There’s a lot of talk these days about downtown revitalization and the future of Montgomery. The city government has pushed its chips almost entirely onto the square betting that downtown economic development will lift the rest of the city. There are plenty of people eager to talk to you about the future of downtown, and they’ve got architectural sketches and demographic surveys to back up their sales pitch.
But not as many people want to talk about the past. I don’t mean the fact that there were slave markets there. And I don’t mean the type of nostalgia that drives people to want to have a street fair or a downtown soap box derby race.
Diane McWhorter hinted at what I mean in her op-ed in the New York Times a few days ago. Writing with great insight about her native Birmingham, she wrote
Yet the evil segregationist archetype is fixed in the popular mind as the villainous housewife of “The Help” or the cretinous mob of “Django Unchained” — nobody we’d ever know, or certainly ever be.
But the disquieting reality is that the conflict was between not good and evil, but good and normal. The brute racism that today seems like mass social insanity was a “way of life” practiced by ordinary “good” people.
But in my particular reflections on the recent history of downtown Montgomery, I’m not thinking about the ethical judgment necessitated by civil rights. I’m just thinking about how regular folks, overlooked folks, did keep businesses downtown, even though the surrounding shops were shuttered, leaving entire blocks looking like a bomb had gone off.
One such merchant was John Durham.
Until January 1, 2013, Durham ran a watch repair shop in the Bell Building on Montgomery Street. Today, when walking by, I noticed that his shop was empty. Mr. Durham was inside, making one last sweep of the place before closing the door behind him for good.
I didn’t know he was closing. I stopped in to let him know that we’d miss seeing him in there, peering through a jeweler’s loupe into a beautiful set of meticulously arranged gears.
He offered me a jug of hydrochloric acid, not knowing how tempted I was to take him up on it and cart around the dangerous liquid that he had used for some process related to gold plating.
I didn’t tell him that we had briefly blogged about his shop, encouraging people to take their watches there. I didn’t tell him that, although I had never used his services (and don’t even wear a watch), that it warmed my heart to see him at work. I didn’t talk about how I was sad that cell phones had reduced watches to luxury status symbols for the rich, nor did I express admiration for the details and focus that an artisan must have to work with tiny machines that measure our lives in such discrete increments.
No, instead I told him that we’d all miss him and wished him the best in his retirement. He is, after all, in his 90s and he said that he had plenty of housework to catch up on.
I don’t honestly know if Durham is a nice guy or not. I never heard anything negative about him. But it’s interesting how my mind valorized Durham’s longevity, his commitment to his work, the generational and technological divide that he represented. I would love to be so passionate about my craft that I continue to work on it into my life’s ninth decade.
Alvin Benn, himself an elderly icon of Montgomery, wrote an indispensable story about Durham for the Montgomery Advertiser on July 25, 2010. For the moment, it is online at this Sidney Lanier website. But if the operators of the site take it down, it’ll disappear in the impenetrable archives of the corporation that owns the Advertiser. The article is good, as most of Benn’s feature stories and profiles are. It’s the reason I didn’t try to interview Durham before. It contains plenty of info about his 65-year career fixing watches, his 70 years in Montgomery, his 40 years in the Bell Building.
At the Bell Building today, I felt lucky to have run into Durham before he left for the last time. I held the door for him as he carted the hydrochloric acid to his minivan, saying that he thought some auto parts people might could use it — something about car batteries.
I looked in at his empty shop, where he used to have some really cool pocket watches, and little velvet cases, and a set of intricate tools. I looked at the Bell Building, which is over 100 years old and currently for sale. I thought about the old guy around the corner that runs the engraving shop, which may also be an endangered business as people just order plaques and trophies off the Internet.
There’s something both sad and beautiful about the sole proprietorship run by a single person with no successor. When the person ceases to engage in commerce, the business goes away. People get old. People stop wearing watches.
Durham Watch Service didn’t have a website. It didn’t have a Facebook page. It almost never advertised. But it had a loyal customer base who respected the craft of someone who was incredibly skilled. And now there’s an empty place on the ground floor of the Bell Building on Montgomery Street.
Downtown Montgomery will carry on, with minor league baseball, some hotels, a ton of bars and over-priced restaurants serving mid-grade food to convention attendees and tourists looking to tweet photos of themselves standing next to something or other about civil rights or the Civil War. But hopefully, people will take a minute and look up at the Bell Building and think about how small merchants used to make things and provide services to folks.