To understand Christmas at BubbaDoo’s, you’d have to understand the setting for BubbaDoo’s itself. This large, old general store sits at a key crossroads in a small rural community.
There isn’t much to the little community these days, save a tiny old rural post office. Down a little bit is a good-sized feed and seed store. Actually, there are two buildings at that establishment. The retail component and then a lawnmower and tractor repair shop. Complete with a big ramp out front. In season, that place can get fairly busy as folks descend upon it from all over the region to buy plants and yard supplies or get their chainsaws tuned up.
Year-round, though, this general store truly is the community scene. The big state highway runs right past the BubbaDoo front doors, not 40 yards away. The old asphalt parking lot, which develops the occasional pothole, has nearly as much gravel atop it as it does hard surface. A set of glass double doors that one can either push or pull welcomes customers in.
People pass by in big numbers. To an extent, if you are trying to get from the larger city down south up to the interstate just north, this roadway is your best shot.
Across the front of the store stands an expanse of plate-glass windows on each side of the doors. Some items, like turkey fryers and yard carts, are changed in and out regularly for display. Others things appear to have been there in the windows roughly since the Eisenhower administration.
I stopped by the store one day just as the Advent season had begun. OK, that’s what we would say 20 minutes away in the mainline world of my fancy church. At the store, they’d be more likely to refer to this as the week after Thanksgiving. Or, the lead-up to Christmas.
“Hey, there!” Ralph chirped at me as I walked in the door. “I didn’t know you even owned a piece of Carhartt,” he said. Ralph had spotted my barn coat, the one that’s tan colored with a brown collar and embroidered with the logo of my favorite college football team. “Oh. Might’ve known it would have that yeller jacket sewed on there somewhere,” he kidded.
“Hey, there!” Ralph chirped at me as I walked in the door. “I didn’t know you even owned a piece of Carhartt.”
Indeed, BubbaDoo’s proudly curates the largest work-wear collection in the region. Farmers, warehouse personnel and landscapers alike shop there for the heavy-duty necessities of their trades. The store can fix you up with a barn coat of your own, some rubber-coated gloves and put you in a pair of steel-toed boots if you like. Even a few folks from the upscale Hookfield Estates subdivision will shop there if some spring or fall yard work is on the horizon. They want to have the proper couture, you know.
I noticed a fellow with a big bandage wrapped around his left hand painting the large display windows out front. A professional quality picture of Santa and a Christmas tree already were vividly colored in. Now, words of holiday greetings were taking shape as outlined letters were in place. Bright reds and greens jumped off the normally plain glass. The letters were precise with a friendly font, even shadowed in white. His work was exquisite.
“You really decided to do it up big,” I said to the store owner. Winston had walked up about the time I stopped to admire the whole thing. “Awww, he’s a guy just stopping through the area for a few days to stay with his daughter. He’s gotten hurt recently. Told me his company up north won’t let him work with his hand all messed up. He’s having a hard time for a few weeks. Told me he would paint the windows if I’d let him gas up his car and get a few groceries. So, what do you think?”
“Well, I think it’s amazing!” I replied. “I think you may have to find someone to do this every year if this is as big a hit as I expect it’ll be.”
“If you haven’t met Winston, he’s owned the store now for several years.”
If you haven’t met Winston, he’s owned the store now for several years. BubbaDoo’s has only changed hands a grand total of one time. Truth be told, it was being poorly run by the second-generation owners. Winston was mulling over a change of profession, and years before he had worked in a store on a military base during service. Right time and right place, eventually he bought the store from the founding family at its lowest ebb.
Now the business is flourishing again. Winston himself is a fairly quiet man. He takes pride in owning the store and is serious about keeping reliable hours and reasonable prices when he can. What has arisen inside, especially after the little cafe was added, is a community hub. BubbaDoo’s is the gathering place, and everyone around knows it.
One person refers to him as “the mayor of the community.” Seeing as how there is no official elected leader, the one who oversees this store and its crew of regulars just might be as worthy of that title as anyone. “It’s where everybody goes, you know.”
We walked on into the center of the store. A small, new Christmas tree was set up near the checkout counter. “We had to move the coffee pot to have a place for that. But, wife insisted I do something different this year and put that tree up. Between the tree and the windows, I reckon we look more festive than usual.”
I told Winston I couldn’t wait to see the finished product. I knew I’d be back at some point in the next week or so. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. On Dec. 23, my wife’s book club is getting together. I used to love helping my dad run his store right when the quiet of Christmas was setting in. Folks are in a pretty good mood. May I come help you close up?”
Ministers and small-store owners in remote areas like this will tell you something surprising. At a moment when folks assume it’s all Christmas mayhem everywhere, things actually can get oddly slow and calm for a couple of days. BubbaDoo’s would enjoy a boom of cars gassing up and pet food being bought a few days before Santa comes. But about the afternoon of Dec. 23, it can shut off like a water faucet.
