The store is bigger than I remember. Bigger. That surprises me, because the places that loom large in our memories are most often diminished in the light of adulthood. So why does C&D Drug Store in Russellville seem so big and bright? It can’t be the same 1950s-era pharmacy I visited during my childhood. Then I smell chicken and french fries. Deja vu. But the soda fountain that used to hug one wall isn’t there. Deja confusion. Just when I’m about to ask Main Street Russellville’s Betsy McGuire—my guide for this nostalgia trip—if we’re in the right place, I spy a familiar face behind the counter. It looks like old Mr. Walker, the pharmacist. But that can’t be.
“R.D. is the old guy here now,” McGuire says. An image of a slight, dark-haired 5-year-old from a black-and-white kindergarten photo flashes in my mind, then I recognize the pharmacist as that boy—Roy Dean Walker. He’s still slight, but his hair has grayed. Turns out Roy Dean runs the thriving pharmacy that his father, Dale, co-founded in 1958. That the store he now runs is bigger than his father’s isn’t my imagination; the one I remembered occupied only half of the building’s first floor. During a 1984 remodel, a wall was knocked out, and the soda fountain moved to the back of the drugstore. I take a peek and see the old Art Deco-style counter’s still there. “That’s the original,” Roy Dean confirms.
Things change while they stay the same, a point McGuire hits on frequently during an afternoon of walking the six or so blocks that make up Russellville’s oldest business district. Here, past and present literally intersect in the dead center of town at the junction of two major transportation arteries, Arkansas highways 64 and Scenic 7. “What keeps us vibrant is this mix of old and new,” she says.
A longtime resident, McGuire has been in that mix for 20 years as executive director of nonprofit Main Street Russellville. She’s eager to show off the organization’s revitalization successes to me and new Main Street intern Shelby Reding, but she cuts short an explanation about grants and building facades, saying: “I’m not going to bore you with that. It’s all about the heart of the city and making it the kind of place where someone like Shelby will stick around.” With a nod toward Reding, a Greenwood native who’s studying public relations at Arkansas Tech University, McGuire continues, “She’s going to think Russellville is so cool she won’t want to leave.”
Leaving C&D, McGuire leads us across the street to Funky Junky, whose picture window features an old drum set repurposed as a hanging light fixture. The vintage shop—housed at the site of a former hardware store—and its focus on making old things new is an obvious metaphor for downtown revival. After a quick turn through the store to check out a bedspring-and-twinkle-light chandelier, we find ourselves back on the sidewalk and bound for lunch.
“People love smelling food when they’re on the sidewalk,” McGuire calls over her shoulder as we follow our noses to Fat Daddy’s Bar-B-Que. Rounding the corner onto North Denver, we’re rewarded with the rich, heady aroma of hickory-smoked meat; that and the blues music blaring from outdoor speakers tells us we’re in the right place. “Fat Daddy’s has been a game-changer downtown,” McGuire says. The attraction isn’t merely food like the day’s special—a smoked barbecue meatloaf that I’m convinced is a life-changer after the first flavorful bite—but also that it has a private club license to serve alcoholic beverages. That’s a coup for any restaurant in a dry county, but a requisite for one with aspirations of being a destination in an area people may forget exists after 5 p.m. To fully appreciate the significance of Fat Daddy’s ability to serve beer, wine and mixed drinks, imagine Little Rock’s River Market District without booze. But first, help yourself to a battered, deep-fried pork skin: “Deadly good,” says operations manager Kyle Wills.
Talking about Fat Daddy’s ability to lure people downtown, owner Gordon Shirron says the eatery has yet to tap into what could be a major customer base: students at nearby Arkansas Tech. “You think so?” says Reding. “‘Cause a lot of my friends come here.” Shirron notes wryly that the college trade he’s seen thus far wouldn’t keep the restaurant afloat, prompting Reding to laugh and counter: “Well, we don’t have much money in college.” Still, she says, she can see downtown’s potential as a destination for fellow students, though they typically hang out on campus or at Feltner’s Whatta-Burger, a locally owned burger joint with statewide renown. The challenge for Fat Daddy’s and other downtown enterprises, Reding says, is to get the students out of their comfort zones.
Stuffed and sated, we sally forth from Fat Daddy’s to check out Kaleidoclasm, a new addition to the area. McGuire explains that artist-owners Daniel Freeman and Korri Hodges represent the younger generation of entrepreneurs. Their determination to make a living doing what they love reflects the spirit of downtown’s past while holding out promise for its future. “It’s pretty exciting to be on the cusp of an art movement,” Freeman says. The downtown art scene, McGuire says, is small but growing with the addition of Kaleidoclasm’s monthly shows filling the gaps between Main Street Russellville’s quarterly art walks.
Spending so much time chewing the fat (literally and figuratively) at Fat Daddy’s has left us short on time, so we fast-walk the few blocks back to the restored Missouri-Pacific Railroad depot that is Main Street Russellville’s headquarters. Passing an empty storefront where we bought our school clothes each year—the old Hunt-Walden Department Store—McGuire pauses to show me an original cast-iron column revealed when a motorist plowed his truck into the the building. Soon, she says, all the original columns will be uncovered as part of an effort to restore the building facade to the one I remember.
In less than five minutes, we’re stepping into The Depot, a red-brick building fronted by small park that functions as a town square for concerts, festivals and the annual chili cook-off. Beneath the scent of new varnish lies the musty fragrance of old wood, a pungent blend of present and past. The scent’s still with me as I drive out of town, passing C&D on my way to Main Street, where new curbs and gutters appear fresh and bright along the edges of sidewalks I trod as a child.