Wish You Were Here!

WORDS and IMAGES Marla Cantrell

You can love a place almost as well as you can love a person. Over the years, Van Buren has become that place for me. Walking down Main Street, I remember my mother taking my small hand in hers as we headed for Sterling’s 5 and Dime. There once was a store, W.B. Smith’s, where my brother was fitted for his first suit. King Opera House, now thrumming with live performances, used to house Bob Burns Theater, where my sister and I watched movies that formed our childhood.

I’ll admit to a certain bias, but I’m not alone. Even Hollywood has taken notice. In the early 1980s, Main Street was taken back in time: loads of dirt covered the paved streets, horses were brought in, and hundreds of locals were cast as extras in the CBS mini-series, The Blue and the Gray, which aired in 1982. Gregory Peck, Stacy Keach, and Lloyd Bridges all had parts.

Downtown Van Buren shows up in Neil Simon’s 1988 film, Biloxi Blues, starring Matthew Broderick and Christopher Walken. The street was showcased again in the 1994 film, Frank and Jesse, starring Rob Lowe and Randy Travis.

Main Street holds its long history inside its ornate old buildings. It holds its future in the shopkeepers who provide a world that’s filled with art, books, and products made locally and sold the same way.

I spent a recent Saturday exploring. While my list only skims the surface, it is a good starting point for your own trip.

SHOP
Check social media for operating hours.

Main Street Threads, 711 Main Street
You’ll find cute clothes, handcrafted bath products, jewelry, and sassy tea towels displayed beneath a sign that reads, “We love Jesus but we snark a little.”  But that’s just a taste of what Main Street Threads offers. My best find? A hand-crocheted sweater for a chicken. An actual chicken!

Chapters on Main Bookstore and Coffeeshop, 816 Main Street
Come for the coffee; stay for the books! This independent bookstore has made its mark by offering coffee drinks from Onyx Coffee. Not a coffee drinker? There are other drinks and teas to suit your taste. After you’ve gotten your cup, browse the shelves for the latest bestsellers, books by local and regional authors, and gifts for those who love reading. Ready for a treasure hunt? There are thousands of used books downstairs, ready to be discovered.

Greater Goods Marketplace, 818 Main Street
This store’s mission is to offer regionally sourced, handcrafted items and Fairtrade products that promote greener living, with a dose of whimsy thrown in. From gorgeous local pottery to handcrafted jewelry to practical housewares, Greater Goods has it all. Every gift I’ve ever bought from this shop has been a hit!

Main Street Mercantile, 412 Main Street
Main Street Mercantile is a beautifully renovated building and features more than twenty local businesses. Alongside the boutiques featuring housewares, clothing, and baby gifts, you’ll find honey from Guenther Apiary, jewelry from The Mod Miss, plants from C. King Tropicals, freeze-dried candy from the Sweet Sisters, and macarons from Nette’s Macarons and Mischief.

Finally: There are so many more shops to love! Don’t miss Camille and Co., 409 Main Street; Firefly Boutique, 613 Main Street; Thread Haus, 724 Main Street; and Faith and Fringe, 710 Main, just to name a few.

EAT
Check social media for operating hours.

The Vault 1905 Sports Grill, 624 Main Street
The Vault’s friendly atmosphere is said to rival that of the neighborhood bar in the TV series, Cheers. It’s a big plus for those who frequent this place. Besides locally sourced foods, including their popular steaks, The Vault often schedules live music in their outdoor area, Open Mic Night, and even karaoke. I have a friend who swears by their tacos. Another loves the chicken fried steaks, and their burgers are super. Over twenty-one and want a drink with dinner? The bar is ready and waiting.

Pointer Place/Pointer Brewery, 621 Main Street
This microbrewery serves Korean-fusion food, including their most popular dish, the Bulgogi Quesadilla, with their signature bulgogi (or chicken) served grilled on a tortilla with mozzarella cheese. Of course, there’s plenty of kimchi on the menu, along with several other dishes like Spicy Chicken Stir Fry and Korean Corn Dip. Try a pint of their Golden Doodle Blonde Beer or pick a flight of four flavors. Is a cocktail more your speed? Try the Cojinganmek cocktail, which is cola, soju, and beer.

Pasta Grill, 810 Main Street
Fine dining, but not fussy! Pasta Grill, part of a small Arkansas franchise, sets the tone before you walk in. They pipe music onto the sidewalk, often something from Frank Sinatra. Inside, you’ll find steaks, seafood, pasta dishes, desserts, and a great lunch menu. My favorite lunch is the Spring Chicken Salad. For dinner, it’s Seafood Pasta with jumbo shrimp, lump crab, alfredo, and fettuccini.

Snack:
Grabbing a snack along the way? Try What’s Poppin?, 814 East Main, for gourmet popcorn. Main Street Candy and Fudge Shop, 512 Main; Rydlee’s Roost Candy Store, 820 Main; and the Whistle Stop 5 and Dime, 720 Main, offer sweets galore.

THE ARTS

Arts on Main, 415 Main Street, artsonmainvb.com
Arts on Main, which opened in 2022, operates from 11am to 6pm Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. There is no charge to visit, and you’ll be delighted by the local art in the gallery, as well as the classes and activities they offer for the whole family. Interested in culinary arts? Look at the center’s schedule to see what’s coming up. Love pottery? There’s even a ceramics studio included in this 20,000-foot wonder.

King Opera House, 427 Main Street, kingoperahouse.com
The King Opera House is operated and managed by Arts on Main, making it an extension of what’s great about downtown. While Arts on Main is shiny and new, the Opera House first opened in 1891. It’s been restored to its heyday and is one of the gems of Main Street. On August 12, R.J. Vandygriff performs as Joe Texas in This Cowboy Ain’t Dead Yet. Check the website for more information on their upcoming Season of Entertainment.

GETTING AROUND

Historic Main Street Trolley, vanburen.org/trolley
The trolley runs free of charge for visitors to downtown Van Buren. It stops at the Van Buren Visitors Center in the Old Frisco Station, 813 Main Street, and the corners of Seventh, Fifth, and Third Streets. Your free ride is available Wednesday and Friday, from 9:30am to 2pm, and 9am to 5pm on Saturdays, with narrated history tours.

Ride the Train, amtrainrides.com
Nothing can compare to an excursion in the restored Arkansas and Missouri Railroad passenger train from the 1920s, especially in the fall. The train leaves from the Old Frisco Depot, 813 Main Street, and takes you on a two-hour roundtrip journey through the Boston Mountains. See website for schedules and pricing.

THE INSIDE SCOOP

  • There’s lots of free entertainment on Main Street, including a splash pad for kids. While I was there, singer Paden Baggett, singing “real country music from the wooded hills of Cedarville,” was performing on the street, and he was fabulous.
  • There are often special shopping nights, like Girls’ Night Out, and seasonal festivals, including the September Junk Fest, held on the second weekend, and the Fall Festival, on the second weekend in October.
  • Main Street is the perfect place for photos, including near the Hebe (Greek goddess of youth and happiness) statue/fountain on the grounds of the historic Crawford County Courthouse at the south end. Lots of weddings and engagements take place there as well.
  • It’s easier to park in the lots behind the stores than to parallel park on the street.
  • Looking for a great place to take a stroll in the evening? Main Street fits the bill!

All the shopkeepers I spoke with talked about the unique items they carry and the relationships they develop with their regular customers. They love being part of a picturesque small town that dares to dream big and is reaping the benefits of believing.

For more information, visit oldtownvanburen.com.

Do South Magazine

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