As we headed south out of Virginia, the warmth of the southern sun and the allure of real home cooking got us off the interstate. Ivan was hungry and not particular, but I wanted him to experience The South. As we passed fast food joints one after another, I explained that we were on a mission to find real southern food. And then I saw it.
The square 1950’s plastic sign by the road said “MARY’S DINER”. The building looked like an old shut-down business of some sort, but I saw what I was looking for…lots of cars parked out front. As we ambled in, past the gum ball machines in the front entryway, I knew we had found heaven. The smell of real southern fried chicken mixed with the clink of forks on real plates instantly set my mind at ease and my stomach into overdrive.
I gazed across the restaurant, ascertained that this was a buffet-style eatery, and the line was at the back. We tried to appear nonchalant as we made our way back, but the folks at each table scrutinized us as we passed and instantly recognized us as strangers. Thankfully, the first waitress we met smiled and asked sweetly, “Ya’ll want menus or buffet?” I could have kissed her.
As we reached the line, a literal feast of freshly-fried love met our eyes, and the steam of hot mashed potatoes and collard greens filled our nostrils. The first hostess, a charming young lady of 75 or so, asked what we would like. Knowing that we had a long drive ahead, I opted for a light lunch…fried chicken and pork chops, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, collard greens, carrots, green beans, cornbread, biscuits, and a huge slab of pecan pie. All with about three huge glasses of sweet, sweet tea to wash it down. Ivan followed my lead exactly. The last thing I remembered was him muttering “Vedy gud” a dozen or so times between bites.
We came to an hour or so later in the front seat of our rental car. Next stop, Atlanta, Georgia.
We hit Atlanta at five o’clock, which was the wrong thing to do. Fortunately, we were headed in, and everybody else in Northern Georgia was headed out. Just as we hit downtown, the GPS told us to exit and we headed a few blocks north. In about a half-mile, we saw Carlton McLendon Rare Woods and Veneers, navigated across a few lanes of traffic, and pulled the car up behind the building.
The owner of the business, Richard Kuehndorf, met us at his back door. I had met Richard online through my wood collection efforts, and he had invited us to stop by. The business was a simple affair, just a couple of small brick buildings from the 1920’s. He led us to the back building first. What I saw next, it is fair to say, blew me away.
As Richard opened the door, the delightful, distinctive smell of old wood engulfed us like a warm wave in the Gulf of Mexico. From the concrete floor to the rafters, old planks and timbers were stacked loosely by species. This is one of those points where I really miss the video I shot, because the stories Richard shared with us over the next hour or so overwhelmed my feeble brain and all I can recall was Wood Everywhere. But the one thing I do remember is that Richard showed an obvious love and respect for the original owner of the business, under whom he had learned the business himself. From the company’s website…
“Carlton McLendon is well known around the world as the founding father of the Victorian reproduction furniture industry. Even though he sold his operation in 1970 to retire, you can still see his furniture actively sought after in the antiques markets today.
After a short while he realized he didn’t like being retired and decided to share his knowledge of wood. He naturally had active resources and made them available to the local craftsman and do-it-yourselfers. In 1976 Carlton decided to go full blast into the retail environment with the purchase of a historic building in midtown Atlanta. Only a few years later he bought the building next door to expand further. We have grown with Atlanta and are proud and prospering in the same buildings for 40 years later.”
Mr. McLendon passed on a few years ago, but his spirit lives on in Mr. Kuehndorf’s mindful stewardship of the business. If you’re ever in the Atlanta area, and you’re a true wood lover, pass up all those tourist traps and hit Rare Woods and Veneers. It will be one of the best days of your life. Tell Richard you know me and he’ll give you the Go Wood discount, which is a free cup of coffee.
As good as this day was, this trip was just starting to warm up. Ivan was about to find himself in the swamps of Northern Florida.