For the last several years, I’ve always been pleased to notice that my watch has stopped. Getting a new battery was an interesting diversion. I’d leave my office in the morning and walk down Gay Street to No. 111, to the shortest brick building on its block, to find the sunlit workshop of Mr. Doyle Dukes.
It was a fascinating place; cluttered across his counter and up and down his walls were tools and parts of obscure purpose, gears, springs, pinions, lots of roundish metal objects most of us wouldn’t recognize if we found them in a pocket. It was like something from a Dickens story or maybe a dark fantasy tale where a mysterious shop turns out to be a secret portal into a different dimension of unknown terror and delight.
Mr. Dukes was the small, quiet man behind the counter. He wore a visor, like an old-time teller, and thick glasses with an eye loupe that made him look much more sinister than he ever turned out to be.
A watch-repair shop is not a place you hang out, like a cafe or a pub or a barber shop, and I regret that I never hung out, never had an unusual repair problem, never got to know Mr. Dukes very well. He didn’t know me well enough to recognize me, and truth be told, I wasn’t convinced he could see me well. We never swapped any banter about the weather or the Vols or downtown these days. But I liked his place, and I admired a man who knew he was good at what he did, and did it.
Mr. Dukes would give me a number, a formality surely learned from 60 years of running a business on this once-busy block. He’d tell me it might be 20 or 30 minutes. Then I’d go a few doors down to Harold’s Deli, and have some breakfast, and go back to the shop.
Without betraying any memory of my having been in there earlier, Mr. Dukes would ask for my number, and study it closely, and find my watch among his dozens of other orders. I admire a methodical professional. And so my watch was good for another year or two.
A couple of weeks ago we lost Mr. Dukes. He died on February 27 at age 91. At the library I ran across an interview with him by newspaperman Dudley Brewer. The late Journal columnist considered Mr. Dukes an interesting old codger even then, a guy who’d been fixing watches downtown every day for 30 years. And that was in 1969.
Dukes appears in library records as a jeweler, the proprietor of Gay Jewelry, but he was better known as a “master watchmaker” who had learned his trade from his dad, who before World War II had a shop around the corner on Vine. Other Dukes brothers ran watch-repair shops around town. There was not much that annoyed him, but one thing was the assumption that a watch couldn’t be fixed. “Anything that’s been made can be fixed,” he would declare, as fact, and then proceed to prove his point.
He was known to work on Rolexes and Bulovas, but he seemed perfectly respectful of my Sharp, which I bought for $3 at a CVS closeout table. He showed no condescension; he was perfectly gracious about it. He knew it keeps as good time as the Rolexes.
He was an eccentric fellow, and there are credible stories that he kept all his cash, hundreds of dollars of it, in a Food Lion bag which served as his cash register. If he owed somebody some money, he’d just dip into it and pay them in wads of cash. That’s the sort of detail I wouldn’t reveal if he were still there.
He closed his shop a year or two ago. Until I noticed it boarded up, an interview with Doyle Dukes, downtown’s most durable merchant, was on my long and ever-longer list of column subjects. He opened his place even before Harold Shersky bought the deli nearby in 1948. When he opened Gay Jewelers, passenger trains still came and went several times a day at the Southern station just down the hill, and Lowell Blanchard was still hosting the likes of Chet Atkins and Archie Campbell across the street at the WNOX Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round. Dukes was already an old man when the mission, Volunteer Ministry Center, moved in almost next door, but the multitudes of vagrants who congregated in front of his store didn’t seem to spook him.
He worked until he was close to 90 years old. We like to claim that “50 is the new 40,” and we try hard to believe it, but very few of us can expect to remain vital and gainfully employed at 90, doing something we still do well.
I like what’s happened to downtown in the last few years. It’s a much more fun place to be, especially after 6 p.m. and on weekends than it was the first couple of decades I spent a lot of time here. It’s fun to finally see people on the sidewalks every day. But I can’t help noticing that in gaining all the new stuff, we’re occasionally losing good, modest, practical amenities that aren’t being replaced.
Downtown used to support several shops where you can get your watch fixed. Ten years ago, when downtown was dead, there were at least three watch repairmen; 20 years ago, probably twice that many. Now, as far as I know, there aren’t any. Part of it, I’m sure, is the technological shift; I hear watch-wearing has declined in recent years because people carry cell phones which show the time. But I worry with all its success that downtown is losing some of its depth: the modest, practical amenities that survived the bleak years when everybody else was giving up on the old neighborhood.