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Daywander: The Night Before the Night Before Christmas

I spent an hour and a half this afternoon walking around the business district of a small town. Which small town doesn’t matter, but it was a decent size for a small town, with about sixty retail establishments running along four intersecting streets. I was pleased to see only five or six vacant storefronts, and I had to park on the far edge of things to get a spot at all.

But I don’t mind. I like small towns, ever moreso as flyover country is left behind by gigalopolises swelling toward some looming urban Chandrasekhar limit. There was bustle but not asphyxiation, and nobody seemed afraid of actually saying the word “Christmas.” As in most small town centers, national franchises are exiled to the margins. Down in the middle it was all small, locally owned businesses, so as gray as the day was, it felt good to be walking around, sniffing out the culture and picking up a few late items for the season before it got dark.

The owner of the local used bookshop was beaming: There was a line at the checkout, and everybody seemed to have six or eight books in hand to slap on the counter. I waited for things to quiet down again before asking her if she had any of Debbie Macomber’s Christmas angels books, starring angels Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy, who follow hapless heroines all the days of their lives, or at least until the happy ending. It’s a wonderfully droll piece of punwork, though I wonder if you have to be over fifty to get the joke.

“I have three of them!” she announced triumphantly, and sprinted for the Great Wall of Romance Novels, from which she instantly pulled two. The third seemed to have gone missing, until she remembered that it was part of the Christmas window display. She took a three-foot-long thing-grabber from behind the counter and plucked the book out from amidst a gathering of plastic angels, elves and Santa Clauses, knocking over a small pile of Sue Grafton (U is for Ubiquitous) and bringing along an inadvertent divot of white fuzz. Bang! Four thousand-odd books in the store, and the owner zeroed in on three of them in less than sixty seconds. What we lose when we lose small bookshops is people who know what books are in stock and precisely where to find them, people who not only love books but still read them.

There were two barbershops in town. Both were open, and both had guys sitting along the wall waiting for haircuts, not reading Playboy but hanging out, laughing and BSing and having a good time, so much so that I ached to have hair again, just to be in there with them enjoying the moment. I find it interesting that all barbershops are basically identical, no matter where they are, and that they’ve barely changed at all since my father first dropped me into one of those enormous chairs (on an upholstered elevator seat that was basically a piece of 2X8 covered with dark green leather and stuffed with something lumpy) when I was four or five, and let Louie the Barber have at my unruly mop.

I didn’t expect to find a Catholic store in such a small place, but there it was, complete with a life-size cardboard figure of Good Pope Bennie with his hand raised in blessing. Christmas cards were on sale and I bought some after a quick scan through the books and holy cards. Catholic stores are invariably conservative, often reactionary, full of short books with bland covers that might be paraphrased as “Sex is good…as long as you don’t think too much about it.” It occurred to me briefly that I was behind enemy lines, but only when I was close enough to the shelves of books to read the titles. As my research of these past fifteen years has shown, there is far more to Catholicism than just words. Rome may no longer be my church but Catholicism remains my tradition, and advent candles (also on sale) have dimensions of meaning that cannot be fully captured in text.

And so it went. I plunked out a tune on a thumb-harp in a music store, checked out the flavors in the ice cream parlor (all home-made!) lest something with malt in it slip past unseen (alas, no luck) and grinned at the dusty display of Seventies shoes in the window of a tiny shoe repair shop that had been there long before those shoes had been abandoned by their owners in the Decade of Ugly. Lamps, lounge chairs, lingerie–American life summarized in store windows, writ large enough to feel prosperous but small enough to be graspable at strolling speed. Woodfield Mall is downright intimidating, but this…well, I can live with life at small-town scale. A police car rolled by as I waited to cross the street, and the cop inside waved. To me. A stranger, an out-of-towner, nobody special but still someone important enough to treat with courtesy and welcome.

It’s been a bum year in a lot of ways, some I’ve written about here, and some I’m keeping to myself. Time has seemed out of joint. (Has it been Halloween already?) But now–yeah, now things are back in focus, with time running at its comfortable one-second-per-second pace. I think I’m (finally) ready for Christmas!


  1. Bruce C. Baker says:

    If you like small towns, then you will certainly enjoy James Lileks’s virtual tours of NoDak small-town main street buildings:

    Merry Christmas to you, Carol, and The Pack!

  2. Larry N says:

    Some years ago I was sitting in the barber chair and a 80-something guy was waiting his turn. In walked a 90-something guy. 80-something said to 90-something: “I thought you were dead!”. Much laughter followed.

    Then there were long stories of moon-shining under the cooperative nose of the local sheriff.

    Barber shops are magic places. My barber Stan retired and then died. Then his partner Ron retired. So I went to a new barber. Ellen is a wonderful person and a great barber but her place just doesn’t have the quirky testosterone laced atmosphere.

    Merry Christmas.

  3. Rich Shealer says:

    Jeff I saw this on Ken Levine’s blog today. It’s a take on how would todays technology handle the Nativity. I thought it was kind of special. There are a lot of less obvious details such as the car rental page and the Farmville reference.

    Rich Shealer

  4. Tom says:


    Thanks for the wonderful Christmas present that this piece was! This has been one of the most stressful and hectic weeks before Christmas in quite a while for too many little things that seemed to conspire against us.

    Reading Contra tonight after a long and busy day really was a lift! Maybe it is time to go looking for that small town for myself!

    Merry Christmas

  5. Bernie Sidor says:

    Enjoyed this piece.

    Merry Christmas to you and your family.

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