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Yoakum man finds meaning in hunt for a special cookie jar (Video)

By by Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
Jan. 4, 2012 at 5:04 p.m.
Updated Jan. 4, 2012 at 7:05 p.m.

Joe Chandler is reflected in the mirror of a dresser as he navigates his way around his antique store, The Cookie Jar, in Yoakum. Chandler opened the store, which sells everything from furniture and kitchenware to metal signs and toys, with his wife, Jo, in August 2008.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: The Cookie Jar

WHERE: 1001 alternate U.S. Highway 77 N, Yoakum

CALL: 361-293-3802

HOURS: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

YOAKUM - The Cookie Jar is an antique store housed in a ramshackle building on alternate U.S. Highway 77, just outside of town.

Surrounded by ancient things, owner Joe Chandler is living his dream.

It all started with a cookie jar. When he was a kid, his grandmother kept cookies in a special cookie jar. They weren't anything fancy, those cookies, but taking them out of the ceramic jar, painted red and green, shaped like an apple, that made them special.

When his grandmother died and it was time for the cookie jar to be passed down, Chandler's sister got it.

Chandler became determined to find one just like it. He hunted through dozens of antique stores, buying up cookie jars he liked and searching for that special one.

By the time he found it, a passion had been born and Chandler was a cookie jar collector, setting out to find the rarest of the rare, caught up in the joy of the hunt.

Before he knew it, he'd worn out cookie jars and moved on to antique glassware.

Then it was matchbox holders.

Then salt dishes. Whatever caught his fancy.

"See this?" Chandler said, pointing to a display of pale green glassware. "It was made in the 1920s, and it glows in the dark. Watch," he said, flicking an overhead light off and clicking a small black light on.

The green glass took on an efflorescent glow in the dim purple light.

Looking at the glass, even with his graying hair, glasses and a messy gray mustache, Chandler grinned like a boy.

Chandler and his wife, Jo, opened The Cookie Jar in August 2008. It was the height of the recession, a time when small businesses across the nation were struggling, according to reports by the National Federation of Independent Business.

The Index of Small Business Optimism was at an all-time low in the months before they opened.

The Chandlers struggled at first, but the couple was rescued by the oil boom that has accompanied drilling of the Eagle Ford Shale formation running beneath the Crossroads area.

Business picked up as oil field workers and their families moved into the area. They came through the doors of the store steadily looking for furniture and odds and ends that people tend to find they need after moving.

"If it wasn't for the oil boom, this business wouldn't be here anymore," Chandler said.

But not everyone has a share in the wealth that has been flooding into the area, and Chandler sees those people, too.

"It's worse now than it's ever been. I get two people in here trying to sell things for every one that buys," Chandler said, shaking his head.

The oil boom has helped, but the recession continues to deliver people at his door. Tools grandpa used for ranching, the pots grandmother made lye soap in, cakes of century-old lye soap and ancient family portraits, trapped beneath bubble glass that had hung on a great aunt's wall for time immemorial.

Since the oil boom came to town, this isn't a community where everyone prospers or everyone is broke, Chandler said. "There's a whole lot more diversity between the haves and the have-nots."

Antique stores have been hit too. Chandler and his wife enjoy working in the store, but it's the hunt they really love. They've been making the rounds and trolling antique stores across the state for years. More and more often, they find an empty store and out-of-business signs on the door.

"Antique shops are dying. The ones we used to hunt in are closing down. We're extremely fortunate that this is still a hobby for us," he said, his face suddenly sagging into a frown.

They wouldn't be able to stay in the business either, if they were dependent on it for their income, he said. Chandler and his wife opened the business after retiring from DuPont.

"If I didn't enjoy this, I wouldn't be doing it. It's very seldom someone gets to do what they like doing and to make a living at it," Chandler said, taking a long look around the place. "I do."

The building itself is a kind of antique. The Chandlers own the building, which started life as a gas station and has been a beer joint, a thrift store, a drive-in and a tombstone shop over the course of its existence.

The store grew into an ambling haphazard building by the time the Chandlers took over. They filled the place with their finds. There is the faintest sense of order in how things are organized.

While the Chandlers have always liked digging to find things, they found their customers didn't necessarily enjoy it. But despite the semblance of order, every room is packed full of things.

In one room, an ancient white refrigerator - the kind that used an actual block of ice to keep food cold - was nestled in a corner. A worn dresser of gnarled pine and an old mirror, which possibly reflected the face of a rancher's wife in the gently wavering glass more than 100 years ago. An antique plantation desk, made to be portable and used to do business in Galveston in the days before the 1900 hurricane swept into the town, sits on top of a 100-year-old dresser while an ancient jukebox sits silent across the aisle.

Keith Schindler and his family saw the store, their eyes caught by old appliances and antique mannequins out front. They wandered through, as if in a daze, exclaiming over the things they found. "It's mind boggling, there's such a variety of old tools and antiques, and some really good prices," Schindler said.

"We always negotiate. There's no set fixed price and people will come back when they know you'll work with them," Chandler's wife called from behind the cash register, smiling merrily.

Some might look around his store, and only see a lot of old stuff. But Chandler knows there is more to his store than that.

"People come in here just to remember. They'll buy an old skillet because it's the same as the one their mother used when they were a kid."

Holding the dead weight of a cast iron skillet, or looking over a lamp that was just like the one your mother used, you might find yourself slipping back to that time and place. Suddenly, in Chandler's store, for just a moment, you've traveled back in time.

"This let's them relive the past. Someone dies, you've got photographs and your memories, but I think it helps to have something to remember them by," Chandler said.

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