THE LONDON Bach Choir’s just finished telling me I can’t always get what I want as I finally, thank goodness, get to some hills just outside Batesville. U.S. 167 North had been mind-numbingly flat for so long, the Stones were the only source of entertainment for this Boston Mountains-bred girl. I don’t know if rolling terrain is what I wanted or what I needed, but either way, I got it.
I’m approaching Batesville from the south, and before long, I’ve found myself in Southside, a formerly unincorporated suburb that, after opposing annexation by Batesville in 2014, officially became Arkansas’ Newest City. At least, that’s what the sign says. The sign also reads, “If you lived here, you’d already be home.”
In Southside, you can find Southside Elementary School, Southside Resale, Southern Charm Framing & Engraving, Southside Grill, Southern Traditions Antiques … there’s so much South here I can’t believe I have to go north to Batesville to reach Southern Belle Flea Market, my first stop for no other reason than the mental image of a corseted woman in a hoop skirt willfully associating with a “flea” tickles my fancy.
But I do.
When I get there, I see that Southern Belle Flea Market is a log cabin, and it’s freaking amazing. Unrefined timbers supporting the roof provide a perfect display from which to dangle wicker baskets and polished gourds. Refinished wood plank floors support the bookshelves that house hot-pink Hello Kitty gloves and tables that hold driftwood cutting boards and chairs that cushion Stormtrooper and Darth Vader and Yoda Christmas stockings.
“Come in if you can get in!” a woman calls to me, and I see Dee Prince, owner of the shop (“but not the building,” she clarifies). She’s also the proprietor of the hair salon set up in the back room. “I did a lady’s daughter’s hair who lived in Colorado. She couldn’t wait to go back and tell people she got her hair done at the flea market.”
That’s something I’d brag about, too.
Dee’s been in Batesville 40 years or so, and she knows where to send me. “You should see the aquatic center. Of course, it’s cold now, so they might not be open. And you need to go downtown. They’re doing a lot of good things there. And go to the Mark Martin Museum, ’cause this is his hometown. And there’s a dirt racetrack 5 miles down the road where he got his start.”
So I head to the Mark Martin Museum. I find its location on my phone, but unfortunately, it doesn’t tell me who Mark Martin is.
That’s right, I don’t know who Mark Martin is. But Dee just dropped his name so matter of factly that I was ashamed of my ignorance. I figure he’s a racer of some sort. Dirt bike? Four-wheeler? I have a friend who goes to dirt tracks every weekend for motocross events. I know it’s a thing. I’m just not into that particular thing.
But the Mark Martin Museum is, I find, located at a Ford dealership. And there’s a race car out front.
In the museum’s guest book, visitors have signed in from Kentucky and Mississippi and North Dakota and Louisiana and Florida. This Mark Martin guy must be pretty well-known. Laura Pelley, womanning the information desk, tells me that during Mark’s last “Race 4 Hope” event (he started Hope for Arkansas last year, which supports children’s advocacy efforts) at the Batesville Motor Speedway, there were 450 people who came through the museum’s doors.
I stroll through, looking at race cars and race suits and race trophies, and I learn that Mark Martin’s a NASCAR driver from Batesville—and that he was sponsored by Viagra. And that he has signed baby clothes for sale in the gift shop.
Must. Not. Make. Joke.
Laura suggests I go to the Spah Grill at the top of the hill for lunch, but Dee told me that if I crossed the river and took a left at the fifth stoplight, I’d get to see Batesville’s historic homes on my way downtown. I’m a sucker for historic homes, so I follow Dee’s advice.
I pass Antebellums and Arts and Crafts and Victorians. I’m not sure where I want to park to sashay down Main Street, but when I see Paper Chase bookstore, I stop. Immediately. I am a writer and an English teacher, after all.
Mayfen Thomas has owned the place for 20 years. They have a book club meeting every month, and when they read A Man Called Ove, “some of us wanted to kill him ourselves.” I read the book this past fall, and I share that sentiment. Mayfen has a used section and a new section and even a yarn section. I buy, oh, $36 worth of books (don’t tell my husband) and head on up the road.
There’s so much worth stopping for here: the Batesville Area Arts Council Gallery (where I’m obsessed with a necklace by Michelle Rhodes) and Old Towne Mall (where they serve fried pies) and Chuck’s Main Street Gym (where you can get your fix of “Old School Iron”).
But it’s Gallery 246 that makes my jaw drop. Paintings and collages and ceramics—there must be thousands—by local artists are available for purchase. One vase in particular catches my eye: It’s tortoiseshell brown and embossed with chevrons and ivy and is truly a work of art. I want to buy it, but I’ve already spent my free funds on books.
When I lived in Italy, I always looked for street art, for collectibles made by locals, for pieces that would make me recall the wonderful places I’d been: Istanbul, Tunisia, Lichtenstein. But as much as I’ve been traveling in Arkansas lately, I haven’t done the same. And there truly is a wealth of artists to support here, with works every bit as meaningful, every bit as beautiful as anything I found overseas. I can’t believe that it took just one trip north of my hometown of Conway to realize that Arkansas is as rich and diverse and worthy of remembering as any exotic destination I can name.
In Batesville, I’ve learned I have indeed got what I need.
Main Street Smarts
Making the most of Batesville’s recently reinvigorated downtown
This carefully renovated single-screen theater started life as an opera house in 1870. It’s now the centerpiece of downtown’s rehabilitation—as well as a spot to take in a $4, second-run flick. (115 W. Main St.; melbatheater.org)
The Pinto Coffee & Comida
You might not necessarily think “Tacos!” when you hear “coffee,” but … why the heck not? The Pinto—which serves up “hand-crafted espresso drinks and Mexican dishes with a Southern flair”—is the stuff of student dreams, as well as a mighty fine place to cure what ails you. Cures include matcha lattes, cheese dip and crispy-pork street tacos. (100 E. Main St.; thepintocoffee.com)
We’re pretty sure you won’t see items like panko-crusted fried artichoke hearts with ginger sriracha on most small-town-eatery menus, which is what makes 109 Main such a welcome surprise for visiting foodies. But it’s not all pinkies-up—expect live music most weekends and what is arguably Batesville’s best burger. (109 E. Main St.; facebook.com/109MainBatesville)
Featuring work by more than 30 artists from across the Batesville area, this artists’ co-op supports both artists and art-lovers through exhibitions and art classes. On view at any given time: everything from oil paintings and hand-thrown pottery to jewelry and photography. (243 E. Main St.; gallery246.com)
Village Adventures/Polk Bayou
Sleepy Polk Bayou meanders through downtown Batesville just north of Main Street before emptying into the White River. Dip your toe in by renting a kayak or a stand-up paddleboard from this charming outfitter housed in the old pharmacy on Main. (286 E. Main St.; villageadventures.com)