Sterling and Me

There's no need to tell most people in the several states' area that was Sterling Department Stores' stomping grounds for all those years, what Sterling was. It was the place where many of us grew up, at least off and on. Sterling was always there, and it always seemed as if it would be there. It was staid, established and reliable. No one ever questioned or thought about Sterling Department Stores' future or further business activities. Many medium and even small sized Arkansas towns had a Sterling store.

Sterling was always busy: how could a store as busy as all that, go out of business? Sterling was everywhere, and seemed to be building new stores in new locations, all the time. They were also expanding their old locations. So it seemed.

I first shopped at Sterling during a summer vacation in 1959, at about age eight, with my cousin Martha in Batesville, Arkansas. I was there with my oldest sister Sue, to visit with my grandparents. The rest of the family had gone back to California, but Sue and I stayed behind for a few weeks.

Martha and I looked at toy horses and fences, which Martha loved. We also examined all the toys pertaining to Sleeping Beauty, which was then making the rounds in the theaters. At that same time, my grandma "Mom," my mother's mother, (we called my mother "mother" and grandma "mom" when the two were in a room together), sewed two square white patches on the shoulders of a dark blue shirt I had, at my request. That way, I felt I looked like a "cavalry soldier." She also tried to make me a "Batman suit," but I didn't know exactly how I wanted her to make it. Anyway, all the material came from Sterling, and I had accompanied Mom on her trip there to the fabric department to pick out items to try to complete my sewing specifications.

I first went to work at Sterling in 1974, in October--about a year after I'd first signed myself into the State Hospital, following my nervous breakdown. I walked up on the sidewalk, still heavily-medicated but trying hard to maintain myself and to improve. I was, at the time, also attending Draughon's School (or College) of Business, just around the corner from Sterling. I was studying accounting and other business courses there. Mr. Vaughan and Mr. Weiss, the two store managers at the time, were watching a trailer being unloaded. I walked up and spoke to them, telling them I needed a job.

Byron Hodges, the receiving supervisor, immediately came up and said, yes, he needed help getting the trucks and trailers unloaded. So I was hired on the spot.

The Sterling where I went to work was located at Fifth and Center in Little Rock, at that time a hub of activity, surrounded as it was by several other department stores and main name stores of other types. Woolworth, McClellan's, Walgreen, Dillards, J C Penny, and several independently-owned, local business names all thrived in then-prosperous downtown Little Rock, alongside Sterling.

Byron was what is known as an "ethnic black." He seemed white in many respects: blond-haired with white skin. Only by looking closely could you detect the traces of the blacks in his background: blue-green rather than solid blue eyes, a certain tint to the complexion, a buff-ness that was slightly under color. Yet, for all practical purposes, Byron could have "passed for white."

But he didn't want to. In all the years I knew and worked with Byron, he never denied his black roots nor did he ever attempt to pass himself off as an "ordinary" white guy. He was pretty conservative, politically, but he didn't seem to feel that had anything to do with attempting to "pass for white."

During the time that I worked at Sterling, we saw a change in administrations in Washington, DC. Richard Nixon had resigned the previous August. And then, that subsequent April, we saw Saigon fall to the Communist forces.

During that time, Byron would occasionally mention to me on a break that he thought that all of the activities of the past few months, such as Watergate, Nixon's resignation and the fall of Vietnam, were unnecessary and un-called-for. Perhaps he'd been right, but I had respectfully disagreed. I felt that what Nixon had done had been wrong and that the Vietnam War had been, by that point, unwinnable. We could go back in time and argue this or that, I said, but we had to go from where we actually were. The Saigon regime was just never going to fight its own war, and we'd have to call their bluff. We had to get out sometime. We'd been there forever already.

Part of my job involved occasionally operating the old manual elevator that traveled between the three floors of the Sterling store. The first floor housed the snack bar and, usually, the toy department and the "sundries" area (housewares, groceries, plastics and the like), while the second floor generally housed the soft lines or clothing departments, especially the women's and girls' departments. The third floor was where I usually worked: it housed the stockroom. There was also an old freight elevator that traveled between the floors, toward the rear of the building. They stopped at an "in between" floor not visible from the sales floor. In addition, the building had numerous secret rooms and "hidden passageways" that intrigued me.

