A Christmas Story

I was a child of the Sixties, and glad of it, and one of my favorite places during that time was The Dragon’s Emporium, at the corner of South Beech and Trinity Place in the Westcott Nation of Syracuse, N.Y. At first glance it could have been loosely categorized as a “head shop,” but the proprietors preferred to describe it as a place where you could find “organic crafts” – beautiful handcrafted items in leather and wood.

Bill McDowell

The resident artist was Bill McDowell, a graduate of the School of Visual and Performing Arts at Syracuse University, Class of ’68, and something of a work of art himself. Even in his youth, he was ruggedly handsome in a Wild Bill Hickok way, with a voice to match and eyes that twinkled when he smiled.

The front door of the Dragon’s Emporium was, fittingly, a full-length faux stained-glass panel, a dragon done with paint and lead, and it was breathtakingly beautiful.

I went there to shop for incense, a passion of mine then and now. And the store didn’t just stock sticks and cones; they had incense from all over the world, in every form; Bill showed me how to use discs of charcoal to burn the powders and nuggets. There was, as you’d expect, dragon’s blood, a reddish resin from trees on islands in the Mediterranean and Indian oceans. But I was drawn to the frankincense and myrrh, golden bits of resin. I knew the Wise Men had brought these to the Christ Child, but growing up in Kenmore, N.Y., I didn’t have a clue what was really under the gift wrap, until Bill poured them into my hand, to touch and smell.

 Two Resins

I bought them, burnt them, enjoyed them. And on a visit home, I gave a small tin of each to my mother, who every Sunday rode herd in the nursery of the Kenmore Baptist Church. Now, at Christmas time, when she told the children about the Three Wise Men, she could show them real frankincense and real myrrh. This was not part of a standard Baptist upbringing, and I’m pleased to think that out in the world there are adults who know what gifts Two and Three were, because of my mother and Bill McDowell.

* * *

The Dragon’s Emporium passed the way of the Sixties. The beautiful glass door was shattered during a racial disturbance, and not replaced. Bill McDowell went on to co-found Eureka Crafts in Armory Square, Syracuse, and created some extraordinary works of art before his untimely death in March of 2011. I wish I could have shared this memory with him.

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One comment

  1. Phil K., who lived above the Dragon’s Emporium, writes, “Oh, yes indeedy. I can still recall the symphony of esoteric smells (or oodles of opaque odors, if you please) wafting up through the cracks and joints of that tired old building. We never had to spend a precious penny on incense…it came free with the rent. Pat’s officemate and good buddy Emily’s husband Dugan published The Fur-Bearing Trout in the basement under Bill’s shop. Google Maps tells me Abdo’s Grocery is still beneath our old bedroom!”

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