It’s quarter after noon on a Wednesday and Debbie Kirby stands behind the lunch counter at Timberlake’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain. She adjusts the side ties on her red cotton smock before filling a tall red plastic cup with cola and hustling it over to one of the three men sitting at a small, laminate-topped table nearby.
A mother sits at the counter, reading lunch options off a menu to her two small children who cautiously swivel back and forth on red-cushioned stools, their eyes fixed on the cherry pie and vanilla-frosted chocolate cake sitting expectantly in domed stands on the counter.
Kirby and a green-smocked counter lady flit back and forth across the green-and-white checkerboard floor, pouring fountain drinks, fetching silverware and fixing lunches—tuna salad platters, hot dogs with mustard and relish, BLTs.
Lined up on the counter, and on the center of every table, is a neat cluster of salt and pepper shakers, a container of yellow Splenda packets and a laminated menu propped up between a napkin holder and a sugar jar.
Photographs in slim plastic frames crowd the ledge on one of the dining room’s walls. “These are our regulars,” Kirby tells me before pointing to the men sitting at the table she delivered a soda to moments before. “You might recognize some of them.”
One of the men, a lawyer named Dayton, says he and the other men at his table come to the Downtown Mall eatery for lunch “frequently, maybe three or four days a week.” The lunch is pretty good, he says over the wire rims of his glasses, but he’s mostly here “for the service and for the company.” He can’t remember how long he’s been coming to Timberlake’s for lunch, but it’s been a while. Dayton won’t tell me his last name—“just Dayton, like Prince or something,” he laughs.
Tom McQueeney remembers, though—he says he’s been having lunch here for the past 10 or 15 years at least. McQueeney is mostly retired but currently works at Daedalus Bookshop for an hour and a half on Monday mornings, helping owner Sandy McAdams, who uses a wheelchair to get around, turn on the lights and carry books from floor to floor in the shop. McQueeney jokes about how stressed he gets on Sunday nights, knowing he has to go to work in the morning. “An hour and a half shift, that’s a long one,” I say.
“It sure is!” McQueeney replies before digging into a bag of potato chips and laughing with his lunch companions. The regulars don’t necessarily plan to meet here for lunch, but they often eat together. Once they’ve filled up one table, they’ll take over others and talk over the narrow aisles.
McQueeney asks me why I’m not a Timberlake’s regular. It’s a good question. I try to save money by bringing my lunch to work, I tell him, but I do come to lunch here every now and then. “What do you get when you come here?” he asks.
“The BLT,” I reply.
“Ah, see, that’s because [these are] the best ‘tomatas’ in town,” he says, tugging on a button on his windowpane-checkered shirt.
A man dressed in a charcoal-gray suit carries his brown bagged to-go order over to the table and asks, “What’s going on over here?”
I explain that I’m working on a story about neighborhood restaurant regulars for C-VILLE Weekly, and he teasingly asks why I’d want to talk to “these fools.”
“Can you believe it? A story in the paper,” says a fifth man, who takes a seat at a table next to the wall, right under his framed photo on the ledge, and starts paging through our paper. Today, he’s wearing the same suit jacket he wore in the photo—his shirt and bow tie are different, but they’re in the same pink-khaki-gray palette.
When Kirby brings the check, the regulars joke about who will cover it. “Give it to him!” “No, give it to that guy over there! I got it yesterday.”
From behind the register, which sits atop a dessert case full of cake slices on white paper plates with scalloped edges, each covered with a taut layer of plastic wrap, Kirby agrees to answer a couple of questions, as long as it doesn’t take too long—she’s busy.
“You get to know regulars really well over the years,” says Kirby, who has worked at Timberlake’s for 17 years. “They become your friends,” she says they’ll tell her about their problems and she’ll listen, sympathize and maybe even share a few of her own. They become like family.
“They give me a hard time, and I give it right back to them,” Kirby says, smiling.
“It’s a real family place,” she tells me, encouraging me to bring my family in with me sometime. “They live far away, up north in Boston,” I tell her.
“That’s okay. You can talk to us. And we have the best milkshakes in town,” she says with a wink.