The two Sterling passenger elevators, however, were the main source of fascination for me. I almost never tired of them or of seeing them in operation with their human cargoes. I occasionally relieved the operators for their breaks.

I worked at Sterling from 1974 until July of 1976, when I'd moved to Houston. My primary job then was working on the third floor in the stockroom and lay away storage area. I unloaded boxes of stock from the freight elevator as they were sent up from the truck on the first floor. In following Byron and the other managers around the store as a part of completing my tasks, I learned how they made use of much of the elaborate layout behind the scenes of the sales floor. Up on the roof, Byron would climb to make repairs to the elevator cables. In between floors was the security manager's office and the printing office, where Sterling printed up its ads for the week.

I also occasionally visited the dreaded "sack room", another in-between floors room like the security manager's office. Dust clouds swirled at the doorway in winter, and it steamed in summer. The packages of sacks were heavy to lift. It was often busy as a storage place for live plants and popcorn. All along the back wall of Sterling were rows of aquariums and in the middle of the store were live plants. The passenger elevator would sometimes stop high above the first or second floor so that the security manager could survey the floor, searching for shoplifters. My first experience of that was breath-taking indeed, as, in the role of substitute elevator operator, I was told to step back while the security manager, Juanita Frazier, stopped the elevator to scan the floor. The sudden-ness of that was almost as exciting as that dramatic view from dozens of feet above the floor.

There was a lot of traffic up and down the back staircase as the offices were housed between floors, as well. Secretaries and truck drivers entered and exited up and down the stairways to the back door. Time clocks were placed just outside the employee lounge located on the second floor. Directly outside the employee lounge was the lay away office. From there, calls went out over the Sterling intercom system to the people like myself on the third floor. When we heard the calls for lay away items, described by customers' last names, we'd go to the wide area that housed the many lay away items and find them by alphabetic listing. At Christmas, we switched to a numerical system that worked much faster.

Christmas eve, 1974, I was anxious to leave to go home. I asked Byron to let me leave early. He had done so and I was able to ride the small bus back home without too much trouble, back to our house in Batesville. By Christmas of 1975, however, there was no need to ask: my parents had sold their house in Batesville and moved to Baton Rouge and then Houston. Then, in the summer of 1976, I moved to Houston, too.

I lived in Houston for about eight years, while my parents returned to Arkansas in 1978. I returned to Little Rock in January of 1984. When I came back, I went back to work at Sterling again. Byron was still there when I first interviewed with Mr. Vaughan, now the manager (with Mr. Weiss now retired). But he quit shortly before I started back to work. I learned he'd gone to work at a furniture warehouse and, shortly afterward, had gotten severely injured on the job, becoming disabled from work for some time.

On my second-go-around with Sterling, I first worked in the men's and shoe department and once in a while would cashier. I became a full-time elevator operator when I didn't work at the snack bar. I worked at a weekend job, too, from 1984 to 1987.

But I stayed with my second Sterling job from 1984 to 1990, being an elevator operator almost exclusively from 1986 to 1989 (I even appeared in a write-up in the Arkansas Gazette, itself soon to shut down), at which point I worked more at the snack bar, after the old elevator was shut down. In the shrinking economy, Sterling, too, had to shrink. It now occupied only one floor. I now missed the Sterling of old.

I'm not the only person who misses Sterling. Anita Petitjean, one of my fellow students at UALR, has written about Sterling, too. Her father was a Sterling manager. In her piece titled "My Daddy's Dime Store," she writes:

The store could have been anywhere in the U.S. (just about every little town had one), but this one was on Main Street in Paragould, Arkansas. It was my dad's pride and joy. He loved everything about it: the prestige, the responsibility, the chaos and the order of it all. He even liked the smell, and the way the place looked. It was a love affair--the obsessive kind. Her name was Sterling Store.

