The Death of the Men’s Store: Lexington’s Graves-Cox Closing After 126 Years

Graves Cox window

The past generation has witnessed the devastation of what was once a stand-by across the nation: the independent men’s shop. The latest victim of the confluence of casual wear, chain stores, and Internet retailers is Lexington’s Graves-Cox & Company.

Graves Cox stirrupStarted in 1888 by Leonard Cox’s grandfather, the market is just no longer viable. “I had already decided to stop carrying suits and sport coats, and only stock blazers,” Cox told me on Thursday. Cox has sold the store to Georgia investors associated with CountryClubPrep.com. He expects them to go the same casual direction he’s been forced into over the past years. “They won’t carry suits and sport coats at all,” Cox said.

Southwick, Barbour, Pantherella, Smathers & Branson, and Alden are just a few of the classic brands Graves-Cox stocks, and now has on sale. Cox told me he expects the sale to continue through June, but some items such as Alden shoes were already in short supply when the sale started.

My thrifting adventures have led me to a couple of vintage Graves-Cox store branded ties over time, both woven emblematics. The horse tie, appropriate to Lexington, probably dates from the 1970s, evidenced by its wider width. I have been considering having a bow tie made out of it. The older tie, likely dating from the 1950s-60s due to its width and construction, has little Confederate battle flags, reflecting Lexington’s Southerness from a time when folks didn’t get worked up by such things.Graves Cox vintage ties

If you get a chance, stop by Graves-Cox before its doors close for good. Get a deal and look around. Chat with Leonard Cox. You can tell your grandchildren how you once visited an independent men’s store.

Graves Cox door Graves Cox Smathers - Branson

Graves Cox store

Wendell Berry at Louisville’s Crescent Hill Baptist

Crescent Hill signWendell Berry addressed faith, agrarianism, and why he hates “environmentalism” in a ninety minute conversation with Centre College Professor Eric Mount on Sunday. The two men sat in angled wingback chairs before a crowd of more than two hundred listeners in the sumptuous surroundings of Louisville’s Crescent Hill Baptist Church. In true professorial fashion, Mount made sure everyone had a copy of his ten “Conversation Starters.” What resulted was not a speech or address, but rather a potpourri of topics linked together by larger themes.

Wendell Berry on ‘Environmentalism’

Berry began by dismissing the word “environment” as useless to the conservation movement, preferring “ecosphere,” or simply “the world.” Berry argued that in order to have a real effect one needs to embrace the particular, call it by “its proper name: the Kentucky River watershed, something known to its inhabitants.” Berry insists we cast off the abstract and embrace what we know and can define.

The same is true with the idea of “agrarian.” Berry harkened to the “Jeffersonian vision” of “small landholders who had a vested interest in the local place.” “The agrarian vision is old,” pointing to Virgil’s Georgics and the Psalms.

Just as he had dismissed “environmentalism,” so, too, Berry waved off the catchphrase “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Calling it a “linguistic mess,” Berry insisted it was not possible to think globally. He said he would prefer to reduce the slogan simply to “Think!”

Berry Mount 1

Should You Trust Someone With a Billion Dollars?

Dr. Mount brought up the work of The Gates Foundation and its vast amounts of money. Berry conceded that the foundation had the money to accept the world as context, but the question is “whether or not they are competent” to do so: “Nobody knows a billion. If someone came to Henry County with a billion dollars and said ‘I’m here to help,’ I would be very much afraid.”

A Holy Economy

When the issue of religion came up, Berry was highly critical of institutionalized expressions of Christianity. The Amish are the most successful examples of Christianity, Berry maintained. Personally, he found that the Buddhist doctrine of “right livelihood” filled a big hole in his thinking, a corrective to what he found in modern expressions of Christianity.

Berry 2

Berry pulled out a copy of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer to read “For Every Man in His Work:”

ALMIGHTY God, our heavenly Father, who declarest thy glory and showest forth thy handiwork in the heavens and in the earth; Deliver us, we beseech thee, in our several callings, from the service of mammon, that we may do the work which thou givest us to do, in truth, in beauty, and in righteousness, with singleness of heart as thy servants, and to the benefit of our fellow men; for the sake of him who came among us as one that serveth, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Berry said the sentiments of this prayer were “utterly alien” to our own economy. “We have an economy founded foursquare on the Seven Deadly Sins. Just go down the list.”

Wendell Berry on Imagination

Dr. Mount called an Order of the Day, and asked Berry to read his poem “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” It was written at a time when everyone was writing manifestos, Berry said, but also at a time he “felt liberated” by the language he was using, much of it drawing from Biblical precedents.

