A Big Bag of Pretzels

I recently visited the Pines Mall in my hometown, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It was opened around 1985-86 (as memory serves). It had several big chain stores: J. C. Penney; Sears; Dillards; Old Navy and the like. There were a couple dozen other smaller stores, a busy food court and a movie theater. If you were a teenager, this was the place to be. 

The Pines had opened just as downtown Pine Bluff had started to wane. J. C. Penney moved from downtown to the mall. Woolworth’s had shuttered. The Malco and Saenger theaters likewise closed. The big clothing stores, Baim’s and Henry Marx were soon to die. Whatever Main Street once was, the opening of the mall completely killed it.

I grew up during that sweet spot where I got to experience some of what Main Street had been while still enjoying the early peak of the Pines. As regular readers have doubtless surmised, I am a bit of a romantic. I never saw a lost cause I didn’t quietly support. 

Downtown Pine Bluff is just such a cause. I should note, however, that the downtown I remember isn’t the downtown experienced by everyone. Segregation ensured that. Even so, the buildings themselves are not evil; and it is up to us to define their legacy.

There are two structures along Main Street of which I wish I had a better memory. The first is the Hotel Pines. Designed by noted architect, George R. Mann, it is a six story, U-shaped building with classical ornaments on the façade. The interior has massive columns, stained glass and all the grandeur one might want in a hotel circa 1913. The Hotel Pines played host to society balls (back when Pine Bluff had a society), dances, banquets and large community events. It served as a stopover point for rail passengers coming through the nearby Union Station. 

An image of the Hotel Pines as it sits today
The Hotel Pines Present Day.

When passenger rail service to Pine Bluff ended in 1968, the Hotel Pines quickly crashed. Its last guest checked out in 1970. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979. Many efforts to renovate, restore and stabilize the structure have been attempted. Today it sits with a few broken windows and a lot of unfulfilled promise.

My memory of the Pines is second-hand. I was four years-old when it closed. I’ve been in it a number of times as an adult. It’s easy to imagine it at its zenith. The bones are still solid. I can’t help but long for new memories of a resplendent luxury hotel. 

Owing to the myriad interesting wares contained therein, I have a vivid memory of the Woolworth’s. It probably looked like every other Woolworth’s, but its aisles are clear to me even now. I loved looking at the fish tanks, the toys and the books. It was always bright and bustling. While I remember eating at the lunch counter a few times, I don’t have an especially keen memory of it. I do recall there was chrome, lots of chrome.

My grandfather clad in overalls… strolled into the Kress store. He was immediately intoxicated by the sights and smells of the nut counter.

The store I wish I remembered better sat just north of Woolworth’s, across the 4thAvenue train tracks. It was an ancient S. H. Kress store. The exterior of the Pine Bluff Kress store wasn’t as grand as many the company built. Kress was the archetypal 5¢ and 10¢ store. 

The National Building Museum in Washington, DC has a collection of S. H. Kress artifacts. Of the Kress stores, the NBM observes:

“Samuel H. Kress (1863–1955) envisioned his stores as works of public art that would contribute to the cityscape. To distinguish his stores from those of his competitors, namely F.W. Woolworth Co. and S.S. Kresge Co., he hired staff architects. Kress achieved retail branding success not merely through standardized signage and graphics, but through distinctive architecture and efficient design. Regardless of their style, from elaborate Gothic Revival to streamlined Art Deco, Kress stores were designed to be integral parts of their business districts and helped define Main Street America.”

The Kress I remember wasn’t as bright as the Woolworth’s. In fact, I remember it being dimly lit. As you entered, there was a nut and candy counter where one could purchase small sacks of mixed nuts, peppermints and the like. 

The S. H. Kress Store Present Day

This counter figures into an oft-retold story family story. My maternal grandfather, Buddy Bryant, was one of the countless thousands of sharecroppers who lived in the surrounding farm communities for which Pine Bluff was “the city.” My grandfather used to tell about one of his childhood experiences in the Kress store. He too, was enticed by the nut counter. With its rich warm smells and full bins, it would be inhuman to not at least pause and peruse. 

As the story goes, he had in his possession, a nickel. This was a decade before World War II. So, a nickel meant a bit more than it does today. It meant even more if you were the child of Mississippi Delta sharecroppers. 

My grandfather clad in overalls (I imagine) strolled into the Kress store. He was immediately intoxicated by the sights and smells of the nut counter. He studied the counter and saw the big bin of pretzels. He had never eaten pretzels before. He asked the attendant for “a nickel’s worth of pretzels.” She scooped and scooped. She then handed my grandfather a bag so big it took both hands to hold it. He described it as “a grocery sack.” Hyperbole perhaps, but it makes a compelling image. I never asked but I hope he liked pretzels.

I wish I remembered more about the store. I do recall trails of bare wood where thousands of footsteps had worn through the dark paint. I remember a staircase leading down to the toy section – not nearly as compelling as Woolworth’s – but that’s where my memories stop. 

As such, I have to throw my lot in with the future. In 2017, the Hotel Pines was purchased by people who I hope have both the capital and the wisdom to do right by the magnificent edifice. Just this week, the decades vacant Saenger Theater was placed on Preserve Arkansas’ list of Most Endangered Places. If the Saenger is left to the ravages of time, it will be an unremovable stain of the soul of Pine Bluff. 

The Saenger Theater Present Day

What the naysayers miss is that structures like these are what makes Pine Bluff, Pine Bluff. Who gives a hang if we have a giant Walmart? Everywhere has a giant Walmart. There is nothing special, unique or noble about yet one more Walmart. 

Places like the Saenger, the Hotel Pines and two dozen other irreplaceable buildings downtown are Pine Bluff. Just because we lacked the vision to maintain and honor them doesn’t mean they have no value.

As to the Pines Mall, it now sits mostly vacant. All the anchor stores are going or gone. It is dirty, smelly, moldy and miserable. The people who own it were a hair’s breadth from having it auctioned off for non-payment of contractors. As I told my Instagram followers yesterday, I was the only customer in the entire place for almost twenty minutes. This is the prize for which we killed downtown. Just as Walmart is a soulless box, the Pines Mall is a coffin of false promise. There is no “there” there. I just hope that enough engaged people acknowledge this fact and quickly move to preserve what we have and make it relevant for tomorrow.

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