She is not just an expanse of asphalt, curbs and sidewalks stretching from the South Carolina State House to Elmwood Avenue. She is not just a place for cars and parking spots and people needing to get here or there.
Oh no. She is much more than that.
She is Main Street. She is the grande dame of Columbia thoroughfares, the matriarch of Columbia’s road map.
She’s also a tough broad, surviving the lure of suburban malls some years ago and, in more recent times, remaking herself into a tony downtown destination.
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As a baby boomer who grew up in the capitol city, I have several distinct memories of the venerable old girl.
The larger-than-life candles and choir boys set on top of Belk’s front doors at Christmastime in the 1960s. Inside, that “everything new” smell and the swooshing escalator. Always at the top, my mother insisted, “Pick up your feet!”, as if my toes were going to get eaten at the end.
A luggage store where my grandfather bought me a suede set of Hartmann Luggage. I felt so sophisticated.
The smell of vegetable soup and fresh corn bread sticks at the restaurant in the basement of Tapp’s Department Store.
Memories. They’re part of what makes Main Street more than just another street, more than just another road.
They’re part of what gives her life.
And what a life it’s been.
Originally called Richardson Street, she emerged with the birth of Columbia in 1786. After the Civil War, her name was changed to Main Street, and through the middle 1900s, she was the belle of the ball, the commercial center of the city.
She entertained us. Fed us. Served us. Taught us. Created memories for us. Match made for us. Even, if you will, mothered us.
Just ask brothers Johnny and Bill Turner. Their father, Franklin Turner, was a compound pharmacist and owned McGregor’s Drug Store in the 1300 block of Main. Their mother, Grace, worked at the store as well.
“Most of our contemporaries grew up at home,” said Bill, who is 73. “We grew up in downtown Columbia, in the ‘50s, at the drug store.”
The brothers remember the place well.
On the left-hand side of the store, magazine racks, the cash register, the candy counter, a marble-topped lunch counter, a soda fountain, a big mirror and silver stools with red seats. And on the righthand side of the store, pharmaceuticals – medicines, tonics, lotions and potions.
“I worked in the store as a first-grader,” Johnny said.
“We would do every kind of task imaginable. We dusted shelves, washed dishes, made all the ice cream treats, banana splits, sandwiches. We priced things with grease pencils. A lot of my classmates from school would come to the soda fountain. That was fun. In the 50s, downtown was a busy place. Lots of traffic. The sidewalks were wide and there were lots of people on them.”
The number of people on those sidewalks increased dramatically on Saturdays, when soldiers from Fort Jackson, who’d just been paid, came to town.
“We would always work on soldiers’ paydays,” Johnny said.
“On Saturday night, Mom and Dad would make sure they had a full work force in the store. All the way up until midnight. Just before the movie theaters would let out at 3, 5, 7 and 9, Mom would throw 20 or 30 hamburgers on the grill. She knew the soldiers were coming to eat. It was a simple time, for sure.”
But not always.
“If a black adult came in the store and sat down at the counter,” Johnny said. “I had to tell him to wait at the front of the store. It put a child in an awkward position.”
Unlike some other luncheon counters along Main Street, where organized “sit-ins” took place during the Civil Rights era, Johnny said there were no protests at McGregor’s.
“We weren’t a national chain like Woolworth’s, so we weren’t going to get the attention that the other stores did, but there was talk and chatter about it everywhere on Main Street because it was a turbulent time. Mom and Dad told us it was none of our business.”
Russell Lipscomb, 73, was another child of Main Street. His grandfather, Johaness Sylvan, owned a jewelry store – Sylvan – which is still located at Main and Hampton streets.
“I played in the building as a child,” Russell said.
“I would ride my Raleigh bicycle from our (Shandon) neighborhood to the store. Or, I would take the bus. I became an expert in cleaning silver. . . . I would clean the store, sweep the store, check in all the merchandise.”
Main Street was booming in the 1950s. But Richland Mall opened in 1961 – the site of today’s Richland Fashion Mall. “In my opinion, that’s when Main Street really started changing. The suburbs were cranking up. Richland Mall came into vogue and the fort started keeping the soldiers on base. My father foresaw that we were going to have to do something, so we put in a Sylvan’s at Richland Mall.”
The growing number of empty store fronts on Main Street “led to a rise in crime and vandalism, making downtown less attractive,” said Rodger Stroup, retired director of the state Department of Archives and History.
But oh, how attractive Main Street had once been.
Indeed, the memories of Main Street, back in the day, are mesmerizing.
One of the first television sets in Columbia was in the window of Krell Radio Shop. With a 100-feet tall antenna on top of the building, the TV picked up a station out of Atlanta and folks gathered on the street in front of it to watch boxing matches.
All four traffic lights at Main Street intersections were timed to be red simultaneously, allowing folks to cross the streets diagonally.
Kress sold candied fruit for those folks who made fruit cakes at Christmastime.
A photographer often snapped pictures of couples walking along Main Street which he then sold to them as keepsakes.
Many Columbia children loved the Palmetto Theater, home to the Saturday-morning Mickey Mouse Club. The theater’s interior featured red carpeting, gilded mirrors and velvet curtains. Ushers wore red and gray uniforms.
And then there was The Strand movie theater, considered by many to be a cut below the other movie theaters along Main.
“The (theater) on Saturdays showed black and white or sepia-toned pot-boiler westerns,” said Carl Shirley.
They’re part of what makes Main Street more than just another thoroughfare.
They’re part of what gives her life.
And what a life it continues to be.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
About this series
Much of Columbia’s Main Street has been transformed during the last few years with new restaurants, entertainment options, and more residents. This week, The State is taking a look at what sparked the changes, how people are adapting to the new Main Street, and what may be next. We’re calling the series “Meet Me On Main Street” in honor of a former Main Street department store whose motto was: Meet Me At Tapp’s.
Find stories published previously at thestate.com
Sunday: Five key changes that helped spark the recent growth of Main Street. Plus, a look at life on Main Street today.
Monday: What role has the University of South Carolina’s growth played in the renaissance of Main Street?
Tuesday: Along with the new residents, businesses and entertainment venues, the homeless maintain a strong presence along Main Street and downtown. Plus, how big of a concern is crime on Main Street?
Wednesday: What are the biggest obstacles to Main Street’s future?
TODAY: Salley McInerney takes a look at the history of Main Street through the eyes of those who worked or lived there decades ago.
Sunday: The State met with several stakeholders on Main Street to learn why the area has grown and to explore what’s next.