worked our paperback fiction area two years ago. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, there was a spot. And! There was a function: older, series paperbacks. They were the sort of paperbacks that few wanted; that wouldn’t command high dollars, or any dollars at all actually. But we had a lot of them left over from the previous owners.
The Treasure Chest
Don Pendelton’s The Executioner series (more than 700 individual titles so far), Able Team, Phoenix Force and Stoney Man. Also the Nick Carter—Killmaster series (250+ titles) and the like. The main characters are all clean cut, square-jawed and handy with both guns and women. Mostly women. The books all contain plenty of bad guys, too. But they’re pretty disposable.  
            We probably had two hundred, or more, of these books when we took over. So we tossed them all into that old trunk and slapped a sign on it, dubbing it our “Treasure Chest.” All books found therein are 50¢.
We don’t sell a lot out of it, perhaps $5 or $6 a month on average. But its fun, and it fills a niche. And it doesn’t eat much, so we keep it.
            I wiped the paint from my hands and took a step closer to her, preparing to give her a hug. But she wasn’t interested in that.  In fact, she wasn’t interested in me, or what I had to say, at all.
            “The last group of books that he got here are still in the bag. They’re on his night stand,” she said.
            I just stood there and looked at her. I still hadn’t said anything.
            “I want to go to the Treasure Chest,” she said. “I want to visit with him there for a minute.”
            She didn’t ask permission. She didn’t say another word. She just went back to the Treasure Chest and spent some quality time there. I don’t think she was interested in the books.
            A little earlier tonight as I walked past, I noticed that our Treasure Chest is starting to look a little empty. And that’s not right.
            I need to start looking for more of The Executioner.
            It’s important.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Pistol Packin' Mama

My little cabinet of historical insignificia grew this week with the addition of a piece of original sheet music dating to 1943. This gem, Pistol Packin’ Mama, came into the shop via a new dealer. He just started setting up his booth with the new year and, as I was taking a look see at his wares this afternoon, this caught my eye. I knew the story, but I had never seen the sheet music before today.

I’m fairly certain that few remember the name of Al Dexter these days, and that’s a shame. He was a bona fide American musical pioneer. Perhaps he’ll never rank with the likes of Scott Joplin or Duke Ellington or Aaron Copeland, but in his own way and in his own genre, he was just as important.

They called it “hillbilly” music back then. Later the accepted term became Country & Western and now it is just Country. Al Dexter was in at the beginning.

Born Clarence Albert Poindexter on May 4, 1902 in Jacksonville Texas, he started early, learning to play guitar, banjo, organ, fiddle and mouth harp.  He was also a singer and a songwriter, and while still a teenager in the 1920s, he started playing a circuit of dance halls and bars (and probably a few less polite places) in those booming East Texas oil fields. Somewhere along the way, probably in the early 1930s, he changed his name to Al Dexter and formed a band, the Texas Troopers. They recorded their first records in 1934.

In 1937, he recorded a tune he had written entitled Honky Tonk Blues. It was the first time the term had been used in a song. Apparently the term had originated in Texas somewhere around the turn of the century (no one is quite sure exactly where or when or in what context), but Al was the first one to make it popular.

The story goes that Al had made enough money from his recording to open his own Texas honky tonk and was sitting there one evening when a young lady burst through the front door, gun in hand, and started chasing her husband’s girlfriend (who happened to be one of Al’s waitresses). Chased her right through a barbed-wire fence, apparently. And this got Al to thinking: “How do you talk to an angry woman coming after you with a pistol in her hand?"  This is what he came up with…

Drinkin' beer in a cabaret And I was havin' fun!
Until one night she caught me right, And now I'm on the run

Lay that pistol down Babe, Lay that pistol down,
Pistol Packin' Mama, Lay that pistol down.

Lay that pistol down Babe, Lay that pistol down,
Pistol Packin' Mama, Lay that pistol down.

Drinkin' beer in a cabaret, And dancing with a blonde,
Until one night she shot out the light, Bang! That blonde was gone.

Lay that pistol down Babe, Lay that pistol down,
Pistol Packin' Mama, Lay that pistol down.

I'll see you every night Babe, I'll woo you every day,
I'll be your regular Daddy, If you'll put that gun away. 

Lay that pistol down Babe, Lay that pistol down,
Pistol Packin' Mama, Lay that pistol down.

Lay that pistol down Babe, Lay that pistol down,
Pistol Packin' Mama, Lay that pistol down.

Now down there was old Al Dexter, He always had his fun,
But with some lead. she shot him dead, His Honkin' days are done.

That was late 1942. He recorded it in February 1943, and the record sold some three million copies by the end of 1944. Also 200,000 copies of the sheet music (one of which lies on the table before me). It was a #1 Country song. It was a #1 jukebox song. Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters recorded a version of it later that year, and that too became a Certified Gold Record, making it to the top of the Pop Charts. It spawned a movie of the same name in 1944, and Dexter pulled in some $250,000 in royalties from that (about $3.5-million in 2012 dollars). It is generally credited with being one of the top 5 songs of the World War II era.
Pistol Packin Mama became a thing of pop culture beauty, with references showing up everywhere from county fairs (on smart-alecky buttons) to bomber nose art.

 Al and his Texas Troopers continued to record and play live shows in honky tonks (his own and others), rodeos, nightclubs and theaters through the early 1950s. He opened another spot in Dallas in 1952 and continued on there until his retirement. He died on January 28, 1984.
The song (Al’s version) plays on occasion in the shop when I put on a CD of World War II-era tunes. So, the next time you’re poking around in here, cock an ear and you may hear it. Click here to hear how it will sound. Then, depending upon whom you’re wandering around with, you may want to take a look around…just in case a 21st century pistol packin’ mama decides to poke around too.