Today is Thursday, July 24, 2014

Small town pleasures in Bell Buckle

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Indeed, the atmosphere of this town of 405 (if you count the 105 students who board at the Webb School) definitely favors the mid-20th century. “It’s like going back to your childhood,” said Phillips, who was born and raised here.

And speaking of Webb School, the 34th Webb School Art & Craft Festival, featuring juried artists and exhibitors, more than 500 booths and live entertainment, will be held Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 16-17. The two-day event draws thousands of tourists as the village swells into a city.

Then on Saturday, Oct. 30, bluegrass and country musicians, such as hometown act Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike, will perform a benefit for Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie Louvin at the Bell Buckle Banquet Hall.

At Phillips’ antique shop, seekers will find primitives and early American country, vintage clothing and architectural and garden items. Right now the store is dressed with a Halloween theme, and while the décor transforms with the holidays, one thing never changes here. The proprietor always has on hand fresh Moon Pies and cold RC Colas (Bell Buckle has gained a fair amount of fame as the home of the Moon Pie and RC Cola Festival each June).

Phillips has operated the store since 1989. His mother bought it, lock, stock and barrel, while she was pregnant with her son in 1971. She looked through the front window of the locked store one day and spotted an old showcase that looked like a dollhouse

When she left a message with the owners wanting to know how much it was, she was astounded to hear back that the asking price was $750. Pursuing the matter further, she found out the owner meant $750 for the store and contents. The transaction was made, and Phillips General Store was born (as was Billy a month later).

The downtown Bell Buckle of today, which is nearly the spitting image of what it was a century ago, almost went before the wrecking ball 35 years ago, according to Phillips.

“In the 1970s two aldermen voted to bulldoze the oldest and only brick block in town. Two other aldermen voted no, and the mayor abstained. In 1976 new leadership got the entire block put on the National Historic Register,” Phillips said.

“I’m so lucky to be able to work and live some place I love. What’s unique is that all the stores are so different. Every store has its own personality,” said the town’s informal public relations chief.

Next door to the antique store is Joe and Debbie Sheetz’s combo named Designz by You/Coffees by Us Shop. Up front is a store brimming with inspirational gifts, while in back awaits a coffee shop that offers 20 flavors, such as latte, mocha and cappuccino, priced from $2 to $3.19.

But the star attraction is the couple’s home-schooled son, Lil Joe, 14, who serves as the barrista (coffee maker) in the rear, while he also ties fishing lures in his cubbyhole in the front window when business is slow. He was 7 when he got a little fly-tying kit and pursued what has become a profession.

Joe makes about 1,500 flies a year and estimates he has produced about 10,000 since he started. The trout lures sell for $1-$2. “I can tie over 100 different patterns. I‘m learning new patterns every week,” said the young craftsman, who also makes fishing rods that start at $275.

A coffeemaker for the past two years, Joe brews 60 to 80 coffees a day. The beans are ground here fresh daily.

“I was trained by a judge for the National Barrista Competition,” said Joe, who is possibly the youngest barrista in the state. Ask Lil Joe what makes a great cup of joe and he will tell you, “Steaming the milk right and tamping the espresso.”

If hungry tourists are needing more than a beverage, the Bell Buckle Café, just a short stroll down the sidewalk, will fill the bill and the tummy. Operated since 1992 by Jeanette and J. Gregory Heinike and their daughters Heidi and Hillary, the restaurant resides inside in an 1870s building that served as the town post office for decades.

“We serve great food to our great customers,” said Jeannette, who mentions such palate pleasers as smoked pork chops, chicken-fried steak, fried biscuits, curly chips, homemade oat cake, grit cake and chocolate-chip zucchini cake.

The café is also home to live, old-timey music on Friday and Saturday nights, and a radio show, “The J. Gregory Jam,” which emanates from here 1-3 p.m. Saturdays on WILJ (1580 AM). And the café has launched a new venue, the Bell Buckle Banquet Hall, which seats 270 and can be used as a concert hall as well as for get-togethers.

“I tried to fill a need to have different functions,” said J. Gregory Heinike, “a meeting place for folks to have weddings, reunions and receptions.”

Meanwhile, if you’ve got room for another dessert or afternoon snack, don’t pass the Bluebird Ice Cream Parlor run by Daddy and Mama Phillips (Albert and Nancy). The quaint shop nestles in a pre-1900s grocery store, displays antiques for sale and features a soda parlor with a soda bar from a long-gone Chattanooga saloon.

The to-die-for desserts here are the fresh homemade waffle cones and the homemade fudge. Mama makes the waffle cones, and Daddy makes the fudge.

“Ice cream is our best seller,” Daddy Phillips said. “The white chocolate raspberry is made special for us by Purity. This is the only place you can get it.”

Enough said. It’s time to buckle up and cruise on over to Bell Buckle. Hold a waffle cone for me.

Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com

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