And the timeless appeal of Winston-Salem’s Old Town Clock Shop & Repair
By Nancy Oakley • Photographs by John Koob Gessner
Amid a soundtrack of whirring and ticking and chiming and the occasional birdcall of “cuckoo,” Nate Moffatt holds up two pairs of dancing figures, each clasping hands while they whirl around a bare circular disk.
“It’s an odd one,” says Sandy Moran, co-owner along with her husband Alan Moran of Winston-Salem’s Old Town Clock Shop & Repair. “You don’t see those too often.”
The timepiece is one of thousands among cuckoos, mantel clocks, grandfathers, sleek contemporary clocks on tripods and novelties, such as the popular Kit-Cat Klocks with moving eyes and tails that fill the shop’s walls and shelves. And then there’s an oversized round clock with Roman numerals on its face, perched on a chair facing the front window. “It’s huge! I didn’t have any place else to put it!” says Patsy Holder, Old Town’s shop assistant (or “Girl Everything” as Sandy affectionately calls her), who greets customers along with the Morans’ affable, aging Lab mix, Kioti. Since 1977, the shop has been a fixture of the Old Town community, so named for its proximity to Bethania, the area’s second Moravian settlement and oldest planned municipality. “When I was a little boy, there was a farm-machinery place up here called Leinbach’s,” Alan Moran recalls. “I used to go by here all the time . . . not knowing 40 years later I’d be owning it.”
In 2008, he and Sandy bought the place from its previous owners, Larry and Nancy Farrington (who had bought it from Philip Woods, the founder) — even though neither of the Morans knew anything about clock repair. “He’s always been interested in clocks and watches,” Sandy says of her husband. Fortunately, repair technician P.K. Knab stayed on, and to this day, quietly sits across from Moffatt, bent over the backlog of cable-style grandfather clocks. (Sandy handles the chain-style grandfathers; Patsy Holder converts traditional mechanisms to battery packs.) Larry Farrington remained for a year, as well, taking Alan along with him on service calls and training him — just as Philip Woods had done for him.
“I’m still learning!” Alan chuckles. “You see something new every day.” He’s often on the road, gathering clocks — typically grandfathers — around the Triad that need a temporary storage facility while the floors of houses need resurfacing or carpeting. Natural disasters also take their toll, such as the tornado of 2018 that struck east Greensboro and beyond. And when timepieces themselves are damaged in fires and floods, Old Town comes to the rescue, repairing or cleaning clocks, and sending the large wooden cases of grandfathers to restoration companies, such as Carolina Furniture in Advance, or in the case of a more complicated job, to a horologist in Maryland. “You’d be surprised how many water pipes burst,” Alan adds. When a sprinkler system in Old Salem’s museum archives broke, it was Alan who restored one of its clocks that fell victim to the water damage. “It was 1740,” he says, making it the oldest he’s ever worked on. “It was actually given to the museum by one of the residents who had passed away. Not knowing much heritage about it, we had to do a lot of rebuilding.” Now, he says, “We take care of all their clocks.”
Preserving history is at the heart of the Morans’ operation. Sandy points to a late 18th-century clock with pastoral figures painted on its face, an English Bellstriker, with the cutout of a ship that moves upon “waves” when it strikes the hour in a clear, high-pitched tone. Nearby is another unusual 19th-century piece with ball weights hanging from its chains. Just as timepieces vary enormously, so do the shop’s clients: Sandy and her cohorts understand that the personal histories of their customers are what matter — even in this hyper-digitized day and age. “Luckily people are still sentimental or we would go out of business,” she says.
Each clock awaiting repair — and even some of the new ones that Old Town sells ̌— have stories to tell: “It was the first thing I gave my wife,” Sandy often hears, or “My dad bought this clock in Germany; he was there during the war.” There was the elderly lady who anxiously called every week, asking if her clock from the 1890s had been wound while it was undergoing repair, or the gentleman who brought in an unusual painted wall clock — his only inherited possession. Other customers are particular about timepieces from a home decorating standpoint. “I had one lady pay $30 just for a little teeny plastic piece,” Sandy recalls. She told her customer it would be more cost-effective to replace the clock with a new one, easily acquired at Walmart. “She goes, ‘Honey, this fits where I want it. Perfect. And I love the color. Fix it!’”
Younger generations, too, make their way to the Clock Shop. “Every now and then we’ll get a young person who will buy a grandfather clock or they’ll lay it away,” Sandy says. “It’s always something usually connected to their past: ‘My grandmother had one.’” But many of them reveal their 21st-century idiosyncrasies, such as an avoidance of Roman numerals, which they often don’t know how to read. Referring to New York’s street clocks of the Gilded Age or London’s Big Ben, she posits, “Wouldn’t you just like to know what time it is?” Similarly, younger folk prefer battery-powered clocks so as not to have to wind traditional ones, and softer, lower-toned chimes. “The old ones were loud!” Sandy exclaims.
She’s become something of a horological buff, explaining how the various clock manufacturers — Herman Miller, Hermle, Bulova, among others — are all intertwined, given that some of them patent clock movements (or “guts” as she calls them), much in the way that Intel provides processors for a variety of computer brands. “You might say, ‘I have a Tiffany clock,’” she says, “but for us, you have a Seth Thomas movement.” She points out the different styles — Vienna regulators (rectangular wall clocks that chime), steeple clocks, bracket clocks (with handles), tambours (flat-bottomed ones with sloped tops), and “kitchen clocks” a catchall that can refer to a classification of rectangular clocks, made between the 1890s and the early 20th century — an era when the main room of the house, particularly in rural and agricultural areas, was the kitchen. “So that’s why we call them kitchen clocks because that’s where they were.”
With time literally at our fingertips — on our cell phones and computers, in our cars — it’s a strange concept to ponder: time standing literally in one place. Did previous generations have a deeper appreciation of the passing minutes and hours because they were formally and communally marked, or more audible, like the constant, rhythmic ticking and chiming of Old Town Clock Shop’s wares? “Listen,” says Sandy, pausing. “Get you a full meal, and you can lay down and go to sleep listening to that.” A series of heartbeats, in effect, kept beating, ironically, by tradesmen whom Alan calls “a dying breed.” He says that when they bought the shop, “in Greensboro, High Point and Winston-Salem, there were eight or 10 guys that worked out of their homes. They’re not doing it any more. They’ve either passed away, or they can’t do the work any more. So it’s fallen to us. We’re keeping a tradition alive.”
The Old Town Clock Shop & Repair, 3738 Reynolda Road (Highway 67), Winston-Salem. (336) 924-8807 or oldtownclock.com