I’d always had a strange attraction to the House of Vacuums, the distinct building on the stretch of Huntsville Road that runs through the Sweetwater District of Florence, AL. I’m by no means a vacuum cleaner enthusiast. When it’s my turn to break out the Dyson and gather up the masses of dog hair littering our carpets and hardwood, I throw my hands in the air and wail plaintively like I’m a sweat-soaked ne’er-do-well straight out of a Tennessee Williams play.
I’d visited the place a few times. I have early-80s memories of accompanying my grandmother to get her “sweeper,” as she called it, repaired there. I used to swing by to replenish our supply of bags or belts before we switched to that aforementioned newfangled model that required neither.
The interior was nothing special, just a nondescript mom-and-pop outfit that catered to a very specific, albeit necessary, set of products. It was one of those places with merchandise hanging on naked pegboards, handwritten price tags that hung on thread, gaudy yellow starburst signs with “SALE” or “45% OFF. THIS WEEK ONLY!” scrawled in Sharpie.
But the exterior. To appreciate it, allow me to present this photo from Google Maps, simply captioned “Can’t Miss That Sign!”
Something about it–the fire-engine red against the gray, the simplicity of the font, the awning–just caught the eye. Back when this little stretch of the city was a derelict eyesore, the House of Vacuums flourished, a beacon of hope in a wildly fluctuating economy. No matter how tough times are, no one wants filthy carpet.
In college, I was a regular fixture at Stagg’s Grocery, another locally-owned, historic business which boasts an affordable burger that consistently makes the top 5 in Best Burger in Alabama polls, not to mention their chocolate gravy biscuits that are
almost as good better than Grandma’s. (It’s a Southern thing.)
I would drive down the street in eager anticipation, looking at the other empty storefronts and think of all the potential. Exiting with stomach bloated and bordering on bursting, I would again take in the latent charm. This little block had the typical downtown spaces, two-story buildings piled on one another with awnings or New-Orleans-style balconies. Open up a few nightclubs, a swanky restaurant or two, and you could have yourself a mini-mini-Beale Street.
Apt as I am to be carried away by my imagination, I would close my eyes and picture it. Some indie band, unknown to the common rabble but burning up the college radio stations, would be playing a small venue here. Next door other revelers were staggering into a pub for some greasy fare to sit heavy on their booze-laden bellies. People in the streets laughing. Shiny Mustangs and Trans Ams slowly creeping through the thoroughfare, looking to be seen at the “it” spot. And the one oddity: House of Vacuums, closed for business until 8 a.m. tomorrow, but still an imposing portion of the landscape.
But not in this town, not in the late 90s/early 2000s. Nah, this place, despite its rich heritage, was on life support and desperately in need of a DNR order.
Back then I hated Florence, hated the Shoals area in general, and dreamed of whisking off to another locale as soon as I had a degree or two and the means to afford a studio in some hip, up-and-coming neighborhood of Brooklyn or Seattle or the aforementioned Crescent City.
Obviously that never happened and now never could thanks to gentrification, but something else remarkable did.
The Shoals got cool again. Florence Main Street as well as other upstart organizations united to re-tool the blocks around the university. Court Street, Wood Avenue, and Seminary Street were now boasting snazzy new restaurants and bars. Eclectic crafts, clothing, and art shops opened their doors (one even literally called The Eclectic). High fashion designer Billy Reed opened his flagship store on Court. Due to the documentary Muscle Shoals and its rabid fanbase, the music scene–which in the 70s had boasted records from Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Cher, and many others–was rekindled. Grammy-winner John Paul White formed Single Lock Records. You could walk into a noisy, crowded bar like Flo-Bama and find Angela Hacker wailing a wild tune that uncannily channeled both Etta James and Janis Joplin.
Seldom a week goes by that I don’t meet someone from out of town, lots of folks on the Music Triangle Tour: Nashville, Muscle Shoals, and Memphis. They come from New England, the West Coast, Canada. Some are a long way from home, as in Switzerland, Germany, France, the UK.
I haven’t thought about leaving in a long time. Matter of fact, I ain’t ever abandoning this shining gem on the Tennessee River.
This is home, and my home is cooler than yours.
Don’t even go there, Austin. You’re intolerably mainstream. You may have SXSW and barbecue but we have ShoalsFest and chocolate gravy biscuits. (Have I mentioned the chocolate gravy biscuits?)
We have the W. C. Handy Fest (and his historic birthplace). We have Southern fusion cuisine (you haven’t lived till you’ve had Odette‘s fried chicken with green tomato chutney). We have the George Lindsey Film Festival. We have burlesque shows … occasionally. We have a Frank Lloyd Wright house.
We have everything.
Everything but a House of Vacuums.
The music that comes from this corner of the world is unique, a sort of hybrid of country, black gospel, and R&B. Yes, Muscle Shoals Sound is a studio where the Stones recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” just two days before the debacle at Altamont. But “Muscle Shoals Sound” is a distinct flavor of music, the product of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section, informally known as “The Swampers.” And now you understand that Skynrd lyric: “Now Muscle Shoals has got the Swampers/and they’ve been known to pick a song or two.”