“At a moment when folks assume it’s all Christmas mayhem everywhere, things actually can get oddly slow and calm for a couple of days.”
“Yep. That’d be good. Some of my regulars will be out of town. I’d enjoy the company, if nothing else,” Winston said.
“Alright. Remember, I’ll see you between now and then.” I told him. “But I’ll be here that night. I’ll try to not get in the way.” He grinned at that. “You can be my security as I count out the register.”
Sure enough, after work on Dec. 23 I headed over to the store just like I had promised. Winston smiled as I came in. He didn’t stop what he was doing as he said, “You weren’t kidding, were you. You’re really here.”
He directed me over to a warming drawer where the cafe had left some chicken sandwiches and burgers from the mid-afternoon closing. As I hoped, there was a treat awaiting me. Their infamous Butter Burger was finished off with minced onions on top and a small pat of butter. A guilty pleasure, if I do say so. “Grab you a bag-o-chips and a drink if you want some supper.”
“What can I do to actually help you?” I asked. It’s as if Winston already had been thinking on that. “Wife’ll send out some end-of-year bills right here after Christmas.” BubbaDoo’s had its own internal credit system still. Yes, most customers used plastic credit cards for purchases. Unthinkably, though, they still had an old sign-and-drive pad for regular customers who just wanted to pay monthly.
“Do me a favor,” he said. “You don’t have to read them. Just sort through the bills and try to bundle them alphabetically by last name, if you will. There are some rubber-bands. As you group them, bind them together. That’ll help me have them ready for her.”
Business was predictably slow, but occasionally I would stop and bag up someone’s groceries. Or walk them over to where the chip aisle was, if they were unfamiliar and asked for help. We sold some work clothes that were destined to be wrapped up and under trees on Christmas morning.
I had just finished grouping the credit slips when one particular fellow came in. I didn’t know him well, but I at least knew who he was. Fact is, his bundle of past-due credit slips was the single largest account I had processed that night. Now at closing time, he was shuffling up and down the aisle rounding up groceries.
“Hey, Winston, there he is.” I whispered. “I couldn’t help but notice that he owes you a lot of money, if that thick stack is any indication.”
Instead, the store owner didn’t even look in my direction. Something was on his mind. “Mmm-hmmm,” he said back. That was all.
The lone customer continued walking, stopping by the checkout now and then to drop off some of his choices. To an already growing pile, he was bringing one last armload of food when I saw him headed our way. I picked up the bundle of past-due bills and slid them toward Winston.
“You’re not going to let him dig the hole deeper, are you?” I thought to myself.
He took the bills and picked them up, quickly sticking them underneath the counter and out of sight. “You’re not going to let him dig the hole deeper, are you?” I thought to myself.
By now, the counter was full. Winston rang up each item, and I bagged them. Soups, sandwich meats and bread. A small jar of mayonnaise, that sort of thing. Three full bags later, I watched the man sign his name on yet another credit slip. There was a brokenness that was evident. Humility is hard to fake.
He smiled, wished Winston a merry Christmas and picked up his three bags. The front doors soon closed behind him. “What do I need to know? I worry about you getting taken advantage of in here” I mouthed quietly.
Instead, Winston laughed. “I know people think this is just an old general store out here in the middle of nowhere,” he began. “But really, I make a good living nowadays. Way better than I even thought this place could do when I bought it.”
“Yeah, but he’s in deep to you, it looks like.”
“I know,” Winston said. “Here’s the thing. You remember that guy who painted the windows? He was having a rough time. We made a fair deal. He held up his part, and I got a nice thing with that art he did for us. Folks have loved it. Helped me here. I helped him when he was hurt.”
“It’s the same sort of thing with this fellow. I’ve known him here in the community since he was a young man. His wife died. His work goes real good for a few years, then lean times hit once in a while. He’s a real regular payer to us, except these last several months.”
“The next night, I would stand before a packed church and deliver what I always refer to as my Super Bowl sermon.”
I took in what he was saying. This indebted customer was a part of the community. He was struggling. Winston added gently: “I’ve got plenty. We’re doing good. I’ve got a good life. Yeah, he owes me some money. But it’s Christmas. And I’ve got a store full of food here. I’ll be danged if I’m gonna let a man go hungry at Christmastime when I can do something about it.”
There it was. The next night, I would stand before a packed church and deliver what I always refer to as my Super Bowl sermon. Except for Easter Sunday, it’s the largest crowd I’ll see. I always feel a pressure to get the words and the message just right for that one holy night.
Now here in an old general store, with only the two of us around, something powerful had happened. In his quiet, understated way, Winston had just delivered me my own private Christmas message of grace for the season. A boutique-sized sermon with just me for an audience. Not lecturing at all, he had taught me with his generosity, empathy and open-mindedness.
It reminded me that I still had much to learn. It reminded me that sometimes, God speaks even in an old country store out in a rural crossroads. My BubbaDoo’s Christmas had just given me the gift to last a lifetime.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.