Gamble and Son 




Antoinette Brush


© 1999 by Antoinette Brush

Photo of the inside of an upholstery shop.
Bill Gamble was an upholsterer who owned a shop, called "Gamble and Son," across the street from my parent's home. Bill was the son in the partnership. He was probably in his mid-forties when I knew him best. I was six years old, never realizing the commotion our friendship created in the neighborhood.

"Gamble and Son" was located on the bottom floor of a three-story white stucco building that sat facing Coryell Street. Sections of the building's stucco had fallen off, revealing areas of fieldstone underneath. Unlike most skeletal exposures, this made the building appear more vulnerable than scary. The second and third floors were rented as apartments. The shop had two large picture windows in the front framing each side of a double door. Bill always kept one-half of the doors open. There wasn't any screen door. The entrance was covered by a large porch roof, which extended over the sidewalk. The name, "Gamble and Son" was painted on the windows, proudly proclaiming the work of the craftsmen. The doorsill was a large piece of slate, which was kept cool by the porch cover. It was worn slightly concave making it a fine place to sit on a summer's day with a Popsicle.

Inside, the shop was covered with the dust created by hard work. Because it was a more respectable type of dirt, not created by slovenliness but arising from creativity and sweat, no one ever found it offensive. The work, being the primary focus of both occupants and visitors, left the windows ignored, so they soon developed a cover of grime on their own. The floorboards so worn, by those who tread upon them, seemed to follow suit, creating their own sawdust. Even the ceiling participated, not wanting to be idle, had hanging from its rafters curly strips of brown flypaper adhesive, which snagged any insect that would dare interrupt. So, it was that every part of the shop kept pace with its residents.

As was my usual morning habit, I'd begin my day with a stop at Bill's. I entered the store down its center aisle. On each side were large bolts and piles of fabric. So many colors and textures, it was intoxicating. My eyes not knowing where to settle would travel from one bolt of fabric to the next, in rhythm to the hum of a sewing machine. Strewn haphazardly about were large piles of fabric sample books, so that I was dwarfed by the inventory.

While the inventory might have caused me to feel like "Tom Thumb," it never stopped me from noticing every time Bill put up a new picture. I asked Bill about them once; he patted my head and explained that they were works of art. Although puzzled by his response, I accepted his answer as straightforward as he gave it. Looking for Bill each morning, I never perceived that the art threatened our friendship.

At the end of the center aisle, I'd find Bill, sitting at his sewing machine. The sewing table was located near a side window that opened onto the alley. Through it the sun would brighten his workspace and gleam on his balding head while he sat hunched over his work. Finding Bill was always a delight, like finding the prize in a box of Cracker Jacks.

"Hiya Bill. Whacha doin'?" I asked, as my fingers explored the fabric pieces and various boxes of tacks, bobbins, and small hand tools he had surrounding him.

Bill having the patience of a saint replied the same each time, "Just workin'. What are you doing on this fine day?"

"Nothin'. Do you need any help?" I asked while leaning on the sewing table lifting my body weight up and down so I could twist and bounce while talking. Bill's head bobbed slightly following my calisthenics.

"Well, I'm just finishing up the covering for that chair."

Behind us, in the center of the room was a large wooden table that sat low to the floor. On it were different pieces of furniture in various stages of repair. Among the pieces sat an armchair half upholstered. It was here that sagging, old furniture would arrive, be refurbished, and leave looking showroom new.

While Bill also made slipcovers to hide the flaws of furniture, I rather loved the refurbishing best. It was a mesmerizing process. Bill's father, who worked in the back room of the shop, specialized in constructing the wire coils that compose the inside of all furniture. It was the older Mr. Gamble who exposed the furniture's core, and replaced its skeleton. Afterwards, he would place the stripped pieces on the table where they would wait to be stuffed.

Furniture stuffing would range from horsehair to cotton batting or sometimes a combination of both. Prickly and smooth it would be woven through the coils or surround the pieces of foam that would ultimately shape the furniture's seat and back. Once strengthened the furniture would wait to be dressed.

With some sewing still unfinished, Bill began to magically guide the fabric across the plate of the sewing machine, gently shaping and pulling it along. He did this so fast that I, watching the speed of the needle, would worry, imagining he'd accidentally prick a finger. But he never did. No one could sew faster than Bill. He would explain each step of the process while making the appropriate tucks and corners. He spoke to me as if I were an adult. Never acknowledging my inability to conceptualize the pattern until after he would start to fit the fabric onto the furniture's wooden frame.