You hear it in The Staple’s Singer’s “I’ll Take You There.” You can’t miss it Wilson Pickett’s oeuvre. “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge, check.
The Swampers are still making music, still rocking venues around here, even appearing on albums. Sadly, they’re also getting on up there in years. No disrespect to them, but a new crop of musicians are sweeping in, and they too have a distinct sound. It’s inspired by their legendary forebears, but it’s got its own twist.
It’s more or less dropped the R of R&B, but it’s embraced the B. There’s still a remnant of Nashville twang–old Nashville, good Nashville, not whatever fetid pop twang is seeping out of that town now. There’s a folksy vibe. There’s a faux-vintage vibe; you almost expect to hear a scratchy needle brushing vinyl somewhere in the duration of the digital track.
I’m no music critic. I’m definitely not the fellow to explain it. I just know it’s there, audible, palpable.
I also–acknowledging my bias–know it’s the greatest sound in contemporary music.
Listen to Funky Donnie Fritts doing “Tuscaloosa 1962.” Listen to Jason Isbell’s “24 Frames.” Put on Erin Rae’s “Love Like Before.” Have a sampling of the Civil Wars’ “Barton Hollow.” Amanda Shires, Lera Lynn, the Pollies, Cedric Burnside. All different artists, some different genres, yet there’s a strange unity underlying it all. It even bleeds east towards Athens–no pun intended–in a record like Anderson East’s Delilah.
Then there’s the upbeat, hard-rocking, janglepop of the Exotic Dangers. It’s early Beatles meets the Strokes with a dash of surf music for good measure. Yet the howling guitar, even the jingle of the tambourine retain hints of a Southern flavor. Their single “Barbie Car” has become a fixture in all my recent playlists.
Very recent, as in I just discovered them yesterday. I don’t know how I missed them, as I consider myself a connoisseur of Shoals Music, especially the stuff coming off Single Lock.
And then there’s the issue of their album cover.
Yup. That place.
After 55 years, House of Vacuums shuttered its doors in December of 2017. I wasn’t even aware until months later the hankering for chocolate gravy biscuits got too strong and Staggs beckoned me. I saw the empty storefront and was filled with a sense of melancholic nostalgia.
By this point, the surrounding buildings had taken advantage of Florence’s cultural rebirth and burst to life. Ray’s on the Bank and Jack’s Place were offering dining experiences somewhere above casual and below fine. For the rest of us, there was Staggs.
But this bulwark, this symbol of not just Huntsville Road but my childhood was gone, still shining its bright red letters but vacant inside.
It’s no surprise why. Former manager Bobby Linville summed it up. No more vacuum repair because “they make more throw-away products.” Considerably less customers because “so many internet sales have hurt business. Right now, there’s not a whole lot of small businesses that do what we do. I’ve seen a lot of mom-and-pop shops that have gone out of business” (qtd. in Delinski).
He didn’t mention big-box retailers like Best Buy and Wal-Mart pushing out the little guys either, but the store’s fate was also linked to this unholy trinity.
Maybe it’s just my age. Maybe I’ve become the get-off-my-lawn stereotype. Whatever, I pine for the old days of those locally-owned business, a time when you got to know the employees, built a relationship, had face-to-face interactions. Now it’s just a mouse click and two-day free shipping. Now it’s ordering your food on an app and only having to mutter a “thank you” to the carhop as she thrusts the sack through your window.
There’s such an air of inauthenticity. There are four Wal-Marts within driving distance where I could get vacuum cleaner belts should I need one. But the employee wouldn’t know my name, should I be able to find one. Interact with a cashier? You mean at the self-checkout line? Everything’s a chain, lining the pockets of corporate fatcats instead of owners who live in your community, who you interact with.
Perhaps that’s why I love the Shoals so much. We crave the authentic.
Keep your overproduced pop music. We’re rocking out to The Kernels or Dylan LeBlanc instead of T-Swift and T-Pain.
Eat your cardboard dollar-menu burger from Mickey D’s. I’ll stick with Staggs. Want something vaguely resembling Chinese from Panda Express? I’ll settle for the Southern-Asian fusion of Yumm!
Got a piss-water, near-beer Bud Light in your hand. Shame because I’m enjoying the crisp seasonal flavors of a Kodachrome from Singin’ River Brewery.
Nice Tommy Hilfiger logo on your shirt. I’m wearing Billy Reid. Well, actually I’m not because his clothes are insanely sized. I’m not THAT fat, but I can’t even get into a XXL. Still, I’d be wearing it if I could.
Mass marketing and mass production has drained all the culture from the United States, and, sadly, globalization is spreading this disease to the rest of world. I’m not saying this little corner of the world is utterly immune to this deleterious influence. But I am relieved that many of us are actively defying it. Just call us microbial, ’cause we got culture.
The deserted House of Vacuums should serve as an ominous reminder of what happens when you embrace the inauthentic. Not to fearmonger, but the corporate overlords would love to have us march lockstep with their bland conformity.
I mean, imagine a world without Staggs Grocery’s chocolate gravy biscuits.
No, don’t. That’s too dark a thought even for me.