Sunday, November 6, 2011

A local institution fades away

Every city, town or village has its local institutions and Lexington certainly has its share. Some are huge and defining, like barbecue. Barbecue is so huge around here, in fact, that it even carries its own branding: Lexington-style barbecue. Not Western style, not Piedmont style, but Lexington style. As far as I know, no other city in North Carolina lends its name to a style of barbecue.

Other local institutions quickly come to mind: The Candy Factory, Fancy Pastry, The Dispatch, Lanier's, Biscuit King and Hayes Jewelers, among others.

Some are gone, like Lexington State Bank, Lexcom, Erlanger Mills and the furniture plants, yet their presence is still felt if for no other reason than their buildings are still standing and serve as daily reminders of their contributions to the history of the town.

Then there are the softer, quieter but no less familiar institutions. Martin's News Stand is one of them.

A spray of flowers on the door marks the end of an era.
If you drove down North Main Street the past few days, you may have noticed a spray of flowers on the front door of the building. Owner and operator Charles R. Martin passed away Nov. 2 at the age of 81. For more than 50 of those years, he ran Martin's News Stand, finally closing the doors back in March when failing health, the downturning economy and the Internet all seemingly conspired against him. All three certainly baffled him.

For 30 of those 50 years, the news stand wasn't even his primary source of income. He worked the second shift at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in Winston-Salem to provide for his family.

But for at least a couple of generations of Lexingtonians, Martin's News Stand was the place to go for a Pepsi, or a candy bar, or to peruse the shelves of magazines, or to even purchase a copy of The New York Times. For more specialized needs, he also sold projection lamps and vacuum tubes for radios and televisions from two earlier business ventures that he ran. To this day, in bold letters, is a sign on the front of the store that shouts "Projection Lamp Sales" to passing vehicles. It's clearly an anachronism in a digital, wireless era but it speaks volumes about the owner.

Charles Martin, owner of Martin's News Stand.
Everybody, it seemed, knew where the news stand was. It didn't hurt that he was located near the high school, where he could provide kids with their after-school Milky Way or Snickers fix. It didn't hurt, either, that he was one of the first businesses you saw on Main Street heading into town. Or one of the last ones you saw heading out of town. The place had become an institution.

As we age there must be a recessive gene that somehow activates to make us resistant to change. In an era of instant communication, he did not own a computer and had no real clue about the Internet, or how you could read complete magazines and newspapers online, in some cases without even paying for them. Sales plummeted.

He tried to keep the place open by using his own pension and Social Security monies to stock the shelves and pay his employee — "I'm going to make this work," he declared — but it was a losing battle he could not win. His children tried to get him to close and sell the business, but the shrewd businessman couldn't bring himself to do it. "We've owned this building since World War II," he told his daughter. "Do you know how long that is?"

It has been a long time. In some ways, a glorious time. A time of familiarity and of growing up.

But times change and it leaves some of us standing behind, with our hats in our hand, our hearts on our sleeve and maybe a tear in our eye.

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