August 1, 2013
Any given weekday, Blaine Phillips can be found in his shop at 109 Back Street, a latex glove on his right hand, winding a briefcase full of antique pocket watches or lubricating the guts of a cuckoo clock with a wooden splinter and a thimbleful of oil.
Phillips, 79, has been a watchmaker for over 68 years, he said, “along with other things, just messin' around with this and that.”
His shop is filled with clocks of every size and description — some ticking, some not, some chiming odd hours. Sit down and visit with Phillips, and you may find the sound of the place has a narcotic effect, as your eyelids begin to droop.
But the syncopated ticking of a few dozen clocks on a quiet, sunny afternoon doesn't put Phillips to sleep. He swears he doesn't even hear it.
The “El Clocko Loco” sign on the shop's door came from West Jefferson Alderman Stephen Shoemaker, a wordplay on the former “El Taco Loco” restaurant that did business next door. Before Shoemaker, a lifelong friend, named the shop, Phillips “didn't call it nothin'.”
“I was born and raised up here on south Beaver Creek,” Phillips said, dryly describing the Ashe County he grew up in as “different than it is now.”
Phillips, with his younger brother, spent most of his boyhood hoeing beans. “You had to work all the time. We raised beans for the market, and corn, and quite a bit of rye.”
The bean market in those days was located on Long Street in the building which would later become the tobacco warehouse.
When he wasn't hoeing beans, he and his friends thumbed their way around the High Country. “When we's kids, we'd hitchike anywhere,” he said.
“My dad, he was crippled up with arthritis a pretty young age,” he said. “He done the thinking for all the rest of us.”
Of his mother, Phillips said, “I never could get along with her much, but my dad could, so….”
Phillips left home at 18 when he graduated from West Jefferson High School in 1953.
The first time I got married was in '56,” he said. “That didn't last.”
“I got married again in '62.” Phillips and his wife of 51 years had one child, who died of complications of cerebral palsy six years ago.
Phillips started tinkering with clocks and watches at age 10 — about the end of WWII — and soon became a fixture at Wiles Jewelry in downtown West Jefferson, where Mo's Boots now stands.
“I'd sneak off from school once in awhile, and just got to hanging around there,” he said. “I just liked watches.”
Hanging around the jewelry store turned into an apprenticeship under the late owner, Don Wiles. “Back then, working on clocks was beneath a watchmaker, so I had to work on the clocks.”
“When I got to where I could work on either one of 'em, he made me a shop in the back where nobody couldn't see me,” he said.
“When I got out of school, you couldn't have bought a job around here,” he said. “I went to Kannapolis and started working in a cotton mill.”
From '61 to '75, Phillips worked at “The Stone,” a jewelry store on East King Street in Boone owned by Ronnie Wilson. He left when the store moved to the mall: “I didn't like it out there,” he said.
After many years hunched over wristwatches, Phillips said, he was looking for something else to work on. “My shoulders was really giving me trouble.”
“Me and this friend of mine, we started rebuilding wrecked cars…up West Mill Creek (Road),” he said. “I got plenty of exercise doing that.”
“When it come to old cars, (Basil Reavis) was a genius. We got to where we was buying new-model wrecks, and if he was up here and cut one in two, I was buying the other half of one somewhere. We'd cut it in two and they'd fit.”
Phillips can't recall when he first moved into his shop on the Back Street, but he does recall that it was a diner before it was a clock shop because a man once came in rudely demanding a hamburger, and left in a huff when Phillips offered him a bologna sandwich instead.
Phillips is well-known as an inveterate teller of stories, all of which are engaging, some of which may be true, and none of which can be repeated here.
A professional tinkerer for almost seven decades, Phillips has made his living buying, selling, trading and repairing watches and clocks, and restoring and engraving antique rifles, shotguns and handguns. His advice for any 10-year-old with a fascination with watchwork and a desire to learn the trade: have somebody cut down a 5-power jewler's eyepiece to fit a junior-sized eyesocket.