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Losing Walts means losing a lot
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Few things have made me feel older than the news in last week’s Herald that Walt’s Furniture is closing.

If ever there was an Effingham County business institution, it would have to be Walt’s. Pat Donahue’s headline “End of an Era” was appropriate. There won’t be another Walt’s — unfortunately.

For folks like me who grew up in Effingham over the past half-century, Walt and Carolyn Gnann and their family successors have held a special place in the hearts of many families. It may be good my sweet mother went on to her heavenly home a year ago. It would have broken her heart to hear Walt’s is closing.

The first television set I ever saw was viewed through the plate glass front window of Walt’s first store, a tiny appliance repair shop right there on Springfield’s Laurel Street. Believe it or not, people used to crowd around the storefront after hours to gaze in amazement at that latest electronic marvel — a television set. Walt, obviously a shrewd businessman, would leave the set on so people could stand around and watch until the national anthem played and a picture of the American flag appeared late in the evening, signaling “sign-off” time for one of about two channels you could view. The sometimes snowy picture came in via “rabbit ears” or, later, a real antenna mounted atop the store. No one could imagine cable TV and hundreds of channels in those days, but that sidewalk view created many sales, I’m sure.

Walt’s store was the star attraction of the Effingham County Fair sometime around 1960 or so. His fair booth featured, again, the latest in electronic wizardry — gasp — a television that had pictures in color! I’ll never forget how shocking it was to see Hoss Cartwright, Little Joe and Adam in vivid greens and browns riding across the Ponderosa. That NBC peacock was dazzling and when Tinkerbell sprinkled her fairy dust around Cinderella’s castle on the opening credits of “The Wonderful World of Disney,” kids like me, and even adults, were entranced. I remember telling daddy I’d rather we had a color television than a new car.

“Any old car can get you where you want to go, but not every television can show you color,” I explained with the simple logic of child.

None of us could possibly know how many millions of dollars of televisions, recliner chairs, bedding and more the Gnanns have sold over these past six decades. What I’d really like to know, though, is how many of these pieces of furniture, appliances — and even bedding — Walt and Carolyn took back after days, weeks and, yes, sometimes even months, and swapped for another color or model? Walt Gnann would do back-flips to try to please his customers. I think he might have sometime let out a groan when my mother would come in the front door because mama was awfully hard to please with whatever arrived in the first delivery. Seems she always wanted to send something back and swap it for something different. Walt would always just shrug and say: “Whatever makes you happy, Ms. Belle.”

Over 40 years ago, I left my Springfield home for the last time and moved to Blackshear where I’ve lived ever since. After two weeks in a motel, a “bachelor” apartment upstairs in a huge old house came available — but I didn’t have a stick of furniture. One visit back home to Walt’s solved that. I still remember the woeful look on the faces of “delivery boys” Carey Rountree and Cletus Gnann when they arrived with couch, chairs, bed, mattress, washing machine, etc. — and discovered my apartment was up a steep flight of stairs.

With the exquisite taste of a 21-year-old man, my apartment was lavishly furnished with an abundance of black naugahyde furniture. No telling how many poor little naugas sacrificed their skins for my “bachelor pad.” My taste in furnishings is still a family joke, but one treasure from that apartment still survives. Over the couch I chose to hang a gigantic portrait of a gallant Spanish matador. He had sort of a greenish tint to him like the bull might have just gored him in a tender spot.

That portrait — nicknamed Ferdinand — had a place of honor in my son’s college apartments until I believe even he became embarrassed about it.

I was never embarrassed about doing business with my friends, the Gnann family. It was always a pleasure and I’m sad that soon, like many other memories of life in Effingham County, that chance will be gone.

Robert M. Williams Jr. is an Effingham native and publishes newspapers in Blackshear, Alma, McRae, Folkston and Forsyth. Email: