“Mama would order her groceries from Fant’s Store, which was then out on Carrollton Avenue. There were no super markets then and no self service grocery stores. I think she called in an order nearly every morning and they would be delivered. We would always beg her to order cookies for us, and she usually did. All of the stores, except for a few neighborhood grocery stores, were in the downtown area. There were no shopping centers or malls, and there were no chain stores until Woolworth’s and Penney’s came in.
“Fountain’s Big Busy Store, which was what they called it, was located on the corner of Washington and Howard Street and was built in 1914. It had thirty different departments and drew customers from all over the Delta. It had three stories and sold clothes for the whole family, piece goods, gifts, toys, household furnishings, shoes and many other things. There was a millinery department, where all the ladies bought hats, and a corset department. There was a big stairway in the center of the back of the store which led to the mezzanine where you could rest or go to the restroom. They had style shows and the models would come down from the mezzanine.
“Fountain’s was the only store in Greenwood with an elevator, and it was quite a treat to get on the elevator with Lena Leflore, the light-skinned black woman who Mama always said it was rumored Greenwood Leflore’s granddaughter. Leflore was the Indian chief for whom Greenwood and Leflore County were named.
“In the store they had big baskets, and when you purchased something the sales clerk would pull down the basket, put your purchase and sales slip in, pull a cord and send the basket flying to the office where they put your change in a little cup and sent them flying back down. There was also a soda fountain downstairs and a tearoom upstairs. In the shoe department they had tall ladders on wheels, and the shoe boxes were stacked all the way to the ceiling. The shoe clerk, usually a man, would have to climb the ladder to reach your size. We wore mostly little brown oxfords for school and little black patent leather shoes called ‘Mary Janes’ for Sunday.
“Mary and I were always envious of the little girls who wore Roman sandals to Sunday School and birthday parties. These were high top shoes with many little straps that buttoned with a shoe buttoner, a small tool with a hook on the end which people used to button shoes. When I finally talked Mama into getting me a pair they turned out to be too small and I hardly got to wear them.
“Fountain’s would have big dollar day promotions and give away money and sometimes a car. Mama said one time they had one of the big front windows filled with babies with nurses and a sign in the window, ‘Adopt a Baby.’ The babies were little orphans brought from the orphanages in Jackson and they were hoping that people would adopt them.”
The sidewalks in front of the old Fountain’s building have just been dug up and bricked, and I wonder what bits of treasure might have been unearthed by the brickmasons. All of Howard Street is undergoing this upgrade, and I’ve looked in a lot of holes over the past few weeks in search of some tidbit of Greenwood’s past. When Fountain’s ground floor was being remodeled into Turnrow Books, I went upstairs a few times to the second and third floors. I don’t think I took any pictures, and now I wish I had, as those vast spaces have since been carved into luxury apartments. But when they were empty, and they’d been empty for decades, they were inspiring. The windows are huge, much bigger than they appear to be from the street, and dust-streaked light poured into the cavernous floorspace, lighting up the dark wood floors and the square columns. This was the domain of Billy Fountain and his electric trains and Miss Zip Cain and her fabrics and Lena Leflore with her creaky elevator that only went up three floors, down three floors. There had even been two weddings in that building, and one of them was Sara’s granddaughter’s ceremony in 2006.
Sara never got over Fountain’s closing. It opened with so much fanfare, seven years before she was born, and it fulfilled every dream that she had as a little girl, a teenager, a career woman and a wife and mother. When the key turned in the lock for the last time, that just broke her heart. She went to Turnrow Books on occasion, although it was almost impossible for her to climb the steps to the balcony and cafe, but you could always see that far-away look in her eyes. She wasn’t seeing the shelves and books of Turnrow. In her mind’s eye, it was 1928 all over again, with white-gloved matrons in the tearoom and Billy Fountain pulling back the curtains on Toyland and Jessie chatting with Zip Cain. I think it made her sad to be in that space and she finally just refused to go. I couldn’t blame her.
We need to start right now planning a celebration for Fountain’s in 2014, a grand birthday party for a downtown anchor that has served so many generations so well. Old friends deserve to be honored.