Lessons in retail and life from an old friend
John Crook sprays water on his deck as the Horsethief Canyon wildfire burns near his home in September. Crook died several weeks ago at his home. He was a pharmacist and manager at Stone Drug In Jackson. PRICE CHAMBERS / NEWS&GUIDE FILEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Paul Bruun, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
January 9, 2013
Soon after beginning work in Jackson, I met a pharmacist from Montpelier, Idaho, named Jack Stone. It was 1973, and Jack had recently purchased Flo and George Lumley’s drug store on West Broadway.
After Jack moved into his ambitious, multi-thousand-square-foot Stone Drug farther west on Broadway in Weldon Richardson’s new Grand Teton Plaza, he interrupted my lifty career at Paul McCollister’s Ski Corp. with a real job offer: to guide his growing sporting goods department.
Despite being as slow with new electronic cash registers as I was with learning foreign languages, the position provided a fine retail foundation, mainly facilitated by Jack’s able manager, John Crook.
Until he really got to know you, John wasn’t very talkative, but it always amused me how many people — including his Star Valley schoolteachers — underestimated his abilities. His parents, Bruce and Thelma, were teachers and also operated a farm in Etna. While other instructors discouraged John’s pharmacy school plans because they felt he lacked ability, such misguided observations motivated him even more.
After we began working together and I discovered his Star Valley roots, I casually asked John if he’d ever spent time as a youngster fishing the Salt River. The Salt and its endless bends, sudden chutes, and extra-narrow and antiquated railroad flatcar bridges intrigued me.
The pill knife was a blur as John deftly counted a prescription order. Without looking up, he responded, “Yep, I fished the Salt all the time.”
Hoping for a secret lure or fly tidbit, I probed. “Well, what did you use?”
“A telephone,” John answered flatly, continuing his pill count.
“A telephone?” I mumbled, wondering out loud. “How did you fish with a telephone?”
“Don’t you know about those old crank telephones? Drop the wires into the pool, wind the crank a few times to get a charge going, then go over and net the fish as they float up to the surface,” John said without breaking a smile and suddenly pouring the pills into a jar.
My questions were over!
I wasn’t sure if John was kidding or not. The story sounded like a routine straight from Southern country comedian Jerry Clower. So I cornered John’s father, Bruce, when he stopped in the pharmacy one afternoon. With a slow grin he corroborated the old crank telephone story.
Easily my favorite aspect of John Crook was his exceptional ability to retain figures and information. This was true not only when it came to explaining every detail of side effects and timing involved with my personal prescriptions, but also facts and figures on every product carried in Stone Drug.
Stone’s assistant manager, Roy Garton, and I used to chuckle about John’s memory and loved testing him by holding up a product he could see from across the store. Without hesitation John would blurt out the supplier, the cost and the proper markup. Every time he performed such a feat, I sadly recalled those early schoolteachers who were blind to his potential.
As we became better acquainted, John began to chat more. He possessed the admirable skills of a smart ol’ country boy. We spent lots of time discussing hand-loading, hunting, fishing and the best sporting goods products to stock.
As a youngster I was a serious gun fan. Many years later, from behind the counters at Stone’s, it was a joy to explain handguns, rifles and shotguns to customers. We sold a lot of ammunition, black powder supplies and hand-loading equipment. In addition, we were always special-ordering firearms such as left-hand Remington 700 BDL 30-06 rifles, Thompson Contender single-shot pistol barrels in 30-30 and .30 Herrett, and the latest Redfield, Leopold and Burns scopes.
I enjoyed staying after work with John and mounting scopes or special sights and bore sighting the new weapons we were delivering.
The volume of our gun sales was surprising, and this included not only big game rifles but small caliber .22 Ruger Mini-14 and 10/22 rifles as well as handguns. When John located a reliable supplier, it became difficult to keep a Model 629 Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum or .357 and .44 Magnum Ruger Blackhawks on the shelf. This was also when Butler Creek flip-open scope covers were gaining in popularity. Because the company was based in Jackson, popular sizes of this product were important to have on hand.
I benefitted greatly from Jack Stone’s and John Crook’s selling experience. They enjoyed my tackle and gun insights when I accompanied them to wholesale sporting goods shows to make preseason purchases of lures, lines, rods and reels. I was even convinced that Stone’s could sell john boats and canoes from Lebanon, Mo.-based Lowe Line, a premier aluminum fabricator. It took only a few weeks for customers to devour the entire shipment.
Sometimes, when there weren’t any hunting and fishing licenses to fill out or gear to sell, I’d wander about the store to assist in other areas. It was fun explaining why Sally Hansen’s Hard As Nails polish was essential for fly-tying but also for women seeking a perfect home manicure, or expounding on the earliest but totally innovative Whirlpool microwave ovens. Such diversions rivaled selling Acme WonderLures and Kamlooper spoons to fishing enthusiasts.
Putting the crank telephone fishing techniques behind, I enjoyed helping John Crook become interested in the more modern pursuit of fly-fishing rather than electrocuting trout. At the time I was considering moving my guiding business to the Bighorn River in Thermopolis. I frequently dragged John to Thermop, where we inhabited a number of structures and even an aging motel owned by our mutual friend R. T. Hughes. John’s fly-fishing enthusiasm soared, especially when we would locate pods of sipping rainbows eager to attack midges and small nymphs.
After I moved on from the sporting goods counter to start the Jackson Hole Daily in 1978, John’s fishing interests expanded to the pursuit of lake trout, both in winter and summer. He purchased a snowplane to speed across Jackson Lake in winter, and thoroughly enjoyed searching for giant lakers with the Clover family’s Wilderness Trails Outfitters on Heart Lake in Yellowstone.
It was painful to learn that my longtime friend and mentor had died of an apparent heart attack at his home several weeks ago. Whenever I remember John, a special moment we shared after a Thermopolis trout trip will always come to mind:
John was driving us home in his Volkswagen camper van and pulling my 14-foot Lavro drift boat along the Wind River Canyon. It was snowing lightly when a Canada lynx suddenly sprang up from the canyon onto the edge of the roadside. Dangling in the dripping-wet cat’s mouth was a hefty male mallard, its green head glistening brilliantly despite the fading light. The moment the lynx saw the van, it vanished back over the side.
“Did you see that?” John yelled.
“Yes, I did. That was fantastic,” I replied.
So long, John. I will never forget our marvelous times and that very special experience.
Paul Bruun writes weekly on his adventures and misadventures in the great outdoors.