This led to a discussion of the idea of imagination. “We’ve been taught in our schools to see without imagination.” Berry said, “The power of imagination is to see things whole, to see things clearly, to see things with sanctity, to see things with love.” Berry was describing what Edmund Burke called the moral imagination.

Addressing the issue of neighborly institutions, Berry returned to a Biblical outlook. “The idea of neighborliness is the radicalness of the gospel….Your neighbor is somebody who needs your help, which is just terrible.” Such a responsibility is the imagination in action.

Nature’s Standard

Berry referenced the twelfth century poem “Complaint of Nature,” by Alain de Lille. Although he declared it a “pretty dull book,” Berry endorsed Alain’s view of “Nature as the vicar of God.” This was something Chaucer and Spencer also knew, he said.

Berry reading

Reading from Sir Albert Howard’s Introduction to the 1943 classic An Agricultural Testament, Berry stated that this expressed the foundational understanding of the sustainable agricultural movement.

The main characteristic of Nature’s farming can therefore be summed up in a few words. Mother earth never attempts to farm without live stock; she always raises mixed crops;
great pains are taken to preserve the soil and to prevent erosion; the mixed vegetable and animal wastes are converted into humus; there is no waste; the processes of growth and the processes of decay balance one another; ample provision is made to maintain large reserves of fertility; the greatest care is taken to store the rainfall; both plants and animals are left to protect themselves against disease.

Berry emphasized the point “there is no waste.”

CH upper window

Wendell Berry on Climate Change

The discussion eventually turned to the currently hot topic of “climate change.” Berry conceded that “I take it on faith” that there is man-made climate change. “If some scientists that I respect at a conference didn’t take it seriously I’d have a hard time taking it seriously myself.” But again, Berry said the issue won’t have a big solution, but rather “many, many small solutions.”

He also threw cold water on some of the current solutions offered by many environmentalists. “It’s easy to say ‘wind’ but have you seen those windmills? Monstrous.” Even the solar panels he installed at his own house are ugly. “We have to look at those the rest of our lives.”

Wendell Berry on Journalism

During the question and answer segment Berry also countered a self identified “environmental journalist” in the audience who asked about environmental advocacy related to water quality and coal ash. Advocacy wasn’t really the role of journalism, Berry said, “Journalists ought to be finding out what’s what. That’s our desperate need for journalism, and it seems we’re getting less and less of it all the time.”

Wendell Berry’s Vision of Hope

Berry concluded with a call for patience even in the face for what many see as an emergency. He countered such gloom with the admonition to “have as much fun as you can.” And there is always hope: “My faith is that it can’t ever get so bad that a person can’t do something to make things a little better.”

That is a profoundly humane vision, and our terrible responsibility.

Empty chairs

Lexington: Where Ramsey’s Isn’t (& Chatham’s May Be Soon)

Woodland-High work

Readers will know that the Hight Street/Woodland corner location of Ramsey’s Diner is my favorite place to eat in the world. Or it was until Ramsey’s suddenly closed the location and moved to Zandale on Nicholasville Road earlier this year. I’ve not eaten at the new Ramsey’s yet (look for thoughts here soon), but I was encouraged to see men working on the building yesterday. Ramsey’s decision to leave was reportedly based largely on inattention to the building by the owner. A new restaurant called Chatham’s, focusing on lowcountry Southern food (think shrimp & grits), is supposed to open this summer.

I still love Ramsey’s, but leaving their original location was a real blow. I hope Chatham’s keeps the spirit alive in the old place.

[Read my review of Chatham’s at EatKentucky.com]

Off the Shelf: Wendell Berry’s ‘The Wheel: For Robert Penn Warren’

Wheel 1When collecting an author’s works one of the challenging–and thus fun–areas to collect are limited editions. Poets often have some works issued first as limited edition broadsides, larger single sheets printed on one side. Private presses, particularly letterpresses, will issue poetry broadsides in limited editions, often numbered and/or signed by the poet. The often look wonderful framed on your wall.

Broadsides have their origins in the early days of printing. They were usually announcements or advertisements, and were considered disposable. A broadside was essentially what we would call a flyer.

Wendell Berry has issued a number of his poems first in broadside form from a number of different private presses over the decades. One of his earliest broadsides is from North Carolina’s legendary Palaemon Press. Palaemon specialized in Southern authors, and its author list is a veritable who’s who. (Duke has a handy checklist of Palaemon’s publications on its website.)

