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The gang's all here

Charlie Boyette, 84, left, and Don Lomax, owner of the Antique and Garden Shoppe in Fort Mill have a "senior" conversation about life, things and the state of the world last week.
Charlie Boyette, 84, left, and Don Lomax, owner of the Antique and Garden Shoppe in Fort Mill have a "senior" conversation about life, things and the state of the world last week.

The world's problems are being solved daily at a treasures and idiosyncrasies shop on Fort Mill's Main Street.

If only the world would listen.

Regular cronies and new customers, advised by other shop owners to "see the man with the hat," can find old 45 rpm records, baseball cards, paintings, pots and valuable antiques among the clutter.

And conversation. There is always conversation that rises from two gold, overstuffed easy chairs, one leather and the other naughahyde, at the store's center.

The chairs and the conversation are the only things that aren't for sale. It's a place where the arrival of a new artifact can trigger memories and a stream of dialogue.

The cronies range in age from their 50s to their 80s. Sometimes, veteran Mayor Charlie Powers is there, or former Fort Mill councilman of 20-some years Charlie Boyette. There is Storm Hambel, significant small star tattoos on her forehead under a shock of white hair. And Buddy Brunnemer, known to the cronies as "Mr. Baseball." He can cite baseball stats dating to the 1940s off the top of his head.

"It's just spontaneous," Don Lomax, who owns the Antique & Garden Shoppe, said of the assemblage. "Sometimes they talk about their aches and pains. Sometimes they get into politics, but I try to steer 'em clear of that because they can get to arguin'."

Lomax, 73, is the "man in the hat." He has a closet full of them, but his current is Indiana Jones-style. Another personal trademark is strung around his neck: the tip of a buffalo horn, acquired from a Native American Marine Corps buddy when he shipped off to Korea.

"Said it would keep me safe," Lomax explained.

Kevin Miller, 57, of Rock Hill drops by two or three times a week.

"It's a hangout," he said. "It's the atmosphere. It's relaxing."

Sometimes, Miller sells what he buys at Lomax's store on eBay. Not just the conversation, but the chairs are a draw, he said.

"I've seen people fall asleep in them," he recalled. "I'd be interested in turning them upside down and shaking 'em to see what falls out."

Most of the regulars make a sweep around the store before settling in, but Boyette, 84, ambles in favoring a bad knee, selects a chair and sits for a spell.

On this particular day, he reminisces about his late hunting dogs, Jeff and Joe, and lost retreats around Fort Mill where quail and dove once were plentiful.

"We had the best times," he recalled. "Fort Mill has made a high-priced bedroom for people in Charlotte to come here."

Boyette's city council days date to meetings in the old city hall on Main Street, where a session continued by candlelight when a thunderstorm extinguished the electricity. He served out his last term in 2003.

He was a colorful addition to the council race this year, describing himself as "footloose and fancy-free" with time to devote to city matters. Defeat has not daunted the octogenarian, who said that in his free time now, "I chase the women."

"This year, they wanted young blood," he said of the campaign, "when they had a nice-looking young man like me. They'll be sorry. The people spoke."

When Hambel approaches, the men tend to quiet down.

"They talk about men things," she explained.

She's a large, Native American woman of imposing presence, comfortable in her own skin. Her ancestors were confined to camps in Oklahoma until someone arrived to claim them for labor.

The tattoo stars on her forehead meander into a floral pattern down her right ear. She had it done about five years ago, shortly after she discovered her husband had bone cancer. Spirit guides had come to her in a dream one morning.

"They said, 'You'll never be alone,'" explained Hambel, who still nurses her sick husband. "It's kind of an act of faith. When I look in the mirror, I know I'm not alone. I'm not depressed and scared. Some people carry a Bible. I look in the mirror."

Brunnemer is the last to arrive before lunch. Lomax describes him as "a walking encyclopedia of baseball." Their friendship dates to the days when Lomax owned and operated the Copper Kettle in South Charlotte. Decorated with antiques, it was a restaurant and pub where no one was allowed to sit alone and conversation wound late into the night. Lomax operated an antique store on Cherry Road before moving to Fort Mill.

"When you get here, you never know who will be here," Brunnemer said. "Sometimes, the barbers across the street come in. It's like Andy Griffith. It's the closest thing to Mayberry you got."

Brunnemer said everything in the store has a story behind it.

"If it doesn't, you'll make one up," Lomax quipped.

Some of Lomax's former Copper Kettle customers still drop by the Fort Mill shop for conversation. Others have "gone to their reward," Lomax said.

"There are certain places you go into, you feel comfortable," Brunnemer said of his regular visits to an old friend. "The people are nice here. You name it, we'll talk about it."

"And the conversation is never the same," Lomax added.

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