14. September 2005 · Comments Off on Sic Transit Scriveners’ · Categories: Ain't That America?, Domestic, General, Local

I drove the 410 this weekend, for the first time in a couple of weeks, and noticed that at 410 and Broadway, there was a bulldozer, busily scraping away in what was left of one of North-side San Antonio’s retail landmarks. What was physically left of Scriveners’ made heartbreakingly small piles, but then it was never all that large a building to begin with, or distinguished, architecturally speaking. It was one of those places which just grew, organically, bumping out a wing here, an ell there as necessary, incoherently sprouting departments to no particular plan. The gourmet chocolates abutted the garden supplies and the kitchenware, and ran straight into the hardware department. Describing Scriveners’ as a “department” store is kind of like describing “Star Trek” as an old TV show… while technically accurate, it doesn’t even begin to do justice to the reality.

It started as a hardware store, just after World War II: a local GI returning from the service teamed up with two of his buddies, and opened the establishment when the location was the other end of nowhere, adjacent to nothing but the airport, the intersection of 410 and Broadway being respectively, a two-lane roadway and an unpaved lane. Last week one of the assistants at my own local hardware establishment pointed out that independent hardware and department stores in small towns have a tendency— if they pay attention to what their customers ask for—to stock all sorts of oddments, because there is really no other place to buy them. The original founder of Scriveners’ must have had the same philosophy, because he bought out his partners and began paying attention to the suggestions of his sales’ staff.

I was told (or read in the local paper) that they branched out to patio furniture, and tiki torches and barbeques, and paper plates and picnic things in the early 1950ies— all those necessary accoutrements of post-war baby-boomer suburbia. Suggestions to stock this, that or the other inevitably resulted in another addition to an already rambling structure— I don’t think there was a consistent ceiling or floor level throughout the place— and another department: Stationary, gourmet foods, embroidered baby and children’s clothes. A wonderful fabric and notions department, with imported laces and silk ribbon. Kitchenware, fine china and crystal, collectables. Designer accessories, jewelry and handbags, Christmas ornaments, wind-chimes, bird-feeders, and ornamental brass fireplace accessories, and a tea-room that served dainty lunch dishes straight out of the 1950ies. Every menu item came with a little cup of consommé, and for the first course, the waitress came around with a tray of fresh-baked sticky buns, which were legendary in San Antonio, baked by a little elderly lady who came up on the bus from the South Side for years, to bake them specially.

For decades haute San Antonio registered at Scriveners’, bought their wedding-dress fabrics there, bought baby-clothes and barbeques. All of this, and still there was the hardware store; the gentle joke being that women could drop off their husbands in the hardware section, and shop for hours, undisturbed.

I came there mostly for the fabrics— lovely, quality stuff that I could barely afford, but the sales staff in the fabric and notions section knew me quite well as a discriminating customer, if not as rich as some of the other regulars, and one of the very few with the skill to tackle Vintage Vogue, and the very difficult Vogue Designer patterns. They always had wool suitings, and silk— there was no other place in town that stocked silk—and the sales table was always worth a look-see. I did Blondie’s high school graduation dress from Scriveners’, and an elaborate wedding dress for a co-worker, and any number of things for myself. There are just not many other places in San Antonio, or anywhere else, where you could walk out with a spool of thread, an envelope of black cut-glass buttons from Czechoslovakia, a cookie press, a bag of bird-seed and a three-way light-fixture fitting.

Scriveners’ eccentric old-fashioned charm carried it into the 21st century, but some of the original owners’ business principles— as admirable as they were for the employees— probably lost it business to competition, competition that grew and flourished in the decades after Broadway outside-the-loop was paved, and 410 became a ring-road, circling the metropolis. It closed evenings at 5:30, and did not open on Sundays; I am sure this would have cost them. These days, even clientele of up-scale retail establishments have Monday-to Friday jobs.

A couple of years ago, the founder of it all finally retired and Scriveners’ was bought by Berings— a store in Houston which was pretty much the same kind of place, or so they said. They promised that nothing much would change, save the name which appeared on chic new green awnings, all the way around the old, rambling building. But they closed the fabric section, and remodeled the inside to accommodate more china and upscale housewares; I considered that a shrine had been desecrated by barbarians, but still patronized the hardware store, and the kitchenware department, but in April everything was marked down, and the notices went up. Everything was cleared out in short order, by generations of customers in deep mourning. One of the hardware managers told me sorrowfully, they could not find a building large enough in the ’09 neighborhood where they wanted to relocate— where their customer base was— and the real-estate at the corner of 410 and Broadway was just too valuable in the present market.

The building sat empty for a couple of months, the brave new green awnings unfaded, but the bulldozers have come and gone— I expect the site to be entirely empty, the next time I drive by. If they build something tacky like a McDonalds on it, I shall be really, really annoyed. All unknowing, they are desecrating a shrine, and pouring concrete on the place where one of San Antonio’s memorable establishments once stood.

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