In a small town the most wonderful place to go, especially on a Saturday, was the dime store. For a kid, it was almost as much fun as going to the county fair. There was excitement in the air because you knew you would see your friends there. You might even get something--like candy or a new toy. My mom insisted that we clean house each Saturday morning before we went to the store. I could hardly stand the anticipation. Finally, all cleaned-up, we would go.

The store had everything you could possibly dream of, or want. It had everything from candy to clothes, toys to tools, diapers to dishes, birds to boots, etc. All of this "stuff" was housed in about 7000 square feet and all on one floor. The store was much like a long rectangular box with long aisles, each aisle had counters of merchandise that ran "front to back" and along the sides of the store. These aisles and counters filled the width and length of the store. Each of these counters allowed access from behind them so the clerks cold re-stock or assist the customers with their selections.

The front of the store was glass, which allowed us to put our faces up against the windows or doors to peer inside. These windows always contained creative displays of the latest fashion or reflected the season of the year. If it was winter, the kids would stand outside wishing for that new, faster sled that was in the window.

As you first came into the store, you would be immediately greeted by smiling sales clerks in starched aprons or smocks and the smell of hot, richly buttered popcorn. Sometimes there was a smell of roasting nuts or fresh chocolate escaping from the candy counter. . .

Anita goes one to recall how the cash registers were lined up across the store, "protective, like soldiers--clean, neat, and ready to serve." She recalls the faint smell of furniture wax because clerks were always dusting the counters and merchandise. The store was laid out by sections:

. . .dry goods, pets, jewelry, toys, etc. Each area was carefully organized and neatly arranged. Each section had its own "keeper"--an experienced, knowledgeable sales clerk. Center stage was the popcorn machine and bulk candy corner. At seven years old, this was my favorite area of the store--next to the toys! The candy and nut counter was made of glass display shelves and cabinets. Some of the shelves were at my eye level. I remember running my fingers across the glass as I paced up and down the aisle, carefully studying each selection. How could I ever make up my mind? There were so many choices. Would it be divinity this time? Maybe a Maple Nut Goodie or a bag of hot Pistachios. Ummm, maybe a red hot jaw breaker. Decisions, decisions.

Anita then writes that her next stop would be the toy counter. There were too many objects for her eyes to digest:

I remember standing in the middle of the aisle, alone with my indecision, wondering what to look at first. The toy shelves were filled to capacity. There wasn't a tiny bit of counter space left to work in even one more item. The area resembled a giant puzzle with every piece to be perfectly locked into place. . .

The displayed merchandise had a feel of perfection to it--all in neat, logical order. . .The shelves were divided into smaller sections containing such things as jacks, balls of all sizes displayed according to size, plastic lil' girl bracelets, baby bottles in assorted sizes, toy cars made of tin, guns, and Sheriff badges. There were boxed games, puzzles, and models stacked in the shelves closest to the floor. This area also had every doll, imaginable, clothes, storage cases, and even furniture. There were display shelves containing reading books, jumbo coloring books, and boxes of crayolas in all sizes to choose from. I remember leaning onto the wooden counter and running my hands through all of the plastic bracelets like a miser fondles his money. I didn't really like the bracelets, I thought they were ugly, but I liked the way they felt cool in my hands and the way they sounded as they clinked together.

Her next stop, says Anita, was to see her dad. His office was up on a second floor and could only be accessed through the "backroom," for employees only, primarily used for receiving and storing freight, an area usually cluttered and stacked with boxes of all sizes and shapes:

. . .It was a scary place because it was dark and the corners were filled with shadows. If dad wasn't out on the floor somewhere, I would find him busy behind his desk. His back would face the door. This was so that he could peer out of his little window into the store to watch for shoplifters. I always thought he looked like a king high up in his castle, surveying his people and his kingdom. His office was very tidy and filled with files, notebooks, and papers relating to his business. There were a few family photos on his desk and plaques lining the walls. One of the photos, his favorite, was of me proudly sporting a huge fish that I had caught on one of our "dad and daughter" outings.