"That's the arm chair cover!"

"Yup, but what's really important is matching the pattern on this arm, to the one on the seat cover. That's the measure of fine craftsmanship."

I nodded quickly in agreement. I was still marveling over the creation of the armchair cover itself, how it had just suddenly appeared. Bill was a great magician.

As an eager audience, I wanted a good seat. So, one of my favorite activities was to climb on top of the inventory where I had a better view of the shop, and Bill's work. Once, on top of the bolts of fabric, I fell asleep. The warmth of the sun on my legs, the hum of the sewing machine, the gentle hammering of Bill's father, all seemed a lullaby. When I woke, Bill asked, "Have a good nap?"

"I wasn't sleeping."

The manner in which Bill said, "Aha" conveyed he knew the truth. "I think I hear your mother callin'. Better go see what she wants."

My mother had the best neighborhood calling voice. Her pitch went up with the last syllable of your name. So when she shouted, "Toe-nee", she sounded like she was competing in one of those pig-calling contests you'd see on television. It didn't matter whether you were a few houses away, in Masterson's backyard, or a few blocks away, in the schoolyard; you could hear her plain as day. To answer, you'd throw your head back, look up at the sky and shout as loud as you could, "What?" dragging the word out as if it had two syllables.

Being inside "Gamble and Son" I couldn't very well throw my head back and shout an answer, so I did the next best thing. I ran to the open door, hung partially out, and shouted "What?" back at her.

"What are you doing? Come home and stop pestering Mr. Gamble."

"I'm not pestering him, I'm helpin'." But Mom made that insistent wave with her hand, the one that said I had better come home. So with an exasperated sigh, I said, "See you later, Bill" and walked out the door.

"What's going on over there?"

"Nothin', I'm helpin'."

"Well, I don't think you should go over there anymore. Lord only knows what's goin' on. That's no a place for a child, you hear? The whole neighborhood is talking."

I had heard this argument before, and never understood it. Mom had sent Dad over to Gamble and Son to see what was going on. I couldn't figure out why, if Mom wanted to know what was going on, she just didn't go herself. I had over heard my parents talking about it. Dad said, "It's a shop, Betty, that's all. Bill seems like a decent guy."

"Decent? You call that exhibition decent?"

"It's Bill's shop, he can do what he wants."

"And what about your daughter? She's over there all the time."

"If you're so worried about it, tell her not to go."

Having heard this, I knew not to continue the argument with Mom, just as I knew that I'd be back inside Bill's before too long.

Bill was a very generous friend. He gave me the out-dated fabric sample books, which I would use for dolls, and dollhouses that I'd construct out of cardboard. He also sent me a box of salt-water taffy every year from the Jersey shore during his vacation. Except one year he sent me something different.

"Here's your box of candy," Mom said after retrieving the mail. I had been anxiously waiting for my candy ever since Bill had closed the shop.

"Fudge!" I ripped open the box. Inside there was a wonderful assortment of flavors. As I lifted a gooey piece of chocolate from the box, I noticed something moving. Looking twice, I saw a worm.

"Worms! Look!" I said holding the box toward Mom.

"Oh dear," she said taking the box from me, while still keeping it a distance from her, "Well, let's not bother about these worms. You just remember to thank Bill when he gets back."

So when Bill returned, he asked "How did you like the fudge?"

"It was very good," I said, "the worms didn't bother me a bit." Every year after that Bill sent me taffy.

Bill and I remained friends through the years, over time Mom grew less concerned. As I grew older I realized that it was because of Bill's taste in art, that my mother would later ask what kind of man Bill really was, meaning did he ever lay a hand on me. Even as a small child I could see the contradiction between Bill and his art. Bill liked Playboy Pin up Girls. So pasted all over the walls, in various poses, just like expensive pieces of art, were blondes, redheads and brunettes. Naked as the day they were born. Bill may have had peculiar taste in art, but he was a kind, gentle, man who worked magic with his hands. For those hands to ever do what my mother and the neighborhood suggested, they would have had to belong to someone else.

By the time I was in high school Bill Gamble had retired, and the shop closed. It stayed empty for years. Later it became an antique store selling "Old English Pine," managed by an Englishman we all joked was really just a con man from Hoboken and not English at all. The Englishman has since moved uptown. Now although the shop is once again an antique store, another manages it. In spite of the shop's present occupants, its glory days belong to another time. A time when a craftsman created works of art with his hands, and a place where a craftsman's art was all a matter of taste.

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