By Karen Campbell
If you are one of the 200-300 visitors to Palmersville’s CJ’s Station House on Friday and Saturdays, you can enjoy fish, steaks, maybe prime rib, and get it all with a side order of Grisham — John, that is, as in owner Charles Oliver’s favorite author.
The restaurant that’s been going strong since Oliver and friend Jerry James built it in 1981 has survived when many of the area’s small businesses didn’t. As a result, about a year ago, Oliver determined the area needed a reading nook and set aside a wall in the back room for first his collection of primarily fiction, and as the year has progressed, now even selections donated from others.
Regular patrons to the small library can check out or … if desired … just keep, one of the many titles that reflects Oliver’s love of books.
Titles are as varied as Oliver’s menu. With breakfast options of eggs, bacon, sausage, baked ham, French toast, pancakes, biscuits, and hashbrowns or home fries, diners can opt for biographies or memoirs from the likes of Shirley Temple, Naomi Judd, Tatum O’Neal and Marie Osmond.
Lunches of one of three salad options, the daily lunch special like ham, mac and cheese and green beans, or maybe a hand-patted-straight-off-the-griddle hamburger or patty melt can be accompanied with a few pages of mysteries and thrillers from the likes of prolific tale tellers such as Louis L’Amour and Nora Roberts.
And suppers that start off with CJ’s fried pickles, onion petals or corn nuggets, followed by pork chops, smothered chicken, hamburger steak or a ham platter can give guests time to begin to digest selections from the inspirational and faith shelves.
A small card tacked by the door states the “Palmersville Library Rules: For each book you check out — fill out a line on the information sheet. When you return the book fill in the return date on the same line. It’s as simple as that. HAPPY READING!!”
Sitting at the cash register, surrounded by photos of family and friends with posters of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis bookending the counter, Oliver moves a little slower in his second time around as restaurant owner, but seems perfectly at home. Initially called CJ’s, half the size of the current manifestation and with a menu and pinball and pool table to cater to a young crowd, Oliver says the 80’s version of the establishment served as the town “babysitter.” In the early 90’s, having been ran by Oliver’s mother and sister while he got a taxi business and car detailing shop established in Paris, the restaurant was sold to what became a series of owners. The last was Renita Cantrell, who with husband Ted, now run the Oak Hill Mill event venue just down the road.
Oliver says the day he retired and sold his Paris operations he stopped in at The Station, which is what the Cantrells called the restaurant. On the table he saw a notice that The Station was closing and looking for a buyer.
“I didn’t know where I was going to eat on Friday and Saturday night,” he joked. So, he bought what is now known as CJ’s Station. The walls reflect a bit of the Cantrells’ train theme, a bit of Palmersville history, more Marilyn and Elvis, and a collection of Oliver’s wife’s Cindy’s old cameras.
And for the last 12 years, the restaurant/library/museum has become the perfect venue for Oliver to keep up with old friends and make new acquaintances.
“People come from Dresden, Martin, Mayfield, and Paris,” Oliver says. “Some came from Paducah saying they were just driving around and decided to stop in and now they’re regulars.”
The icing on the cake of the experience for Oliver is the family-like atmosphere that comes from … family. He jokes that although wife Cindy, who is an accountant with Cowart Reese Sargent in Martin, said purchasing the property would be fun, “Now I never see her much except for breakfast and the weekends!” (He also comically complains that his office is filled with her cameras, relegating his space to the corner counter beside the register, but he’s less than convincing that he’s actually put out by it.)
Michelle Montgomery, Oliver’s niece, works 3-5 days a week and provides all of the pies and cakes — a fairly substantial order given that she could be making 6-12 pies at a time depending on the crowd. Her mom Sherry takes care of the cheesecake production. And taking orders, chatting up farmers about the incoming rain, and providing the sweet ending to the full plates of food, aren’t the extent of Montgomery’s job as she and her husband Brent also run a farm in Palmersville.
With a master’s in psychology, 14 years of owning her own shop and a prior career in human resources, Montgomery clearly sees the role CJ’s Station plays in the community. Though she’s not ready to take Oliver up on his encouragement that it’s now time for him to pass the place on to his daughter and Montgomery, she does admit, “When I’m here, I’m home.”
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