A Hoptown Chronicle advent story

Christmas memories were forged in the remarkable toy department at Cayce-Yost

Santa Claus' secret was safe until an unmistakable scent provided a clue.
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If you were lucky enough to grow up in Hopkinsville in the middle of the 20th century, your Christmas memories undoubtedly include shopping for gifts at Cayce-Yost. If your childhood didn’t include this particular department store, maybe it included one like it. Cayce-Yost figures so prominently in my memories that I can still recall its distinctive smell. Was it a blend of paint, hardware and elevator hydraulics? Or was it from the gifts, clothing and sporting goods? Whatever it was, anything from Cayce-Yost had that smell, and it would play an important role in Christmas for me.

Anne Noel
Anne Noel

My brother, Brooke, and I loved to slowly peruse the aisles of toys weeks before the big day when Santa would come. You could still actually play with the toys to try them on for size. Anything a kid could want would be found on the shelves of the magical department on the second floor.

Children aren’t known for being patient, but we could stretch a visit to Cayce-Yost into a full Saturday morning. We took our time and studied each item as if we were selecting jewelry or artwork. Look at these Jonny West figures! I think I want this Madame Alexander doll. Brooke wants a new Flexible Flyer sled, and he’s picked out a pocket knife from the display case. And no visit was complete without a ride on the mechanical horse. We always made sure to bring a few dimes with us so that we could imagine galloping across the open range on our speedy steed.

Of course, we understood that while some of our gifts came from our parents, we were mostly compiling a list for Santa from our Cayce-Yost excursions. Yes, we carved out a little time to choose some gifts for our parents and little sister. We might even be persuaded to try on clothes for Christmas church services or parties while on the mezzanine level. But nothing could distract us for long from the serious business of selecting just the right toys. We were lucky enough to live in a time and place where that was all we had to worry about.

Childhood’s fantasy can’t last forever, however, and it would be Cayce-Yost again to play a role in the end of mine. We all reach an age where the logical side of our brains matures enough to make us question the world around us. I’m not sure how old I was when I began to suspect the whole Santa Claus idea, but I remember vividly the event that precipitated that suspicion.

One Christmas, after enjoying the surprise of gifts from Santa amidst the detritus of wrapping paper and ribbon, it occurred to me that all of my presents smelled like Cayce-Yost. Not just the ones we had unwrapped from our parents and grandparents, but all of them.

Remember, it was a very distinctive smell. And I was sharp enough to realize that there was no way Santa Claus had made a shopping trip to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, just to shop at our local department store, and that North Pole gifts couldn’t possibly have “the smell.”

Childhood belief in Santa was never the same.

While I continued to pretend to believe for a couple of years out of fear that the bounty of gifts would come to an end, I knew. And while I still visited Cayce-Yost regularly, it never had quite the magic as it did in those earlier, carefree days. Now, as I remember those times from my 21st-century perspective, I realize that the magic lingers like a snow globe, watching my girlish self push open those doors, say hello to Mr. Cayce, and press the button on the elevator to head to the magical kingdom on the second floor.

(Anne Noel is a native of Hopkinsville. She teaches biology at University Heights Academy, which is also her alma mater. She and her husband, Noble, have a son (who recently married), two cats and a Golden Retriever named Annie.)