Monroe, Arkansas Mercantile Store

(Update: the above picture is of my cousin Cheryl and my Aunt Betty. In the background is the Monroe Mercantile store. The house to their left is my grandma’s house in Monroe, the one that once was a cafe in that small farming town.)

Warning: this post might well have started out as a meandering recollection of comments about the old mercantile story but will manage to hit every corner of Monroe County, given my proclivity to jump off the beaten path.

One of my failures as a researcher includes being unable to find pictures and histories of the mercantile store that once dominated the little Monroe County community of Monroe, Arkansas.  I know that I will discover some one future day and it will be a revelation. I cannot think of the old mercantile store in Monroe without thinking and even smelling the old places of Arkansas, hearing the voice of my Grandpa Willie, or forget the sight of a row of cackling older men sitting outside, all whittling on pieces of wood with their pocketknives, drinking Coke from a glass bottle, and spitting. It is impossible for me to imagine that someone doesn’t have a gallery of pictures and memories of this place. I’ve got many memories of it, with remnants of how wondrous it seemed to me as a small child. Much of the nostalgia probably results from the fact that many of my first memories were formed in this era, one dominated my being around my grandparents so much. Even when my grandparents lived in Rich, near the old White Church, “going to the store” meant the Monroe Mercantile rather than Clarendon or Brinkley.

(Sidenote: my first memory of a “real” supermarket was at a Piggly Wiggly. Grandpa told me I could have anything I wanted and I bought a brightly-colored yellow bag of Funyons, which my grandpa thought was very funny. To his surprise, I absolutely loved the taste. He did, too! I can’t see or eat Funyons without thinking of my grandpa.)

The shell of the mercantile building is located in Monroe, along Highway 38/Buckhorn Road. It still sits directly across the road from the Baptist Church building on the corner. A little down the road, going straight on Buckhorn, sits a horrific and ghastly tavern, if it can be called that. My mom worked there a couple of times as a barkeep or attendant. She also lived directly next to it for a time in a converted school bus, as unimaginable as that might be. That bar had been the nexus of many small-town dramas for decades. It’s insistence of still existing is a testament to both the lack of any real alternatives and to residents there clinging to the past with clenched fingers. I used to joke that a picture of the inside of the place would have been an ideal snapshot to indicate “Herpes.” Anyone who visited the place knows what I mean. But, I did have a couple of good visits in there, too, I must admit, but as an adult. Not to drink, but to talk to mom and Nolan and see people that I otherwise would not have visited with. The tavern served a role in the community. It was a place where one could not only have a drink, but compare notes and gossip about the comings and goings of the locals.

The above picture is one of my mom when she worked at the tavern, probably when she was married to her other husband, Buddy, in the 90s.

On the left side of the road near the old tavern are the remains of the Dr. Pardo’s old doctors office, which I have written about in another blog entry.

Monroe, Arkansas was once a bustling community, sitting at blacktop crossroads between Clarendon and Brinkley. The highways laced across it perfectly. When cotton was king in the area, no place better represented central Arkansas small towns better than Monroe. When I got older and looked at a map, I was surprised to find so many alternate roads connecting all the highways. It seemed like when I was young it was a place dropped from the sky, frozen in time. Also a surprise was to realize how inextricably linked all these small communities were, especially considering that the interstate opened to nearby Brinkley the year I was born. I didn’t know how different the two eras (pre- and post-interstate) were until I started learning history and economics.

My Aunt Betty lived much of her adult life around the corner from the church and store, her husband Wink worked at the mercantile store as a butcher. (They later had a dance club in the same mercantile building.) Along these dusty streets were where my cousin Micheal Wayne somehow managed to get me to learn to ride a bicycle, something that proved very difficult to me.

My grandmother Nellie Cook lived slightly west of the store, on the same side of the road as the Baptist church. The story is that the house she lived in was once a small cafe that served great food. I believe the story because the living room still had a square access window going into the kitchen.There are many other family connections to this place and era, much of them faded out of graspable memory. But it is a place of long, misty memories and shadows.

Among my most cherished memories as a young boy were those visits to the store. Everything about it evokes nostalgia and warmth. Even back in 1970, the store was well behind the times. Heck, everything about Monroe was behind the times, a trend that holds true even today. I fondly recall spinning the toy rack of cheap toys, each toy more interesting than the last. I could spend hours looking at the rows of 2-quart Cokes, boxes of candy and displays of nails. (As dumb as it sounds, one of my absolute favorite memories were when my grandpa would buy me a sack of nails. I would take these home and drive them into the porch or railroad steps like a boy possessed by demons. As an adult, I now know that sometimes all the incessant hammering I did probably drove my grandma crazy – but she never said anything cross to me about it.)

I recently drove down the once lively road in front of the old mercantile. The building still stands. It will resist the elements until one day, without much fanfare, it will fall in on itself. This is the fate of many buildings in this area of the state. (If not a metaphor for most of our lives!) No one is going to pay for demolition and removal. (A few hundred feet away once stood an old abandoned schoolhouse. It lingered, empty and derelict, for decades until it caved in. To my surprise, a few years ago it was cleaned out and a small playground was erected in the spot.) The mercantile still stands, awaiting its inevitable fate. One day I will visit and see the outline of where the building once stood. A few years after that, I won’t even be able to recognize exactly where the building once stood. This, too, is a common fate of most places in these small communities.

Eventually, all of us who have fond memories of the small county store will be gone and our descendants won’t recall that there ever was a place where so many people gathered not only to buy groceries but also to share news of each others lives.

I would give anything to have a picture of me and my grandpa at the mercantile, going about our business. I’m slowly forgetting what grandpa looked like, wearing his fedora-style hat and button-up shirts.I don’t really remember the conversations grandpa would have with some of the different older men at the store, but he would stop and “jaw” a while. Sometimes, they would tell stories about drinking or the war. I don’t remember any of them, unfortunately. When my grandpa and grandma were older, it was usually my Aunt Betty who would drive them to the store in Monroe. Being able to go with them was the highlight of my week. Grandma would always let me get a little bit of candy and a cheap toy. As cheap as it was, it was as good as any xmas present I would later get.

When I watch movies such as “Fried Green Tomatoes” or “Somewhere in Time,” I catch myself thinking of the old Monroe Mercantile and what it might be like to go back in time and just observe the people going about their lives. It was a vital place in a now-forgotten community. A lot of life happened there and I would love more than anything to discover that someone has made it immortal via pictures or a written history.