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.