I MAY HAVE made a terrible mistake. I have come to the small town of Hardy—population 772—on a Sunday. In the rain. With my city-born and -bred 14-year-old. “I just want something to happen today,” Avery said on the 2 1/2-hour drive here from central Arkansas, and I don’t think buckets of water falling from the sky and an almost completely shuttered town qualify as “happening.” And they asked if there might be a mall when we get there! Heck, not only did I figure there was no mall in Hardy; I imagined we’d be lucky if even one of the stores I expected to line Main Street would be open on the Lord’s Day.
Passing through Evening Shade and screaming about Burt Reynolds didn’t count as “happening,” apparently, since Avery had never heard of the Emmy-Award winning series (which, to be fair, aired a good 10 years before they were born). And spotting not one, not two, but three miniature Statues of Liberty didn’t “happen” as well, since Avery was too busy watching Hulu on my iPhone and completely missed them. But stopping for grub at Grandma’s Country Cook’n has got their attention, as Avery is every bit as hungry as any teenager you’ve ever met.
“I’ll get the buffet,” they declare. They bring back fried chicken and corn and hot rolls, just like a lot of the folks here are doing, now that church has clearly let out. The long banquet-style tables are filling up, with patrons greeting one another as they pass by, heading to what I can only assume are their usual seats.
According to my husband, there are three things we need to see today. Three things, he told us, that every small Arkansas town has: 1) a home-cookin’ restaurant, 2) a Mexican restaurant and 3) a tanning salon/gas station combo. If it’s a good small Arkansas town, he said, there’ll be a Chinese restaurant, too, but “don’t get your hopes up.” And here we are, sitting at attraction No. 1, sure enough.
Payton, our ponytailed waitress, has lived here on and off since August. She’s got different sights in mind. “You definitely need to see the Spring River,” she tells me. “It’s so beautiful. And you definitely need to see downtown.”
I steal a wary look at the dripping sky, but it is what it is. So we head downtown.
We pass the Hardy Junction Music Hall (I wonder when they operate and what music is most common) and the Family Dollar (another small-Arkansas-town staple, as far as I’m concerned; my husband’s list was most certainly incomplete) before discovering the jackpot: Baros Mongolian Bar and Grill. Or Barro’s Mongolian Bar and Grill. I’m not sure which one it is because two banners stationed at parking-lot entrances spell it one way, while two signs on opposite sides of the building spell it the other. Regardless, I am delighted by the phrase that lies underneath all the names: Sushi and Mexican. It’s Asian PLUS Mexican food! With my husband’s Nos. 1, 2 and bonus item already located, early signs indicate that Hardy is undoubtedly a good small Arkansas town.
We parallel-park our SUV (which I’d gladly substitute for a smart car at this point, with the Main Street of Hardy being as quaint—read: small—as you might expect) and immediately spot the Old Time Candy Shoppe. Its giant, U-shaped, wood-paneled counters, complete with glass display cases atop, do not disappoint. There’s chipotle-and-garlic buffalo jerky, dill-pickle sunflower seeds and oodles of bottled pop. But it’s one item in particular that captures my inner child, one particular sweet that I would spend my last dollar to buy: candy cigarettes.
“That’s a thing?” Avery asks.
It is, Grasshopper. It is indeed.
Across the street are more than enough stores with open signs in their windows to keep us busy. Should we go to the Tattoos and Piercings/Metal Detectors Shop? The Moss Main Street Flea Market with a basket full of $5 duck decoys hanging on the porch? Worthy indeed, of our time, but then I see … it. The shop we’re clearly meant to visit. I point to the sign.
“Look!” I holler at Avery. “A mall!”
Avery gives me their best deadpan stare and shakes their head. I guess Memory Lane Mall antiques doesn’t qualify as “happening,” either.
I, however, would disagree. A customer in the store overhears me asking what makes Hardy special. “You should look up ‘hardy’ in the dictionary,” she tells me. It means robust, capable of enduring difficult conditions. The very mall we’re standing in used to be a Ford Motor Showroom; it’s survived decades and grown into a beautiful new purpose. And Clash of the Ozarks, a six-part television series on the Discovery Channel, followed two area families who’ve been in a “territorial conflict” for more than 100 years. That’s one hardy feud. And the dozens of Hoosier cabinets, scores of cast-iron skillets and complete sets of Corning Ware Blue Cornflower bakeware available here testify to the hardy culture of Arkansas that endures generation after generation.
A few doors down is yet another find for my mall-desiring teenager: the Ozark Classic Crafts Mall. This mall, however, doesn’t have antiques, like Memory Lane. But it also doesn’t have a Hot Topic. What it does have is two huskies who greet us at the door, snuggling up to our legs and making us feel more than welcome. It has whimsical wood carvings by Michael Quataert that look like fairy houses intricately etched into otherwise unusable bark, creating a magical tchotchke I can’t help but purchase. But even more magical, in their way, are the wooden swords and rubber-band guns. For a fleeting moment, the clock turns back. My teenager—taller than me by an inch or two—holds the grasps of the play weapons in their almost-adult hands. They battle an imaginary enemy. At this moment, in this place, a great and valiant crusade is happening.
We walk out of the store hand in hand. Actually touching. Avery is actually letting me show them affection. We never did find that tanning salon/gas station combo. But then again, we never really needed to.
LIFE OF THE HARDY
Can’t-miss spots in this historic hamlet
3 Rivers Outfitters
Whether you’ve got two hours or a full day, this downtown outfitter has what you need to get out on the water. They also operate 10 cabins of the riverside and hillside variety. We’ve got our eye on the Cedar Cabin (that deck! that dock!). (400 Church St.; 3riversoutfitters.com)
With cupcakes, hand-dipped ice cream, chicken-salad croissants and—wait for it—chicken pot pie soup, this cutie-pie cafe is basically comfort food heaven. (115 E. Main St.; search Vanilla Cowgirl on Facebook)
Featuring work from Arkansas potters Dale and Liane Maddox—who first came to Hardy in 1980 but now fire up their kiln on Petit Jean Mountain—as well as gifts and home goods, this Main Street shop has souvenirs aplenty. (200 E. Main St.; facebook.com/hardypottery)
The Native Way
Intricate handmade dream catchers are the draw here, as is the Northern Cherokee Nation family who makes them. Stop by for a chat and to check out their handmade leather moccasins, bags and jewelry. (100 W. Main St.; facebook.com/thenativewaystore)
Biggers Bed & Breakfast
There’s a pool, a hot tub, a river view, and a steakhouse—what more could you need? (20 Bluff Road; biggersbnb.com)