JB's Variety Store, the venerable Trenton emporium just south of downtown, is right across Main Street from the new Fred's superstore set to open its doors next month, but proprietor Barbie Buffington Evans says she's not that worried about the competition.
"They're not the same kind of store we are," she said.
Which leads to the question (which The Planet had always longed to ask in any case): "So. What kind of store are you, anyway?"
JB's is set well back from the road but highly visible anyway because of the profusion of flags and signs out front, including some for FIREARMS. But you couldn't call it a gun store, as The Planet learned several years ago when the need arose for a long purple wig for Mardi Gras. JB's has a dazzling selection of long purple wigs. What kind of gun store carries long purple wigs?
"We're a true variety store," answers proprietress Barbie Buffington Evans.
Variety indeed. JB's is probably the only store in Trenton where you can buy rattlesnake eggs, and it's certainly your only option if you want to buy rattlesnake eggs in the same place as sewing fabric, toys, pistols, vanilla extract and art supplies. "We're very eclectic," understates Ms. Evans (left).
Part of that is on purpose. When her parents ran the store, their motto always was: "Maybe we have it. Check with us."
But most of it grew out of the magpie personality of Ms. Evans' father, Jesse Buffington, the "JB" of JB's Variety.
"My dad was of the mindset that he never threw anything away," said Ms. Evans. "He was always looking for a deal. He might buy a truckload of something and we would think, why do we need this?"
The store started out as the 1930s-40s-era-house JB grew up in, where his own father ran a scrap metal recycling business out back. JB and his wife, Sue, raised their three daughters in the house next door. JB worked as a tool-and-die maker in Chattanooga but on weekends he'd let his junkman side shine through.
"Saturday and Sunday, they loaded the van as tight as they could get it and they'd flea market," said Ms. Evans. Her mother was not a natural wheeler-dealer and sifter-of-stuff like JB but an arts-and-crafts type who loved to make jewelry. But, said Ms. Evans: "She was a good sidekick. Wherever you saw one, you saw the other."
After his father died, JB rented his house out and continued dividing his life as usual between steady job and junkman sideline. "Then, in 1989, the renter moved away and my mom and dad were tired of flea marketing so they decided to move all the stuff here," said Ms. Evans. Thus was JB's Variety born.
The residual scrap metal business at the house also contributed to JB's business style, said his daughter. "Anything that came in as scrap that Dad thought somebody might be interested in buying, he would put out front," she said. "So you might find tires out there or bed frames or bicycles. It could be anything."
It still pretty much could be, but Ms. Evans said there was even more variety in her father's day. Merchandise back then was a mixture of old and new. "He was the type of person who if somebody came in with something to sell and he thought somebody else would buy it, he knew a value and he would make an offer," said Ms. Evans. "That type of business sense eludes me, so I'm out of the used business. I missed the flea market gene."
Well, mostly. The Planet pointed meaningfully at a container of used tennis balls and Ms. Evans admitted that she routinely saves them from their Dumpster fate to sell for 50 cents a pop to customers who use them on the bottoms of their walkers or to throw for their dogs. "I guess that part of the flea market gene didn't skip me," said Ms. Evans. "I do see things that have value and I say oh, we can sell those at the store."
She and her sisters had all helped out part-time at JB's here and there but Ms. Evans did not become substantially involved in the business until, after the birth of her child in 2012, she found herself reluctant to return to her accounting job in Chattanooga. "I wanted to prioritize and Dad wanted me here," she said. "I had some miniscule idea of how I thought the business functioned but was not prepared to be sole proprietor."
But that's the role she stepped into when JB died in 2014. JB had been such a character, and JB's Variety had been such an extension of JB, that many people thought it would die with him, said Ms. Evans--especially when his wife followed him only six months later.
But his daughters decided the store had to go on. "We love it," said Ms. Evans. "I never ever feel like I'm going to work. It's just a fun place to be."