My favorite time of the year in Sterlings' was Christmas. I loved the sound of Christmas music floating all over the store. I liked all the decorations, the energy, the activity, and the friendliness that everyone seemed to enjoy with each other. Besides, Sterlings' had the greatest Santa in the whole wide world. . . .I had been to other stores that had "Santa" but ours was the real one. I knew so because he greeted me by name when my mother was not around to prompt him and even when I tried to trick him by telling him I wasn't Anita but Rosie. The things he talked to me about made me realize that he was the real Santa. He knew when I had been bad or good! Santa knew too much about when I had been mean to my little brother or when I had been up to no good. . .what I was studying in school. . . subjects I liked, and . . . teachers that I didn't!. . .

(Only a few years ago, I learned Santa's true identity. Santa had been the father of a very dear friend of our family. He was a tender man that I had been around most of my life. I was surprised to learn it had been Onie. I had played at Onie's farm many times and his wife Mary, a talented seamstress, had sewn me many stuffed animals and doll clothes during my childhood. My mother seemed shocked that I had not guessed Santa's identity. I don't know if that speaks to the naiveté of childhood or of Onie's acting abilities.)

Now, Anita writes, she misses that old dime store and the simpler time that it represented. On occasion, as she and her husband are traveling around, and have found an old "dime store" open in some small town:

. . .I feel something stir deep inside my soul. We must stop the car and go inside. . . I like to just stand there and take it all in. I always feel obligated to buy something. . . Maybe it is my own way of fighting off the wolves (competitors like the large mega chains) and keeping the old dime stores open for business.

There are so many feelings that are entwined with memories of the dime store. When I think about the old dime stores, I am reminded that my father managed them most of his life. It was a place where I grew up. It was a place where I felt comfortable and at home. It was a place where dreams were dreamed.

Sterling in Batesville had been similar. I'd bought swimming goggles and "flippers" there, along with sets of toy dinosaurs, flashlights and small toy robots. Tim and I went there every so often, along with Ben Franklin and Western Auto.

Walking from home, we'd cross the bayou bridge, sometimes having to wait for the train that was crossing at the end of the bridge. Then we cross the tracks, go up Main or over down Water Street, then up to Sterling Corner. The last time we went together was to help me in one of my "projects:" I was determined to build a man-sized robot, complete with operational motor. (This, at the age of about 11.) While the project never panned out, we bought a couple of Erector Sets and I set to work on it. Periodically, Tim would check in with me to see if I "had the robot built yet." I was working on the frame, he started working on the motor. He tried to find a small electric motor in dad's fishing gear or local garage, but never succeeded. For my part, after a couple of hours effort on the frame each day, I'd break away to other things. The erector set gradually fell further and further back into the attic closet, finally finding a permanent home there until my parents sold the house in Batesville in 1975.

The Sterling I worked at on Capitol and Center housed the corporate offices for the Sterling Stores in Arkansas. In my first go-around, I seldom went near that area. But in 1985, during my second stint at Sterling, Mr. Vaughan called me off the elevator for a very important butsad endeavor: I was to clean out the old Sterling corporate offices area.

It seems that Sterling, in the years I'd been in Houston, had gotten into a financial bind. It first merged with the Magic Mart chain, and then, still struggling, had sold its operations to Alco-Duckwall, based in Abilene, Kansas. Thus, the Sterling Store I worked at in Little Rock after 1984 was actually an Alco store. Over the succeeding months, it became increasingly so, with a few variations: there was a bus schedule booth, a small pharmacy and a small, independently-owned bakery next to the snack bar; and some of the tags still said "Sterling." Some of the older merchandise and signs were original Sterling Store material, but by 1982, two years before I started work there the second time, these were already being phased out.

