By Dr. Curtis Varnell
The business of business has changed dramatically in the past fifty years. In the 1960s, people from outlying areas seldom visited in town except on weekends. Shopping was an all-day affair, with people parking in all the empty lots around town and walking to main street or the square.
Each store offered a unique experience with sales concentrated around a particular type of goods. On the square in my hometown was the Leader store, the Koret, and the Shoe Box which specialized in clothing and apparel. I loved to visit Sterling’s and Ben Franklins, commonly called five and dime stores during that era. Shelves were filled with school supplies, candy, toys, and other items at very reasonable prices.
Every town center had one or more drug stores that specialized in remedies, often mixed on-site, as well as a soda fountain. The soda fountain was a great place to just hang out, have a soft drink with cherry, lemon, or other flavoring added, and visit with friends. The owners were local and would return to the store to provide prescriptions after-hours when needed.
Even small towns had multiple grocery stores that provided essentials not available in stores today. We would buy twenty-five pound sacks of flour in gingham print cloth, ten pound sacks of sugar, and potatoes in huge amounts. A luxury was to buy cold cereal, of which there were dozens of brands, but Kellogg’s corn flakes or Frosted Flakes were the big sellers. Butchers prepared choice cuts of meat and displayed them unwrapped in closed glass refrigerated cases. Sometimes we would spend as much as twenty-five dollars just buying bags of groceries. Later, while working at Warehouse Market grocery, one person bought over a hundred dollars of food! We pushed out three grocery carts and completely filled her car with bags.
Western Auto, OTASCO, and the local hardware stores provided every type of item needed to keep your home, car, and business running. Appliances, tires, car parts, tools, and every nut and bolt imaginable could be found. They even had employees who would install or repair the items they sold. Stopping at the DX or Sunoco service station, an employee would rush out to check your oil, clean your window, and pump your gasoline at twenty-nine cents a gallon.
One of the big things I remember about these stores were that they were owned locally and they supported the community. Their kids went to school locally and you saw them at church or at the football games. They contributed to the community by buying school ads, financing civic events, or working selling burgers and cooking to raise money for the Lions, Rotary, or Kiwanis club.
Modern convenience stores gradually moved in and, with their large parking lots and mixed bag of goods, replaced the downtown stores. They offer a variety of big sale items that are the backbone to business but disposed of the small, needed items one needs but are not profitable. Service became less personable; the items sold were disposable because there is no one that can or will repair them. Downtown business slowly became unprofitable and closed, leaving pawnshops and antique stores to take their place. Those needed items such as bolts of a certain size, repair parts for your vacuum cleaner, or pipes to fix your plumbing necessitate a trip to Fort Smith or Russellville.
Times change, towns change, and people change leaving me wondering if we are going forward, backward, or in neutral as a people and as a country.