The middle Buffington daughter, Robyn, stays busy with her nursing job in Chattanooga, but the youngest, Jessica Geselbracht (right), is a stay-at-home mom who finds time to work at the store on weekends. Ms. Evans said that's been a great help. While she and their other sister were teens by the time their parents became serious flea marketers, the younger Jessica cruised the tag-sale tables from tricycle days onward. "She would roll around the flea market and she might come back with baby ducks or baby rabbits. She's got the flea market blood in her," said Ms. Evans.
That's the history of the place, and it has molded JB's present tense. Go to the store now and you'll find vestiges of JB in the collection of:
Pocketknives. "Knives were probably my dad's biggest trade-in," said Ms. Evans. "He knew the knife market and he was constantly trading knives back and forth." She no longer buys used knives but sells new ones and the vintage specimens that remain.
Guns. Firearms were something that JB was more interested in than his daughter is, but she continues jumping through the hoops and wrestling with the paperwork involved in selling them because she's found that side of the business a good customer draw. "They see something else, or they decide to come in and Christmas shop," she said.
Reminders of Sue Buffington are all over the place, too. Her craftsmanship engendered JB's current dominance of the art-supply market in Dade. "My philosophy is we're primarily a craft or a hobby store," said Ms. Evans, who later had to amend that to add "and gun-and-flag," not to mention purple wig, store; but the fact remains, JB's carries a lot of art supplies. There are paintbrushes, sketchbooks, canvases, paint-by-number sets for children, tie-dye kits, jewelry-making supplies including every kind of bead, and a whole station just for different glues.
Silk flowers for Decoration Day are also a big seller; you can buy pre-made displays or any number or color of flowers to make your own.
In the make-it-yourself line, JB's can offer just about any model car you might want to assemble, or get it for you if it's not on the shelves. From there it branches into the toy market, and particularly as winter closes in sells a lot of jigsaw puzzles.
Also in the kid line of merchandise, JB's offers just about any kind of school supply a student might need for class projects and science fair--magic markers, posterboard, you name it. "We're the place that everybody comes to to pick up their solar system kits," said Ms. Evans.
Then there's just, well, serendipity, just miscellaneous. Kitchen gadgets. Cigarette lighter fluid even though fewer customers smoke these days because, Ms. Evans explained, JB's carries Zippos and you wouldn't want to sell those and not sell the fuel. Gag gifts like rattlesnake eggs and fart cushions. First-aid kits, cough suppressant, vapor rub and vanilla extract by a company called J.R. Watkins that peddled these products door to door back in the day. Wind chimes, pet cemetery markers, slingshots.
Oh, and flags. Flags are one of JB's specialties. "U.S. flags, all sizes, the controversial Confederate flag, military flags, decorative flags--we have a lot of flags," said Ms. Evans.
Party supplies, including rolls of cardboard tickets that keep the local bingo games going, and any decoration you might need for any kind of do you might want to throw, up to and including nuptials. There's a whole station of wedding supplies that Ms. Evans says many customers have found a godsend on many harried Saturday mornings when they found themselves lacking a boutonniere or a wedding cake topper.
And let us not forget purple wigs. Customers can find a solid supply of wigs, colored hairspray and Halloween makeup at JB's any day they come in. "That kind of stuff we keep out year-round," said Ms. Evans. "They need that random stuff."
If it's not there, you can still have it.
Ms. Evans also urges customers who can't find something they need at JB's to ask. "Sometimes when we don't have what they're asking for we can offer an alternative," she said. She and her staff haunt Pinterest researching the latest craft trends and try to have on hand not just the materials but a good idea how to make them.
And if JB's doesn't have something, that doesn't mean JB's can't get it. Someone from the flight park wanted a wind sock recently, and while Ms. Evans had to admit she didn't have one lying around she got hold of one without breaking a sweat. Likewise, during her interview with The Planet she was asked for an advent calendar. She added it to her list.
"If we can get it in our books, we just put it on the next order and we call them," said Ms. Evans. "To me, that's not something that you're going to get at Target or Walmart."
If you're looking for something you're not going to get at Target or Walmart, or if you have adopted the famous local motto, "If it ain't in Trenton, I don't need it," JB's Variety is open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-6 p.m., and remember the store's own motto:
"Maybe we have it. Check with us."