The Place Where Time Stood Still

Photos © Paul Cotter Photography

When my watch battery died, I wanted the quickest, simplest fix possible. In the past, I'd typically head up to a jewelry store or battery replacement kiosk at the mall. But this time, I did an online search to see what options might be closer.

I'm glad I checked. Because the search took me to a place in Charlotte that was far more interesting than any mall kiosk.

When I stepped inside A Time 'n Place clock store, I was greeted by a row of stately grandfather clocks that stood like sentries at the entrance. My eyes swept across the delightful chaos of the shop. Old clocks were piled in heaps on the floor, stacked on shelves, hung all the way up to the ceiling on the crowded walls. 


The owner, a Vietnamese immigrant who’s been repairing clocks and watches in Charlotte for 37 years, apologized for the cluttered condition of his store. He explained that people nowadays just drop off broken grandfather clocks and other things with no intention of ever returning to pick them up. “No one wants clocks anymore,” he said.

I marveled at the intricate beauty of some of these abandoned treasures, and I asked the owner if I could come back with my camera to photograph them. "Of course," he replied.

I found something quietly comforting in these old clocks with their hanging chimes and intricate gears.  In our age of pricey gadgets that are discarded as soon as a newer version comes along, these clocks remind us that time does not have to be a breathless sprint.  It can also be a graceful waltz.

These clocks weren't flashy. They weren't slim enough to slide into your back pocket like a smartphone. They didn't have apps that could reserve plane tickets or turn on your home lights for you. But they had an enduring presence and they were made to pass along from one generation to the next, like a favorite family recipe. 

Unlike the gadgets we buy today, the old clocks were made to be fixed -- not thrown away. They were built to be taken apart and repaired by skilled craftsmen, which is why shops like this one stayed in business for decades.

Many of the clocks I saw were in various states of disrepair, with hands missing or the insides gutted. Like forgotten toys from childhood stowed away in the attic, these abandoned timepieces have stories to tell.

Perhaps this clock once chimed to announce the family dinner hour, when the kids came in after playing in the backyard fort.

Maybe this clock marked the start of a birthday party held on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Maybe that one ticked away the hours while a mother waited for her son to come back from the war. 

So many clocks, so many stories. I considered the irony of the store owner's observation, "No one wants clocks anymore."  As technology races forward at warp speed, we have little need for clocks -- yet we've become more enslaved to time than ever before. 

We pack more into our busy days and we cram more into our to-do lists than previous generations could imagine. The hands of old clocks move far too slowly for a world like this.

Khue Pham, the owner of A Time 'n Place, was too modest to let me shoot a portrait of him in his shop.  But he did agree to let me photograph his hands as he worked. 

"I'm sorry for the mess," Khue said again as he stood at his cluttered work table.

I looked at the piles of gears and other assorted parts. I didn't see a mess. I saw a lifetime of hard work ... a love of craftsmanship ... a pride in fixing things and getting them to run smoothly again.

"No, please, don't apologize," I assured him before I left the store. "I think it's perfect."

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