Joe Alexander, who has a business on Elk Avenue, enjoys coming to work downtown. Joe's father, gradnfather, and great-grandfather have served the town in various capacities. He is the fourth generation of Alexanders to work in downtown. Photo by Jason Harville

Downtown isn't what it used to be, but it's still a fun place to go

STAR Staff

   Several years ago a black comedian appeared on the Tonight Show.
   "Before I do anything else," he said, "I have a message for all of you white folks -- Elvis is dead!"
   Something equivalent seems needed here. It's have a message for all of you who have fond memories of how much fun you had in downtown Elizabethton way back when: It will never be the same again!
   That's not to say downtown Elizabethton isn't a fun place now, because it is.
   Everyone who has ever lived in Elizabethton any length of time seems to have a favorite memory of downtown. Times when they dressed up on Saturday and went downtown shopping for a dress at Montgomery Ward's, Watson's, Rikard's or Kyle's; a pair of shoes at Harrison's, Crouch's, or Drokes or Southern's. Remember the glass-enclosed candy counters at Kress and Woolworth's where you could get a big bag of peanuts for ten cuts? Or how about a nickel dish of ice cream or a soda at Hale's Drug, City Drug, or Burgie's Drugstore?
   Remember election time in downtown Elizabethton, when candidates would bring their cars with large billboards on them and park in the downtown all day? A lot of electioneering was done on street corners, with zillions of cards and buttons being passed out.
   Some remember when tasty hotdogs were sold in the "hole in the wall" at the little market by the railroad at the corner of Pine Street and Elk Avenue. Sammons Hotdogs got their start in another "hole in the wall" farther up the street -- above Kress'. Remember the street preachers, who use to deliver their Saturday afternoon message on the railroad at the corner of Pine Street and Elk Avenue?
   Others remember the Little Grill or the Shamrock Cafe, where they could purchase a hamburger or grilled cheese sandwich.
   Sidewalks were crowded, and if you were looking for a parking place on Elk Avenue, sometimes you would have to circle the block several times before luck smiled on you and there would be an empty space in front of Kress or Woolworth's.
   Some newlyweds remember Nick Carter's Honeymoon Special. It seemed like you could get a whole houseful of furniture for what you pay for one living room suit or bedroom suit today.
   I remember as a child being convinced that the real Santa was the one who rode on the fire truck in the Christmas parade. It was the biggest day of the year, and usually the coldest. Everyone -- from every hollow and ridge in the county -- came to town for the Christmas parade.
   Things never remain the same, and downtown Elizabethton will never be like it once was. But, that's okay, it's still a fun place to go, a fun place to shop, a fun place to eat, and a fun place to live.
   Joe Alexander, who has a business on Elk Avenue, said, "We're very fortunate to have the thriving downtown that we have. Some downtowns have just folded up because their big chain shores and anchor stores have moved to shopping centers and malls. Things do change. Nothing stays the same. Hey! We don't look like we did 30 or 40 years ago.
   "But, it's all right to change. We have picked up some new businesses. The personality and character of our town has changed from what it used to be. However, we are still a thriving small downtown. A lot of that I think can be attributed to City Hall, which has worked to maintain the town. They have a vital interest in the downtown since City Hall is a part of it," he reasoned.
   Downtown lost many of its stores in the 1970s and 1980s to shopping centers and malls. People then started realizing downtown probably wasn't ever going to be the major retail center of the city again. So, what would it be?
   In the 1990s, antique shops and other specialty shops began to spring up in buildings that were once furniture stores, hardwares, and department stores. Today, they are thriving businesses on Elk Avenue. They, along with other specialty shops, have proven to be the niche that has revitalized the downtown along with the eateries, which have become a favorite of people who work downtown, as well as those who are seeking a day out on the town.
   "The antique stores draw a lot of people into town. Everyday you can see cars from other cities and states parked downtown," Alexander said.
   'I don't think we promote ourselves like we should. We have a wide variety of businesses downtown. It is a clean town, a well-lit town at night, and a safe town," Alexander said.

Leta Hale has been a part of the downtown for 50 years. The windows of her specialty shop on Elk Avenue always attracts the attention of those who pass by. Photo by Jason Harville

   Leta Hale, owner of Leta's Specialty Shop on Elk Avenue, fell in love with downtown a long time ago. "I've worked downtown for 50 years. I've grown old downtown," Leta said with a chuckle.
   "I really like being downtown. The hours are different than those in the mall. It's basically still a 9 to 5 town, and I think I feel safer and more comfortable downtown," she said.
   "Our courthouse, city hall, the police department and fire department are all located in the downtown. Thank goodness, we still have a bank downtown," she said.
   A nostalgic person, Leta likes having a sidewalk out front and an alley behind her store. "I just like sidewalks and having a window front to decorate. Most business owners downtown take pride in their storefronts and work to keep them attractive. They also try to keep the sidewalks in front of their stores clean," she said.
   Leta noted that there are more places to eat downtown than in most shopping centers. "We have a good nucleus of businesses downtown that appeal to many more people. Also, everything old is now new, and that goes good for the antique shops which bring a lot of people to downtown," she said.
   She also pointed out that downtown storekeepers are a group of close knit people. "When my mother broke her hip a few weeks ago, there was a downtown prayer chain in her behalf."
   To Joe Alexander and Leta Hale, Elizabethton is still a town that has charm, character and history. "Downtown is just nostalgic," said Leta.