“Hey, I have some drippings from the meatloaf to take home”, the waitress told the gentleman, an older local who sat at the table next to me and with whom I had been engaged in conversation. I’ve learned over time that when going into a new community, when you find a local establishment, ask the locals what they prefer. They will never steer you wrong.
The city is Malvern, Arkansas, and the place is Keeney’s Food Market, a new inductee into the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame. It is off the beaten path, located in a mostly residential area, and the cafe sits in the back of the market. “unassuming” would be an apt description.
A very large part of my life has been spent exploring places that other folks tend to overlook. I guess, being overlooked myself, I’ve always felt a special affinity. And every community has color and character, Malvern being no different.
When I was a starry eyed youngster (the first time — I’m still working on the second, as you know), I remember a young Presidential candidate by the name of William Jefferson Clinton telling us, “I still believe in a place called Hope”, referencing Hope, Arkansas, a community near where he grew up. And, being the geeky sort I am, I duly noted that if one were to continue on down the road that brought us here another hour and a half, one would, indeed, find themselves smack dab in the center of a place called Hope.
It’s a fitting metaphor for this small, beautiful community on the banks of the Ouachita River. In my expressions with locals, they have expressed disappointment as they have seen plants close, buildings abandoned, and, as with so many other rural communities these days, their youth so often lost to addiction and crime. and yet, to speak with them, there is still an enthusiasm, an optimism, and an encouragement that hope is, indeed, not so far away.
I spoke with the owner of Miller Drug Store, who allowed me into his back room and the old soda fountain equipment, and he told me of his daughter, who is inheriting the role of being the fifth generation of pharmacists in his family, in this community of 10,000. I saw the forms where the pills would normally be packaged, and sealed with a hot iron before they were sent out to the nursing homes. And I saw the old strip mall, and a bank whose window almost mournfully proclaimed: “Sorry, we are closed”.
A discussion with the Chamber director told me about a gentleman who has since passed, whose friendship with Billy Bob Thornton secured him a bit part in the movie “Sling Blade”, and a few small parts in Hollywood through his friend “Bob” (Duvall), who frequently checked in on him.
Initially, I was going to write a single piece about this small community, a half an hour away from Hot Springs. But a single article cannot do it justice. So, while this article lacks pictures, I have pictures a plenty, and as soon as I can get my phone and computer to agree, I’m happy to share. I invite you to enjoy this experience with me as I share about this community just an hour and a half from a place called Hope.