CASHIERS, N.C. — The first year of a working man’s downshift into retirement is the wrong time to ask whether he misses his old job. You might as well ask a new parolee if he’s homesick for the slammer, or a fresh college graduate whether he’s melancholy for final exams.
Still, you ask, in deference to the fact that a man’s identity is often indistinguishable from his career. Ask a fellow what he does for a living, he’ll tell you what he is. I’m a plumber. I’m a mechanic. I’m a doctor, a teacher, a lawyer, an insurance agent, a computer programmer, a forester, a trapper, a journalist, a politician.
Carl Littlefield was a public servant — even before his surprise election to the Legislature in 1992, if you want the truth of it — and much of his instant and ongoing joy with retired life is that, fundamentally, he is a public servant still.
OK, sure, there’s the store full of antiques, oddities and other eclectic collectibles he and Cheryl, his wife of 44 years, opened last spring (much of it hauled up from their home on Meridian Avenue in Dade City), an event that ostensibly serves as the peg from which this column hangs.
But it’s like Littlefield says: “We have the store because we wanted to be able to justify spending six months (a year) in the mountains. But, in all honesty, one thing doesn’t really rely on the other. If we wanted to stay up here for six months, we could do that, with or without a store.”
Eventually, however, it takes a determined malingerer to maintain a routine bereft of structure, and that is a status to which the Littlefields neither aspired or were equipped to pursue. Their partnership has been at all times framed by purpose, whose source is faith in the divine. Moreover, as experts in the scriptures and the latter-day proverbs that sprung from them, they are wary of the mischief attributable to idle hands.
“After a while,” Carl says, “you need some place to go, a place to keep you busy.”
Besides, having a shop – and not just any shop, but this particular one, this “Mantiques,” this combination museum/treasure chest/scavenger hunt of all things masculine — feeds and reflects Carl’s passion for collecting and preserving evidence of a world in which men were somewhat more manly.
Mantiques is filled, floor to second-story ceiling, with stuff from that world, stuff that never glimpsed an assembly line or the inside of a transoceanic cargo ship. It’s stuff crafted from wood and steel and bone and hide, sinewy stuff that was subject to the rigors of the forge, anvil and hammer, and delicate stuff rendered with carving knives and fine grit sandpaper, and finished with steady, sure brush strokes.
It was, by all appearances, a kinetic, hands-on world where even cutting-edge technology benefited from the application of large muscle groups. Butter was churned in wooden, wheel-shaped crates. Telephones bigger than a desktop CPU hung on the wall and, with a vigorous grinding of the crank, did precisely one task: summon the operator. A foot pump operated the bellows that coaxed music from the family room organ (known then as “parlor” and “melodeon”).
And all of it is for sale. There’s room to browse and room to sit — Carl shares his coffee in the morning — but there’s no room for Depression glass, and there’s no room for sentiment.
“When we decided to do this, we decided we were all in,” Carl says. Within days of their May 1 opening, his favorite piece, a carved table-top stand for pipe-smoking supplies featuring hunting dogs on point, went out with a satisfied customer. “Once I got over that,” he says, “it’s been easy.”
A week later, someone asked about the leather club chairs that had been Cheryl’s companions more than 40 years of teaching piano. When she said they weren’t for sale, Carl shot her a I-thought-we-were-all-in glance.
Sighing, Cheryl — once a buyer for the family’s furniture store, so she knows about merchandising — quoted an absurdly high price, or so she thought. The customer didn’t blink, didn’t even counter-offer, and there went 40 years of loyal service. Recalling Lot’s poor wife, Cheryl refused to look back.
So, about that ongoing public service work. This spring, for the first time in 20 years — first as a legislator, then director of agencies looking out for Florida’s elderly and, later, disabled — Carl had no role in the Legislature’s annual sprint to finalize the state budget. Which was fine by him. Every time he had to break the news of fresh budget cuts, Carl got the impression those being squeezed held him personally responsible.
“I always got the feeling they thought they’d been cut,” he says, “because I wasn’t a better advocate.”
Instead, he and Cheryl were in a race of their own, turning an out-of-the-way batten board building that has been, by turns, a pizza shop, a place for picking up cook-it-yourself gourmet dinners, and a bakery, into Mantiques. Carl doesn’t particularly care whether he sells anything (except that moving merchandise allows him to buy more new old stuff).
“I want people to feel welcome,” he says, “to come and browse if that’s what they want to do, or come and sit and talk if that’s what they’d rather do. People need someplace to go and feel comfortable just being there. That’s what we want this place to be.”
So stop on by the next time you’re on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Settle in. See what retirement done right looks like.