Sterling

Yellow #2 pencils with clean, pink erasers. Crayons in 64 colors in a flip-top box with a built-in sharpener. Metal lunchboxes with insulated containers on the inside and pop stars on the outside. Colorful binders and lined paper, plastic rulers and blunt-end scissors. As a child and budding storyteller, I could spend hours admiring shelves of school supplies, as enchanted by the selections as most children were in the toy department.

The first cool days of fall still remind me of back-to-school shopping with my mother, Beth Vaughan. Mother was secretary to the president of Sterling Stores/Magic Mart, a chain of five-and-dimes and discount stores long based in Little Rock. She worked for the same employer from the time she graduated Mabelvale High School in 1950 until 1983, when the company was sold. She continued to serve as a bookkeeper for the Grundfest family, who founded and operated Sterling Stores, until pancreatic cancer took her in 2007. Her loyalty to that family and to that company meant we did almost all of our shopping at Sterling Stores and, later, Magic Mart, until they went out of business.

The oldest of four for my mother and hard-working, blue-collar father, I grew up in the rural areas of Avilla and Salem. My brothers and I rode a bus into Bryant for school. Every Saturday, my gregarious mother bought groceries in Avilla and all of her other supplies at the Sterling Store in Benton. At both places, she knew every employee on a first-name basis. On special occasions, like back-to-school shopping, she drove to Little Rock to shop at the Sterling Department Store at Fifth and Center Streets.

The big city of Little Rock was always an adventure for this country girl. Sometimes we stopped by Mother’s office in the Sterling Stores’ headquarters and warehouse on Forbing Road. When she could afford to splurge, we lunched at Franke’s Cafeteria at the then-outdoor Park Plaza shopping center. Afterward, she took us to the Sterling Store downtown, where she was greeted by everyone from the manager to the elevator operator, all of whom knew her as the company president’s secretary. I felt like the daughter of royalty there.

I loved watching the elevator operator close the latticed metal doors and pull the lever to take us up to the second floor, where clothes were displayed. Almost all of my wardrobe that Mother didn’t sew herself came from that department. School supplies were downstairs. On her limited budget, Mother made careful selections and charged everything to her account, to be deducted from her next paycheck. She almost never bought something for herself, saying she had no need of anything.

It didn’t matter that Sterling was a discount store, an old-time five-and-dime. That trip to the big store in the city was always a special treat. I grieved when the store closed for the final time.

Though I live in the country again, in northern Pulaski County, and work at home, I still enjoy visits to downtown Little Rock. The area has changed a great deal, but there is still much to draw me there. I love the River Market area—the farmers’ market, the library, the museums, the restaurants and shops. My husband, John, a wood turner, is honored to display some of his creations at the Historic Arkansas Museum. Whatever the reason for my visit, whenever I’m downtown, I look toward the old white building at the corner of Fifth and Center, and I remember my precious mother and those joyous trips to the Sterling Department Store.

 

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