They called them “department stores” but they bore little resemblance to the massive establishments of the big cities. There were modest affairs but they dominated the main streets of small town America like matriarchs of commerce.
They resembled their urban cousins, though, because they had sections for about anything you needed—clothes for women, clothes for men, clothes for kids, shoes. You name it. The one in the Delta town of Lonoke, Arkansas was called McCrary’s and it had been there since the late 1800s.
It’s not there anymore. Some say it was “big-boxed” out. Some say closing it was inevitable in a world where kids could find high-paying jobs working 40-hour weeks or less with a fraction of the worries. Anyway, it’s gone, along with tens of thousands like it. Main Street will never be the same.
The one in Lonoke was run by one of the Delta’s true gentlemen, Walls McCrary. Some 30 miles or so away, in Des Arc, another great Southerner, Gene Horne operated the family store there until the 1990s. Both men put in as much time helping their community as they did running their stores. We don’t often see the likes of them these days.
What was so wonderful about these places? Oh, I don’t know. Maybe it was because you could seal a note to Walls, to be delivered by your wife, instructing him to pick out a couple of ties for you and not let anyone else have a say in the choice. Otherwise, you might end up with pink and yellow ones.
Maybe it was because he ran a credit account, a life-saver when you remembered a birthday or anniversary without any cash on you.
Maybe it was because they sold merchandise that might not put you in a Playboy Magazine ad but would be serviceable, durable, and reasonably priced.
Maybe it was because they knew your name and never failed to ask how “Mizz Hazel” was doing.
Maybe it was because, from being a part of the community, they knew which men would wear a “flowerdy” shirt or a pink and yellow tie and which ones wouldn’t.
Or, maybe it was just the smell of the place—perfume mingled with the scent of blue jeans, blouses, and shoe leather.
I guess McCrary’s provided many, if not most, of my birthday and Christmas presents for over 25 years. Many of those I paid for myself, when the monthly bill came due. It was okay. They always matched what I wore and were both presentable and serviceable. One can’t ask for much more.
There will always be a hole in the high school yearbook where the McCrary’s ad used to be, but Main Street (actually “Front Street” in Lonoke) may survive. A locally owned pharmacy occupies the building where McCrary’s was, and locally owned eating places fill each corner of the block. Down the street a ways is a family hardware store that is thriving. We’ll see.
Every time I pass where McCray’s was located, though, I remember a story related by a woman who owned a local business in another town. When a friend stopped in, on her daughter’s behalf, to pick up the annual check for their school’s yearbook ad, the owner asked her friend if she had done her Christmas shopping.
“Oh yes,” the clueless woman said. “I did it early this year, all on the internet.”
“The community which has neither poverty nor riches will always have the noblest principles.” - Plato