Palaemon printed a folio of poems dedicated to Kentuckian and Southern legend Robert Penn Warren. Apparently outside of this collected folio was another poem dedicated to Warren, Wendell Berry’s “The Wheel.”

Wheel detail 1

Issued in an edition of 126, one hundred were numbered for sale, while 26 were lettered for private distribution. This is a common limitation size and practice by private presses. This copy is designated as “W,” which means that it was part of the 26 lettered copies, and thus is slightly more desirable than the numbered copies. Along the bottom is a deckled edge, a hallmark of handmade and mould made paper often used by letterpress printers.

Berry would later use “The Wheel” as the title poem to a palm sized 1980 collection of poems published by the late lamented North Point Press.

“The Wheel” uses the motif of dance to illustrate the themes of community, both living and generational, that are so key to Berry’s worldview. And looking back almost thirty five years, we can see that the poem speaks to Berry’s position as heir to Warren as Kentucky and the South’s great active writer.

Wheel colophon

Derby Day: What to Wear at No Man Walks Alone

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Derby Day is upon us, and you may be pondering what to wear. No Man Walks Alone has published my Derby Day wardrobe suggestions:

Spring is marked by color: white and pink dogwoods, a run for red roses, green mint in your julep, multicolored silks on the jockeys. This is not the time for the gray suit and black knit tie.

Race over to No Man Walks Alone for the complete article.

And while we’re on the subject of the Derby, take a moment to visit my earlier post, ‘Derby Day is for Kentuckians.’

A Spring Visit to Lexington Cemetery

Woman statue 2

One of the most beautiful sights in the world is the explosion of blooming dogwoods and red buds in the Kentucky Bluegrass in April. And one of the best places to witness that is in the historic Lexington Cemetery. With the blooms passing their prime, I hurried to take my family to see the beauty before it passes for another year.

Dogwood drive

Dating from 1849, the cemetery is the final resting place of governors, vice-presidents, soldiers, preachers. Henry Clay, the most famous Kentucky politician, is interred there, and his statue towers above all.

Henry Clay

While the cemetery is always a beautiful place to drive through, the dogwoods are fading quickly. Don’t delay.

CSA soldier

Breck 1 Breck 2

Sayre

Woman statue 1

Lexington BBQ: Blue Door Smokehouse

Blue Door frontAlways on the hunt for good barbecue, I was game when my lunch appointment suggested a newer place in Lexington called Blue Door Smokehouse. Now “smokehouse” makes a positive assertion that I appreciate. A growing number of places are using gas on their meat, and it’s just not the same. I commend Blue Door for putting the smoke on display.

Blue Door Smoke

Central Kentucky is a tough place for barbecue. There hasn’t been a strong barbecue culture here, a fact confirmed by signs like “Texas BBQ” in the window. One wouldn’t go to a place in Memphis that said “Kansas City BBQ.” I recognize the marketing aspect (many places do this), but I suppose my gripe is that if you’re going to do barbecue, take a stand that it’s your barbecue.

Blue Door is a friendly place, with patient, but prompt, service. They have a nice offering of meats and sides. I chose brisket and baby back pork ribs. I added sides of ranch beans and potato salad.

The meat at Blue Door is good, well cooked and flavorful. It has a nice crust, but isn’t tough. I liked the brisket a little better than the ribs. I would be glad to have either again.

Blue Door plate

I have to admit I was disappointed with my side choices. I was warned the ranch beans wouldn’t be sweet like standard baked beans, which I was fine with. My beau ideal barbecue shack Oklahoma Joe’s serves a version of ranch beans, in fact. I found these just a little too harsh, however.

The potato salad just wasn’t to my taste at all. While I found the beans too harsh, the potato salad was bland. It needed some flavor kick. My friend let me try her collard greens, and they were quite tasty. I would recommend trying those. I almost ordered the vinegar slaw, and wish I had. I think it would have been more to my liking. If worse comes to worse, they do have Grippo’s chips.

Blue Door offers three sauces on the table: sweet, spicy, and tangy. I always try the meat first without sauce, but then I like to test out whatever they have. It wasn’t long before I found that my sauce of choice was the tangy, which is a vinegar based sauce of the same style as Alabama’s Dreamland Bar-B-Que. Blue Door’s tangy doesn’t have quite the flavor depth as Dreamland, but it’s quite good if you like a vinegar based sauce. The other sauces were also good, but I mostly stuck with tangy after I found it.

Blue Door sauces

So as my Lexington barbecue adventure begins, Blue Door Smokehouse was a good start. It’s solid barbecue, that doesn’t reach the level of greatness. Still, I hope to return and recommend you stop by.

