By LEON YOUNGBLOOD
Briar Circle is off the grid, off the map and a nonentity to those GPS things. Persons who have found the area as often as not did not know they were there.
It is a community, though; and while its isolation in the Ouachitas is one of its most compelling features, it is also one of its disadvantages; for this isolation causes a chronic ailment among the residents commonly known as cabin fever.
It’s odd, but sometimes one simply wishes to get out and away a bit. One grows weary of peace and quiet, of menus that have become redundant, of neighbors that walk on four legs and growl. A little noise is desired, and electricity, a bit of traffic and excitement—lights, dinner, people. The urge becomes too great, and the self-sufficient Briar Circular simply has to load up and go downtown to—where else?—Heavener.
Ghosts that now haunt downtown Heavener are for the most part merely memories in the minds of older folks. They are the ones who recall going to a bustling downtown to buy various things at different places, as there was no one place to buy “everything.”
The post office, a major meeting point, was a destination, then perhaps a haircut. Lunch, maybe, at one of a half-dozen diners. Maybe there were prescriptions to pick up at a bona fide pharmacy, or appliances to see and perhaps buy at a place that did not also sell pet food and underwear.
Maybe your parents would let you see the Saturday matinee, three hours’ worth of movies and cartoons. All of these downtown businesses were within walking distance, all owned and staffed by people you probably knew—people you went to school with, to church with, and you knew their families.
There were seedy establishments, too. They merely added to the small town atmosphere and provided something (and generally somebody) to talk about.
All that is gone. The buildings are still here, but most of them are vacant, in need of repair and remodeling, the exoskeleton of what was once a vibrant, thriving body of small businesses; and while it might not compare to Ezekiel’s vision of the “valley of dry bones,” the miraculous resuscitation of downtown will require enterprising people of vision, willing to invest hard work, long hours and $$$.
It’s not going to happen overnight, so from consumers, patience, tolerance and hometown loyalty will help.
Then what sort of downtown businesses need to be established? Obviously, it can’t be the “same old same old;” anything needs to be something locals will faithfully patronize and something out-of-towners will travel 40 miles to occasionally enjoy.
For example, in the small town where I grew up, a successful family-owned and operated restaurant offers a buffet Monday through Friday, lunch only, of down home, good southern cooking.
There are generally a half-dozen entrees, eight to 10 sides, biscuits, fried “Johnny cakes,” and three or four simple desserts.
The clientele varies: farmers, mechanics, military, police, lawyers, crooks, bankers—people from every walk of life. There are other buffets in town; none are as good as “Desi’s.” There is a pizza place in town, too, that serves the best pizza in a five-county area, which explains why certain “regulars” drive 40 miles one-way to buy it.
The point is, be better than the competition—even the competition 50 miles away.
Then there are some unique businesses that come to mind. In a small Arkansas town, I met a luthier (i.e. a guitar maker) whose local market was pretty well sated (as if you can ever have enough guitars). But he attracted customers from other counties, states and countries with his handmade instruments.
Likewise, my kids have gone out of their way to buy used saddles and bridles from a business specializing in that sort of thing. They could not afford the handmade saddles that cost more than my truck, but somebody can, for the man’s doing well.
And those places that paint the miniature masterpieces on finger and toenails—10 teenaged girls can support a business like that with 30 employees for a year! (People without daughters may accuse me of excessive exaggeration, here.)
“Son of man, can these bones live?” Of course they can, if we work at it. If you have any thoughts on the matter, please share them with this excellent downtown enterprise, The Heavener Ledger