August 6, 2013 by genelup
Story & picture from my book “Fish Catches Man”
Harley & Annabelle Russell
ERICK, Oklahoma – No one warned me of Harley Russell, so I was ill-prepared for his boisterous off-beat sarcasm.
I’m not alone. A reporter for The Oklahoman newspaper once noted Harley and his wife have “scared more than their fair share of folks.”
But stick it out. The two of them are really fuzzy, teddy bears in grizzly clothing. Their persona is strictly shtick, an unusual way to entertain you.
It was by chance my wife and I entered the old city meat market in the hick hamlet of Erick, just off I-40 near the Texas-Oklahoma border.
A “Roger Miller Museum” sign attracted us to drive into Erick. The outward appearance of the museum in an old building was uninviting, but another building a block away caught our eye. The façade featured decaying “Texaco,” “S&H,” “Coca-Cola,” “Greyhound” and “Route 66 Roadside Attraction” signs.
Another sign on the old brick building bragged: “Welcome to Erick, Oklahoma. The Redneck Capitol (sic) of the World! Yee Haw! See Rednecks work and play in their own environment!” Another sign: “Insanity at its finest.”
We climbed out of our car and stood in the middle of the vacant road (there is hardly any traffic in downtown Erick) snapping pictures. A slender woman with long, silky gray hair wearing blue overalls pedaled up, parked her bicycle and unlocked the door. “Come on in,” she greeted us.
We walked in and crates of soda pop were stacked inside the door. I didn’t know what kind of place this was – a grocery store, antique store or maybe even a museum?
Antique signs were everywhere, along with old lamps, record albums, chairs, electric fans, garden tools, guitars, books, china cabinets filled with trinkets, posters, board games and photographs.
“Is this an antique store?” I asked.
“No,” a voice behind us resounded.
A grizzly-looking, barefooted man with long hair and shaggy beard wearing blue overalls with no shirt smile at us. A front tooth was missing.
Harley began his shtick pitch. Nothing in the place was for sale. A museum? Not hardly, he never would run one. He scoffed at Erick’s two home-grown celebrities – Roger Miller and Sheb Wooley.
He asked how we found the place. We told him the RogerMillerMuseum sign on the freeway caught our attention and we wanted to check it out but we didn’t. We said we had a picnic with our two dogs in the town park instead.
Harley laughed, and accused me of smoking marijuana in the park. He said my wife looked like a Baptist minister.
We were ready to walk out. Harley then dropped the shtick for a moment. The truth came out.
The place is a curiosity shop, and the woman who let us in was his wife, Annabelle. They offered us something to drink – lemonade, ice tea, pop? We declined.
Annabelle handed us a stack of newspaper clippings, a picture of the couple taken 20 years earlier when they first opened the shop, and a picture post card Annabelle had sketched of the storefront.
We learned from this material that Harley grew up in Erick. At age 12, Roger Miller gave him a guitar and at that young age Harley began singing in local honky-tonks.
After graduating from high school, he left Oklahoma and spent 22 years on the road playing back-up guitar to such stars as Charley Pride, Jim Ed Brown, Dottie West, Jan Howard and Dave Dudley. He hit bottom after three failed marriages, smoking dope and drinking liquor.
He returned to Erick to settle down and get his head cleared. He bought the brick building, the former city meat market with a tin ceiling and scuffed wooden floor, for $2,500. He went into business: a guitar shop, a game room and an antique shop. All these ventures failed.
In 1987, Annabelle, a California resident, came to Oklahoma to visit her grandparents. She walked into Harley’s shop one day to have her guitar tuned. Within days, they fell in love and later were married.
Business was slow through the years and they had plenty of time to strum their guitars and sing alone in their shop, which was only a block from the famed Route 66.
In 1999, a man walked in while they were strumming and said he drove a tour bus and was ahead of schedule to stop at a restaurant. He asked if the tourists, all from England, could come in and look around.
Harley and Annabelle continued to strum and sing and at the end of a song the tourists began clapping and throwing money on a nearby table.
When the travelers headed back to the bus, the driver asked the couple if he could bring in another tour group in a couple of weeks. “Would the Russells entertain them? How much would they charge to fix some sandwiches so the tourists could stay longer the next time?”
“I said, ‘We’ll do it for free,’” Harley said.
Since then, an average of more than 40 tour groups annually stop at their “Sandhills Curiousity (sic) Shop” for a free show and a free lunch. Harley and Annabelle never ask for a dime, but there are some tip jars sitting on tables.
“When we tried to do it as a business, it didn’t work,” Annabelle said. “When we quit trying to do it as a business and just entertained them for free, it worked.”
Word spread of the new venture. (Type “Harley and Annabelle” on the Google search engine and see what pops up) A friend brought 1,500 Harley-Davidson motorcyclists who were on a trip along Route 66 to the shop.
The couple has appeared on television in Norway, France and Australia. French tourists show homemade movies on the Russells on the internet. The couple has appeared in various Route 66 magazines.
Pixar visited them while doing research for Cars, and it modeled a location in the movie after their shop. The two were reportedly part of a composite for Mather, whom Larry the Cable Guy lent his voice to in the movie.
Harley and Annabelle were invited to the Cars premiere in Charlotte, North Carolina. They declined, although they signed releases giving Pixar permission to use in whatever way it wants their likeness, names, faces, voices and curiosity shop.
The couple also was invited to the pre-screening of the movie in Oklahoma City and asked to perform in the Governor’s Mansion. Again, they declined.
Harley said he shuns the “celebrity” status but would rather stay in Erick to entertain old and new friends.
“We’ve finally gotten to where we like it,” Harley said. “Now that all Route 66ers are coming by and we’ve got these tour groups, I wouldn’t have a shop in San Francisco if it was given to me and paid for.”
The Russells have found their niche. They live frugally; she has a part-time job in a motel. They have taken an unusual tack to win friends. And they have fun doing it.
After 20 minutes chatting with the couple with a few more insults thrown in, and examining the old odds and ends sardined inside, we left.
The couple invited us back. They posted the hours of their curiosity shop:
“We open when we wake up, and close when we pass out!”