Garlan Gudger Jr.’s easy grin slices through his two-day beard as he discusses his collection. “Every one of them is different, special,” he says. “Finding a new one makes me giddy.”
So what makes this big country boy in Cullman, Alabama, beam like a little kid? His collection of antique hunting rifles, vintage duck decoys, maybe Auburn football memorabilia? Nope. Old doorknobs. Garlan has almost 200 of them: brass, glass, and ceramic of every shape and size. Some were turned by famous hands; one came from JFK's Manhattan loft. Others came from more "ordinary" structures in more “ordinary" places. But, as Garlan says, they each have "something to say,” and the collection is a fitting extension of his passion for preservation.
As owner of Southern Accents Architectural Antiques in Cullman, Garlan saves mantels, light fixtures, beams, floorboards, windows, his beloved doorknobs, and more from ending up in a city dump or burn pile. He and his team visit old homes and buildings slated for demolition to recover what they can before the wrecking ball arrives. He calls it “rescuing,” and it’s more than a business. “It’s a calling; this is what I was born to do,” he says. His frequent use of #digmygig illustrates this.
It’s a calling that’s in his blood. His dad, Dr. Garlan Gudger Sr., opened Southern Accents in 1969 and impressed upon his son the value of things others had discarded or forgotten. “He’d point out how sunlight and weather had changed the look of wood through the years,” he says. “He’d put something in my hand and tell me to notice its weight. He was teaching me, but I didn’t even realize I was learning."
Garlan has used that knowledge to expand the business beyond its humble origins. The growth is a result of his commitment to restore and reuse and includes a woodshop where old beams and planks are given a second chance. “Someone else can use these things again,” he says. “I feel like I’m giving them back their purpose.”
But it’s not just the thing that deserves saving. Or the craft that went into creating it. Standing in a pile of sawdust stroking a walnut beam, Garlan pointed to worm holes and indents from an ax wielded more than a century ago. “Some see these as imperfections, but they’re a part of this piece’s story,” he says.
When you listen as intently as Garlan, almost everything has a tale to tell. “We were salvaging in this house in Little Rock, and the demo guy was rushing us out, so we knew we’d have to leave some amazing things behind,” he says. “I just sat down in the middle of a room and let the house speak to me. I felt the weight of its history; leaving those things was soul-crushing."
While someone else wrote the stories first, Garlan considers himself a co-author. “I contribute to the story by finding it and sharing it,” he says. This idea motivated Garlan to join as co-founder of Southern Makers, an annual event in Montgomery that showcases and shares the work of the state’s artisans, chefs, brewers, and craftspeople.
His “rescue, restore, share” philosophy is not limited to things. He’s served as president of the Cullman City Council for seven years, and readily lends his ear or a hand or shoulder to his fellow residents. When tornadoes tore through the state in 2011, Cullman was one of the hardest hit areas. Along with most of downtown, Southern Accents and the loft above it that Garlan shared with his wife and two sons were ravaged. Many considered leaving their shops and stores shuttered. Garlan thought about calling it quits as well, but only for a moment. “I realized I couldn’t not do this,” he says. “And I had to keep doing it here.” He cleaned up and fixed up what had been broken and helped others around him do the same. He helped fix broken spirits too, taking 100-year-old trees the storm had snapped like toothpicks and transforming their cross sections into polished tabletops. He offered them at a discount to those affected by the tornadoes, once again turning trash into treasure and encouraging shared stories.
Sharing is why part of his doorknob collection is in a small glass case right at the front of the store. While he won’t share the knobs (a handwritten sign makes it clear they’re not for sale), he’s sharing a little inspiration. “Folks stop and look at them, and it creates a sense of adventure,” he says. “It makes them want to dig around to find something that will reveal its story to them and then become a part of theirs.”
Jennifer Stewart Kornegay is a freelance writer in Montgomery, Alabama. Check out some of her work, her children’s book, and her blog, “Chew on This,” at jenniferkornegay.com.