By Dr. Curtis Varnell
Downtown was where it was happening; especially on Saturdays. Everyone from the surrounding countryside congregated down main street or around the centers of the small towns that dotted the River Valley. The parking meters were paid up, every slot occupied with people wandering up from scattered lots blocks away. A few enterprising individuals parked their cars along main the night before, ensuring they had an open spot on the weekend.
It was a shopping day and a time to visit with friends. Old men sit on benches scattered along the street talking about old times and spitting chewing tobacco into nearby spittoons. People wandered into and out of the courthouse, conducting business or checking out books in the basement library. On the corner, a Pentecostal preacher had his Bible opened while he extolled the passer-by about the good life.
Business in the stores was brisk. Each store specialized in particular needs and carried every imaginable product within their specialty. Western Auto, Ben Franklin’s, and Sterling’s catered to those needing appliances, household goods, and toys. Other stores contained furniture, clothing, and hardware. Generally, several grocery stores were open and customers lined up to purchase twenty-five-pound sacks of flour plus quantities of sugar, coffee, and lard. If money was sufficient, purchases might include boxed cereal, pet milk, peanut butter, fruit, fruit, and hard-candy. Many of the customers raised much of their own food supplemented by government commodities.
For some, it was a day to visit the doctor whose office was located above the drug store, allowing one-stop medical care for the ill. There were brisk sales of campho phenique, Carter’s liver pills, castor oil, Pepto-Bismol, milk of magnesia, and B.C. powder. Teenagers hang out at the soda-fountain below waiting on a soda or just visiting.
For a quarter or less, the same kids, plus many adults, would head to the theater for an evening matinee or wait till nightfall to take the entire family to the drive-in. Westerns and horror shows were the genre of the day and I can still remember a few of them. Other kids just cruised the streets in their cars, going from one end of town to the other. Some sit out on their cars at the dairy queen, just hanging out.
Saturdays are just not the same. Most small towns are deserted on the weekends. The stores, if not boarded up, are closed by noon. People do their shopping in the huge shopping centers at the edge of town. Those stores offer the big sale items but, if you want the basic nuts and bolt items, you have to drive fifty or more miles to a city. More people than ever are shopping on-line and never even have to leave their homes.
Charleston, Paris, Ozark, Dardanelle, Mansfield, Booneville, and others are trying to revitalize their downtowns. I hope for success. We may have the conveniences but we lack the quality of community life of my forefathers.