By Susanne Beck
Take a walk down Beacon Hill’s Charles Street today and it would seem the pandemic never happened. Cafes and restaurants are filled. Sidewalks are bustling, often with tourists taking in history or checking out some of the many boutiques that populate small storefronts.
But for the most discerning street regulars and observant Hill residents, before early September, something still seemed off – or at least missing.
Jack Gurnon, second generation owner of the beloved Charles Street Supply, sheepishly admits those people were right – and that he was to blame.
Over the years, Gurnon’s hardware store has developed a well-deserved reputation and a bit of a following for its unusual window displays (thanks to the design talents of Gurnon’s wife Cassie), as well as its abundance of product, inside the store (close to 24,000 inventory units) and especially, out. Short of a hurricane, the colorful sidewalk displays have been as reliable as the sunrise, teeming daily with seasonal selections that appeal to all ages, from swim noodles and water pistols in the summer, to shovels and sleds and salt in the winter. COVID forced a pause on all of it, of course, but soon enough the spectacle was back.
Well, most of it.
Until some recent nagging from a bereft customer (in full disclosure: this reporter was that nag), Gurnon had neglected to put back in place one of the most cherished and certainly most colorful features of his sidewalk display: the oversized gumball machine. When asked about the oversight, the shopkeeper fumbled for an explanation. “Um, er, um,” followed by some good-natured laughter. Pressed further, with an offer to buy the machine, and reinstall it elsewhere, Gurnon insisted, “I couldn’t do that.” Another chuckle. “My wife would kill me.”
With that statement came a promise: “I will clean it up and get it back on the street.” Really? Yes, really.
A bit of history as to how this all came about. Gurnon can’t remember the exact year – maybe 1990? – when he and Cassie were attending a three-day Ace Hardware event. They stepped into the conference center on the first day, only to be greeted by an array of gumball machines, not to sample but to buy. Cassie responded like any reasonable adult would, with a look in her eyes that said “let’s!” As Gurnon remembers it, “I said, no, I’m not buying it. That’s crazy. She was on me for the next three days.”
On the last day, Gurnon was approached by an ACE representative. “He calls me over and goes, ‘look, your wife’s been asking you for three days to buy a gumball machine. What can I do to get it in your store?’.” Gurnon’s answer: ACE-provided gumballs whenever he needed them. “So I bought the gumball machine and put it outside and sure enough, it was a huge hit. I thought it was gonna be a huge hit with little kids. But it’s everybody, [including] young women walking to work, which is so funny.”
Since then, the machine has continued to entertain – and delight. After plunking down somewhere between $400 and $500 for the equipment, Gurnon has been thrilled to discover that his initial investment has more than paid for itself. “Fifty times over,” he chirps. Bulk-buy gumballs run between four and six cents apiece and sell for a quarter, a healthy margin and possibly, one of the most lucrative items in the store’s wide-ranging inventory.
One employee even used it to improve his dating life. “One of my employees was this handsome young guy in his twenties,” Gurnon recalls. “I said, take [the machine] apart, clean it, and put it back together.” The staffer filled the bottom of the orb, that was hidden from view, with yellow gumballs only. “So this guy was brilliant,” Gurnon continues. “He mixed up the rest of the colors in the clear dome so you could see them. One day I’m watching him, and this cute girl walks up to the gumball machine and she goes to put a quarter. He runs outside and goes, ‘wait a minute. I have a premonition about the color of your gumball.’ He goes, if I can guess the color of your gumball, will you have coffee with me? She goes, yeah, sure.” Gurnan still cackles at the memory. “Sure enough, yellow comes up. And from there on, he was pretty busy.”
The machine has been restocked plenty of times since then – in the more traditional mixed-up kind of way – not to mention replaced twice, the first time when the original machine fell down the basement stairs while being stored for the winter. But the appeal remains meaning passers-by and shoppers, alike, can enjoy even a brief child-like thrill of guessing the color of their ball and the initial gush of sugar that comes with the first bite. All for a quarter.