Blue Door BBQ
226 Walton Avenue
Lexington, KY 40502
Monday-Thursday 11 am – 3 pm
Friday-Saturday 11 am – 9 pm
Closed Sunday

 

Back to Lexington: Parkette Drive-In

Parkette signFor my entire life I have been in and out of Lexington, Kentucky. I went to college there. I worked there. During all those decades I have driven by Lexington landmark Parkette Drive In innumerable times. And I never once stopped despite the classic sign beckoning me in.

This trip, I decided, would be different. Vowing to break out of my ritualistic visit to Ramsey’s Diner (don’t get me wrong, you should go to Ramsey’s), I decided to spread my culinary wings. Parkette Drive In it was.

Parkette is a true 1950s era drive in straight out of American Graffiti (yes, I know it was set in 1962, but you get the point). It’s the kind of place after which a modern chain like Sonic is modeled. Parkette plugged along for over 50 years before finally closing, only to be purchased and reopened a decade ago.

Parkette garageThe newly revitalized Parkette has proved to be so popular a new Eat-In Garage was added. An open air building with garage doors all around and ceiling fans to keep things cool, it blends well with the traditional drive-in vibe. They’ve played on the garage theme with old signs (and replicas) covering the walls.

I arrived right at lunch time, and the Parkette was busy but without wait. I decided to go for their Big Lex Burger with onion rings. Faced with Pepsi products, I chose the strawberry shake, a drive-in staple.

Water arrived, then the milkshake, both in Pepsi cups. (A nice touch would be for Parkette to have their own cups, particularly for non-Pepsi items.) The burger basket followed after a reasonable wait.

The Big Lex is a bacon cheeseburger with barbecue sauce on Texas toast. It is a great burger, a definite step up from chain fare. The meat was juicy, the toast gave it a different spin from the standard bun. My regret was not springing for the extra bacon.

Parkette Big Lex

The onion rings were good, about what you would expect them to be. And that strawberry shake was quite tasty, although not out of the ballpark good. There is room for improvement with both, but don’t hesitate to order either one. And while I’m at it, a switch to Coke products would be nice, but unlikely to happen.

Authentic drive-ins are few and far between these days, and the ones that remain deserve our support. I’ll do my part to help keep the Parkette going when I can.

Lexington Road Trip: Lunch at Ramsey’s Diner

Ramsey's doorThe great thing about going to Lexington is that my two favorite places are just around the corner and across the street from each other. When one is famished from browsing at Black Swan Books you will find that Ramsey’s Diner is only a quick walk away.

Ramsey’s Diner opened around the same time I started at the University of Kentucky, although I didn’t eat there until a fellow editor at the student daily The Kentucky Kernel took me there for lunch during my senior year. I’ve been devoted to Ramsey’s ever since. They’ve blossomed into a local Lexington chain while maintaining their quality. I’ve eaten at most of their locations across town, but for my now rare trips to Lexington I prefer the original.

Ramsey’s menu is anchored by a meat and three menu, and I’m a particular fan of their chicken fried steak. But the vegetables are the real stars here. Ramsey’s does an excellent job of sourcing locally grown fresh vegetables. When I was there it was their annual “Corn Daze” when corn is in season and featured in all its culinary forms.

Living in an agricultural region of the South, it’s frustrating that more restaurants won’t do this. The food is far fresher, the taste better, the local economy stronger. It shows respect for the customers they serve and the community they profit from. Ramsey’s has it right.

These days I get to Ramsey’s so seldomly, maybe twice a year, I can’t resist ordering my favorite thing on the menu: the Hot Brown. The Hot Brown is a Kentucky tradition, and hard to find outside the Commonwealth. It also happens to be the world’s most perfect food, a combination of bread, ham, turkey, mornay sauce, cheese and bacon.

Hot Brown

Since corn and tomatoes were in season, I added on fried corn and fried green tomatoes. I didn’t regret the choices in the least. In fact, one can have an incredibly fine meal at Ramsey’s with their vegetable plate.

Corn Daze

And did I mention that Ramsey’s has its own attached pie shop? Well, it does, and Missy’s Pies knows what they’re doing. Again, my order is preordained. I can’t not get the key lime pie. The new waitress brought it without the whipped cream, but I sent it back for the necessary garnish.

Key Lime Pie

It’s hard for me to give Ramsey’s an entirely objective review as there is quite a bit of my old Kentucky home nostalgia tied up with it. But I don’t know anything on the menu that I would change. I never leave disappointed, and I imagine if you go you won’t, either.