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Before Kroger

by Jim Pfeifer

Mildred Bybee was 29 years old in 1919 when she and her husband Everitt took residence at the corner of “H” and Polk Streets in Hillcrest. A grocery store was soon opened by the Bybee’s at this location, with the family living in an attached dwelling.

Since a limited segment of the population had access to automobiles in the 1920s, it was important for many families to live within walking distance of basic food requirements. As a result, corner stores were everywhere. There were 404 grocery stores in the 1925 Little Rock city directory, when the population was a little less than 75,000. Several of these store buildings remain and add interest and variety to the Hillcrest experience.

Judy Adams, founder of “Catering To You” on Cantrell Road, grew up visiting her dad’s Lee Grocery Store at 4510 Lee Avenue, near Beechwood. The store was built by her grandfather about 100 years ago and still stands. Judy’s dad specialized in carved steaks from aged sides of beef hanging in the walk-in cooler. Curtis Lee offered charge accounts, home delivery and the personal touch of knowing and greeting each customer who entered the jingling screen door.

Several more remaining corner store buildings in Hillcrest, include two on North Van Buren where W. S. Crawford at 400 and Hugh McCormack at 700 were selling groceries by the mid-1920s; and a few blocks away at 600 North Tyler, a tinnier’s shop built in 1919, was a grocery by the 1930s.

The later twentieth century was not kind to small grocers. Their personal service and friendly salutations were replaced by large impersonal grocery chains. Preservation of the remaining small commercial buildings, each with new uses, adds architectural interest and has brought investment to historic Hillcrest. By 1977, Lee Grocery's successor, "Johnnie’", had carved its last steak, and the interesting building has since repurposed for everything from architectural to psychiatric services.

Both 400 and 700 Van Buren had ceased grocerying by 1960. Each have had a series of new uses, with the popular Kahler-Payne Antiques Shop thriving at 700 for over thirty years. The Brighams continued their grocery business at 600 N. Tyler into the 1970s and the community has since benefitted from a series of fine restaurants in its place.

Mrs. Mildred Bybee, who with her husband Everitt, began selling groceries at Polk and “H” Street when she was a young woman, was still at it forty years later. Mrs. Byb

ee is remembered by a Holy Souls student of the 1960s, “She kept the door locked and lived in the back. We had to ring the doorbell and Mrs. Bybee would frown at us through the window, reluctantly opening the door knowing she’d come all the way up here sell us one small bag of potato chips.” Contractor Steve Gardner was attracted to the tiny Bybee store and waited several years to have the opportunity to buy and restore it into a beautiful apartment and build his own home on part of the property.

Thanks are due to Hillcrest property owners who have preserved, protected and adapted new uses for our old corner stores. The community benefits from your foresight. The concept of pedestrian and bicycle access to small neighborhood businesses is popular again all over our country.

Research assistance by Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Quapaw Quarter Association, Sylvia Payne, Judy Adams, Sheri Britt and Steve Gardner is appreciated.

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