I travel some, mostly to small-town Alabama. Whenever I’m early for an appointment, I get off the bypass and head for the old downtown. I like to park the pick-up and walk, get a feel for what was 50 or 60 years ago.
The bypass is what is across the South. Big Box and fast food. Chain stores and strip malls. The New South, born in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, when the state government and highway department decided that the modern traveler should not be forced to slow down to pass through the narrow streets and traffic lights that were the downtown.
Character and charm were the first casualties. In modern Alabama you could head south from Huntsville to Mobile, fall asleep in the passenger seat and wake up three hours later in Anytown, Alabama. Your first question will be “Where are we?”
Little towns across Alabama were built along the railroads. The depot was the focal-point, where farmers brought beeves and produce. Bailed cotton and yellow pine boards were loaded onto rail cars and shipped to the big city. The shops on Main Street were just down from the depot. Small stores where town folk bought everything they needed. Feed store and mercantile. Dress shop and apothecary. Restaurant and Five-and-Dime. Movie theater and gas station.
All gone now. Shops require shoppers. Shoppers require money. Money requires good jobs. Good jobs require that someone produce something.
Production jobs — the sawmill, the cotton mill, the garment factory, the small farm. Closed-up and moved-on. Now big corporations and banks run the economy, and what’s left is on the bypass, the “service sector,” where people flip the burgers, man the counters and stock the shelves. Unload the trucks that transport the goods that the railroad once moved.
Still, all across the state there are attempts to bring back a semblance of what was, to re-vitalize the old downtown. Main is repaved with brick or cobblestone. Sidewalks are refurbished. Decorative light posts and flower beds line the narrow streets.
Banks are eager to lend to a few local investors, those with just enough money to start and a dream of owning their own business. It’s a win-win for the bank. Collect interest on the loans, then call the note when revenue can’t cover the payments. Do this again and again, as long as there are dreamers to be found.
The little Main Street I last walked is no different from a lot of the others. Mostly empty storefronts with new facades.
I stopped at the “Southern Grounds Coffee Shop,” a tastefully decorated establishment that was empty, save me and the nice young man behind the counter. Southern Grounds offered all the brews you can buy in the chain store: lattes, frappuccinos and expressos. Flavored concoctions and iced-things about which I hadn’t a clue. I ordered a simple cup of black coffee and was directed to a pot on a counter at the side of the store. “Medium Roast” was all they had that day. Good enough for me.
A few other stores down the sidewalk. “Robyn’s,” where you can get your hair styled, and two clothing stores, one up-scale, the other consignment. Both have names ending in “Kloset,” an indication that one lady-investor is both trendy and “all-in” on revitalization.
I began to feel discouraged about the future success of the project when I stumbled across an empty lot with something that looked like an over-sized bird house on a post. It had a glass front and a hand-lettered sign that read “Borrow-Read-Return-Donate. Future site of the Thomasville Public Library.”
There were 15 or so books, most unremarkable, but I noticed a paperback copy of Buffalo Gals, a Larry McMurty novel based on the life of Calamity Jane. It’s no The Last Picture Show or Lonesome Dove, but it is a good read from a man who I consider to be one of America’s best writers.
I was suddenly struck by the irony. McMurtry’s novels are often set in dying small towns, and his son James (a very good folk-singer) has a lot to say on that subject too.
But there was also this: Larry McMurty’s personal library contains an estimated 28,000 books. Someone once asked James about his childhood home and he reportedly said “It was like growing up in a damn library.”
The book is a talisman for this Main Street. It shall be. It must be.
Years from now, if I manage to stay on this side of the grass, I’ll come back to this town. Park the truck and walk down crowded sidewalks. Look through glass storefronts at happy customers with pockets full of cash money just itching to be spent. Then I’ll head over to the library and amble through aisle after aisle of book-lined shelves.
I’ll be looking for one book — a weathered, dog-eared copy of Buffalo Gals.
9 thoughts on “The Library on Main”
Guess small towns in southwest Georgia weren’t that different from small towns in your Alabama. Sylvester, Georgia, had its train station right downtown too, and the main street crossed it. You could walk to the barber shop easily. Most of downtown was on one side of the track. The cemetery and the cotton gin were on the other, all walking distance.
I haven’t been there in a very long time. Bet it’s different now.
Awe, I think this is now my favorite !! What great read, loved it and love those old towns the way they were when we were growing up.
Thank you Cherri.
I understand that you’ve not been feeling well. Hope your ordeal is over soon.
This one is a great read for all those who love small towns, libraries, and Larry McMurty. I watched a really good movie Sunday afternoon based on one of his books. I have never read Buffalo Gals. Think I will get it next. Thanks, Ray.
Thanks. For your Mayberry, with a dose of realism.
As a writer, you’ve described the town I live in now. The scars of modern day growth wear long and deep in this town; the struggles it’s had to endure have lasted long. But just yesterday in our local newspaper, it was announced the completion of an important milestone for the downtown area. The local movie theater which sits on Main street, is run by volunteers and owned by the community. They had put out a public plea for donations to paint the lobby and to have the carpet cleaned…not replaced because it was beyond their hopes to have funds for something new. In 7 short days prior to Christmas, folks rallied together for “their” theater. The theater did not get what they asked for. What they got was a remodeled lobby with fresh new paint and new commercial grade carpet put down by experienced volunteers. The theater offers free buttered popcorn on Tuesdays to patrons. Recently I’ve discovered those lending book barns that you speak, of as well. They sit on several corners of our historic homes district. It’s a take one leave one system. Sometimes the smallest of towns have the surprise of giving hearts, despite what the ages of growth have done to these once great and important communities. Thanks for your great read, Ray. It’s made me take more notice of what my little town still offers to those of us who chose to live here.
That’s a great story Lisa. Fits right with my reference of “the Last Picture Show.”
I’ll take some heat for this one as being “too negative.” I prefer to see myself as a realist — but a hopeful one. There are still some old towns that have the grit to try to survive. I’m on their side.
Thanks, as always, for reading and taking the time to comment.
My comments many times turn into rambles, Ray, but I didn’t mean to steal your thunder for your detailed observations of the small communities that you have traveled through in Alabama. No negativism heard in your writings, only observations through the eyes of an astute writer. Keep doing what you do so well.
No Leisa, I loved the comment, and it did fit perfectly. I was thinking about the old theater I went to as a kid when I wrote the piece. It was on Broadway. I saw all the old Disney movies there — good times.