Howard Curry's Talking Tree gets a facelift

For a little boy in the early 1960s, a shopping trip in Lexington could be an adventure.

It was a world of big buildings filled with interesting things and friendly faces, from the elevator operator at Hymson's Tots & Teens to the A&P manager who always took time to chat with me.

But nothing could top Howard Curry Shoes on Southland Drive.

Going to Howard Curry meant sitting in upholstered chairs that were just my size, peering into aquariums filled with colorful fish and visiting the Enchanted Forest, where mechanical elves made shoes and an owl popped out of his knot hole every so often to give a hoot.

The highlight was the Talking Tree. It had an expressive face and a cheerful but staticky voice that I eventually figured out came from a hidden clerk with a microphone.

Since 1958, the Talking Tree has been an icon of Lexington childhood. And, over the years, a lot of grown up kids have wandered into Howard Curry just to see if he was still there.

"Or they would bring in a spouse who couldn't believe that such a thing existed," said Ruby Stockwell, who has run the store with her daughter-in-law, Beverly, since her son, Todd, bought it from the Curry family in 1991.

Now, the Talking Tree is getting a facelift and new home.

This summer, Howard Curry moved out of its Southland Drive store and took down the classic neon sign, which was attracting bird nests and needed repair.

While a new store was being built at Nicholasville Road and Moore Drive, Howard Curry set up shop in temporary space. The Talking Tree was sent off for restoration, and the store posted a sign saying he was on summer vacation. "The kids seemed to understand that," Beverly Stockwell said.

The Talking Tree and the rest of the Enchanted Forest were made by Corman & Associates, a Lexington fixture company that once did elaborate store displays for clients all over the country. The Talking Tree was fashioned from a big piece of red cedar driftwood that Dan Corman and Stanley Baugh hauled out of Herrington Lake.

The job of restoring the tree fell to Versailles artist Damon Farmer, who grew up in Berea seeing the tree in Howard Curry advertisements. He removed old varnish, repaired limbs, added leaves and new eyes and fixed the tree's broken nose.

"Over 50 years, there had been so many attempts to repair it that it was something of a mess," Farmer said of the tree. "The old nose was on a spring and kids were kind of rough with it."

Howard Curry's new store is smaller than the old one, so there wasn't room for the Enchanted Forest and cobbler elves. They were sent back to Corman's and put in storage. Vice President Dwight Kelley doesn't know what he will do with them, but they have a special place in his heart.

Kelley said he helped make the elves as a young Corman's employee, and his children got their shoes at Howard Curry. "That's one of the few pieces of our work that people in Lexington are familiar with," he said.

The aquariums left Howard Curry in the 1990s — Ruby Stockwell got tired of cleaning them. But the child-size benches have been recovered by David Hicks, whose father did the original upholstery. John Leininger, whose father built Howard Curry's original cash register console, made cabinets for the new store.

At its new location, Howard Curry shares space with the Stockwells' other store, Dance Biz. It sells children's dance shoes and apparel and has some special design touches of its own. Interior designer Deborah Drury put together a shoe-fitting area that has a stage, dance bar, mirrors and curtains.

When I stopped by the new Howard Curry store last week, employees were racing around, trying to get it ready to open. Boxes were everywhere, Farmer was painting a mural and the Talking Tree was waiting patiently for a sly clerk to give him voice.

The Talking Tree may only be a dressed-up piece of driftwood, but I'll bet I'm not the only big kid glad to see him still around, standing ready to make some child's shopping trip an adventure.