The project to clean out the old Sterling corporate offices area was one of the most depressing of my life. Filing cabinets full of what could only be described as history were to be dumped into cardboard boxes and taken who knows where. Plaques and pictures

on the walls, many framed and behind glass, were, with a little more delicacy in handling, given the same fate. I feel sure that some other former Sterling employees now hold

some of these in some hallowed box somewhere.

I couldn't bear to just trash the whole works, and some other employees felt the same way. We gathered a few odds and ends: small signs, small posters with sayings on them having to do with philosophy, attitude, optimism and the like, a few blank Sterling price tags and old ads. Even a couple of old Sterling paper sacks were saved.

Even more difficult to get rid of, but less easy to save, were the old mannequins. How fascinating those had been to passing children and adults in downtown's heyday! And lined up on now dark back wall shelves, in areas no longer busily frequented as they once had been, were plastic wig heads and store shelf fixtures. They seemed to be almost haunting us, defying us not to forget them in such isolated surroundings.

Perhaps most depressing, over in the darkest corner was a flat desk and an old and now-rickety solid wood office chair on wheels. And, near it, draped over a bedraggled coat rack, was a dusty Santa Claus suit.

Only a few years ago, Santa had always visited Sterling for Christmas. Large ad signs, including one which spoke of "Toyland" stretched across the back wall of the original sign wall. An elaborate printing apparatus was also there: block letters, frames, even lithography equipment. Once, those now-dusty apparatuses had advertised the original Sterling's wares. And at one time that "Toyland" banner had stretched, during Christmas, across a huge section of the first and second floors. Santa and Toyland were on the second floor for a few brief days at Christmas.

As I stared at that old Santa suit, now worn and dusty, I wondered how many youngsters had visited its lap, how many tiny faces had looked up and down it, as they prepared to dream big dreams and wish big wishes. I then barely recalled a visit to Sterling at age six that I'd largely slept through. Perhaps it was as Anita Petitjean recalls:

He was a big guy of course. . . the suit [which] fit him perfectly. . . itself was beautiful. . . looking as if it had been tailor-made. It was rich, thick velvet with cuffs and collar of real fur. His beard, I knew, was real, too. It was soft and tickled as he hugged me. Santa spoke in a soft whisper and always made me laugh and feel like I was the most special little girl. . . .

Four years after my sleepy visit with Sterling's Santa, when I was ten, I paid a visit to my cousin Billy. Downtown Sterling--and indeed, downtown Little Rock--was still a major place to be. That was to remain true until the 1980s. At the end of Sterling's block were two big movie theaters. On either side of the street and on every street corner were the other big stores. Two blocks over was "furniture row," including Brandon House, where Tim was later to be manager for a time.

Billy helped me sneak between the theaters and the back door of Sterling, up some sort of fire escape up to the roof. I didn't know where he was going; I only followed, afraid of getting lost. We stayed on the low roofs behind both buildings, peeping, at some point, into a place where we could see the cables of the elevators for a few seconds. Then he had me climb down with him and we went inside and got the famous popcorn whose tempting aroma had drifted even up there.

In the late '80s, Lynn and I found out about a "Sterling" store in England, Arkansas and paid it a visit. It was similar in many ways to the Batesville, Newport and Paragould stores at which Anita Petitjean, other Arkansans and I had, at one time or another, shopped. Like Sterling Alco then, and as most Sterling stores had always been, it was all on a single floor, with little boxed areas and Sterling signs on the sales tables and counters and even live fish in the back.

However, the store was individually-owned, rather than part of the no longer extant Sterling chain. Talking at some length with the owner, Mr. Frizzell, I learned that he actually visited the downtown Sterling to get advice, fixtures and signs from Mr. Vaughan. I learned he may even have taken some of those old corporate office materials with Mr. Vaughan's permission, in order to make his store as "Sterling-esque" as possible. I hoped it would last forever.

