The world became a little less interesting yesterday when Bill Schruers died, but I’m sure heaven is a better place for it.
I know it sounds cliché, but I’m sincere when I tell you that Bill was one of the nicest people I’ve ever known. He was one of those guys you’d describe as a “real character,” someone less generic than the rest of us, the kind of person who enriches our ordinary lives because their entire persona is unique and makes us glad to know them.
I met Bill in 2002 after I bought an antique store in the tiny town of Nickleville. Bill and his son Craig owned the building in the 1980s before moving their antique business to their farm down the road. He was born in Oil City but lived around Nickleville as an adult. His wife was from the area. She grew up in a house near the store and was related to the store’s original owners, if my memory serves me right. That’s one thing Bill was much better at than me: remembering details. He was a walking history of the area. Whenever I had a question about who did what to whom and when as it pertained to Nickleville, I always talked to Bill first.
Bill loved old furniture as much as he loved a bargain, and trust me, he usually got both. Sometimes, when he was buying furniture from people downsizing their homes or liquidating Grandma’s house, he’d get smaller items thrown in with the deal – dishes, toys, books, other smalls – and he’d bring them to me to buy.
“How much do you want for it?” I’d ask.
“Oh…” he’d say and ponder for a minute like he wasn’t sure, but I learned quickly that Bill knew exactly what something should “fetch” and was playing the old antique dealer game with me. “I don’t know. Whatever you think it’s worth.”
Bill taught me the fine art of negotiating a price for a collectible. What you do is hand the item or box of items to the potential buyer, give them a little (sometimes sympathetic) history (enhance if necessary), distract the buyer for a few minutes by inquiring about their kids or by asking “How’s business?” and then compliment them on their eye for quality antiques. By golly if Bill didn’t do that to me every time. By the time we got around to talking price, I was willing to pay him almost anything he asked because he made me feel like the most knowledgeable dealer in the world, which I wasn’t. I was a total newbie and he knew that, but he never took advantage of me.
Bowlegged, Bill walked with a limp because of a bum hip, but he was strong. I saw Bill move heavy oak tables and dressers like they were on wheels. He had a loud, jovial, high-pitched laugh, and he slapped his knee when he told a good story. “Let me tell you something, young lady…” he’d say in sharp, snappy fashion just before he’d tell me a story or offer a word of advice. When he was serious, he’d point his index finger at me and narrow his eyes, look right at me and not remove his gaze until he’d made his point. It was like God himself was teaching me something.
Bill adored his family and Bill loved God. He was always seated in the same spot in the same pew every Sunday at the Nickleville Presbyterian Church. When I lived above the store, he often invited me to church. He never pestered, never pontificated or evangelized and he never said, “Yeah right, you say that all the time” when I answered him, “Well, maybe one of these weeks.”
The last time I saw Bill was right before my store was auctioned off to a mean old man who said he was going to tear the place down, which he did. While I had no choice but let that man buy the place (it was an absolute auction meaning we had to take whatever was the highest price from whomever placed the bid), I always worried that I’d made Bill really sad. The store wasn’t just a building. It was a deep and abiding part of his history. When he lost his wife, Pauline, in 2001, he soldiered on, but once in awhile he’d wipe away a tear when he talked about her. When I’d see him mowing the massive yard of his farm or disking the field for another year of hay, I imagined he was lost in thought of her and their life. He never let on how lonely he was, but there was always a cloud of sadness that hung over him, even when he was slapping his knee and remembering “the time when…”
When Mean Old Man torn down the store in 2007, I never went back to see the gaping hole that once was a grand old general store full of memories for so many people. I didn’t go back (and never will) because to me, that store is still there. But Bill lived just down the road. He drove past it every day. He even talked to Mean Old Man because he hung out at many of the same places Bill did. Today, as I read Bill’s obituary in the paper, I felt a deep remorse for not contacting him and telling him I was sorry. Bill made me a better antique dealer, a better person, and I never told him thank you. Shame on me.
I will go to the funeral home tomorrow to pay my respects and maybe get a chance to silently say my peace, posthumously, to one of the real characters in my life to whom I owe a great deal. I’ll see his son, his daughter, his grandsons and great-grandsons, and his granddaughter Amy, a woman I haven't seen in two years but who was a dear friend to me when I lived in Nickleville, hiding from the rest of the world. I think of her every time I walk in my dining room. She painted flowers on an old window that I have hanging in there. I will see these people with a bit of hesitancy, wondering if they'll remember me or even care. I, in essence, ran away from all of them when I sold the store and moved back to town. I didn’t want to open that wound, but you know and I know that when you ignore something, it always comes back to bite you.
But Bill being Bill, I know he never blamed me or hated me or ever wished me ill. I did all that to myself. Besides, right now, Bill’s too busy catching up with Pauline to care what I think. And that’s the way it should be.
Rest in peace, Bill Schruers. I will never forget you.