In 1990, Alco, too, filed for bankruptcy. This sounded alarming. Mr. Vaughan encouraged us all to look for other jobs. He was forced to cut work hours on orders from Alco home offices in Abilene. We didn't know how long our store in Little Rock would remain open. None of us knew of the bankruptcies that Bartlett and Steele reveal to us:

[There has been] an economic shift in the United States in which the middle class is being squeezed and the ranks of the working poor are growing, while new jobs paying up to $500 an hour are being created for a select group of professionals--lawyers, accountants, bankers, investment advisors, brokers and management specialists. . . (Bartlett and Steele 67-9).

For all this, you can thank a series of Congresses, presidents and the heads of regulatory and administrative agencies who, during the 1970s and 1980s, rewrote the rules governing the federal tax and bankruptcy systems. These changes, along with Congress's failure to enact measures correcting growing inequities in the economy, benefitted special interests at the expense of everyone else.

Consider Congress's handling of two issues--corporate debt and bankruptcy. While making sweeping revisions in the Internal Revenue Code throughout the 1980s, lawmakers agreed to leave intact a provision that allows corporations a virtually unlimited tax write-off of interest paid on borrowed money (Bartlett and Steele 67-9).

This, happened, they tell us, even though corporate debt ballooned to the highest level this century. Congress's decision to overhaul bankruptcy law:

. . . made bankruptcy easier for troubled businesses. Companies were given more flexibility to stay in business while they attempted to resolve their financial problems. The result: a bankruptcy code that encouraged an explosion in corporate bankruptcies brought on, in part, by an explosion in corporate debt that Congress failed to discourage through tax law revisions. (Bartlett and Steele 67-9).

The perhaps often inadvertent, but nonetheless tragic results snowballed. As the middle class was being destroyed, both corporate and individually-owned business structures were also ripped to shreds:

During the 1980s, businesses filed, on average, 63,500 bankruptcy petitions a year nationwide. That was up 155 percent from the 24,900 petitions a year filed in the 1970s and up 302 percent from the 15,800 filed in the 1960s. The 1980s, in fact, produced the largest growth in bankruptcy cases since the Great Depression of the 1930s (Bartlett and Steele 67-9).

Furthermore, say Bartlett and Steele, some profited from the destruction of America's middle--a destruction that persisted well into the 1990s:

All this has been a bonanza for the burgeoning bankruptcy industry--the lawyers, accountants and other specialists who charge up to $500 an hour for their time.

They get paid to fly about the country from courthouse to courthouse, from business to business . . .And they get paid to eliminate the jobs of people who work for two weeks to earn what they charge for one hour (Bartlett and Steele 67-9).

Bartlett and Steele give business histories and statistics for other department store chains that went under in the 1970s and '80s. Though the 5th and Center store happily survived, the Sterling chain was gone. And it was no exception. My parents' business failure, as well as, to some extent, Tim's ill "luck" in response to increased stress and pressure as a business person, could also be linked to those same statistics. Bartlett and Steele's statistics show family dime stores all over the country disappeared.

[SAD UPDATE: I must report to the reader that, as of this writing, (May, 2005), this will be the last month in which the last Sterling store in Arkansas will be open. Due to roof problems and attendant expenses, the decision was made to close the last Sterling store. For me, it means the removal of a source of many memories and mental "connections" to Batesville, Dad and Tim. Each time I visited Sterling, I could, on some level, travel back in time. Memories were triggered of my childhood, adolescence, and some of the funny, bizarre and sad experiences recorded in this book.

HAPPIER UPDATE: Sterling lives on! On the Internet, at "Sterling dot com", the website of Sterling's partner, Alco-Duckwall, at "Alco Stores dot com," you can visit a Sterling-like store online.--mcs]

Go back to the George Bush-Undercurrents Website

Works cited:

Bartlett, Donald L., and James B. Steele. America: What Went Wrong. Kansas City,

MO: Universal Press Syndicate, 1992. 67-9.

Petitjean, Anita. "Daddy's Dime Store." (Unpublished essay, University of Arkansas, Little Rock, 1997.)

Wassell, Irene. "The Ups and Downs: Manual Elevator Still Carrying Its Own Weight." Arkansas Gazette, January 5, 1988. 1B-2B