Created Wednesday, 02 September 2009 16:27
Sic Transit Scriveners
On a September day a few years ago, I drove the 410 loop for the first time in a good few weeks, and saw that there was a bulldozer busily scraping away on the site of one of north-east San Antonio’s best loved 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, 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; technically accurate, but not even beginning to do justice to the reality.
Scrivener’s 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 set shop 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. The manager of 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 adhered to the same philosophy; he bought out his partners and listened to the suggestions of his sales staff.
First, 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. Eventually, they sold collectibles, stationary, gourmet foods, embroidered baby and children’s clothes, and installed a wonderful fabric and notions department, chock-full of imported laces and silk ribbon.
/They retailed kitchenware, fine china and crystal, collectables, designer accessories, jewelry and handbags, Christmas ornaments, wind-chimes, bird-feeders, and ornamental brass fireplace accessories, and featured 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 homes, 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 the very difficult Vintage Vogue, and Vogue Designer patterns. There were just not many other places in San Antonio – or probably 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.
Their eccentric and old-fashioned charm carried it into the 21st century as Broadway outside-the-loop was paved, and 410 became a ring-road, circling the metropolis, but their store hours, as admirable as they were for the employees probably cost them in the long run. They closed evenings at 5:30, and did not open on Sundays. These days, even clientele of up-scale retail establishments have Monday-to Friday jobs. When the original owner retired, the whole place was bought by Berings, of Houston, pretty much the same kind of retail business. They promised that nothing much would change, save the name which appeared on chic new green awnings. But they closed the fabric section, and remodeled the inside to accommodate more china and upscale housewares. I was distraught over that, but still patronized the hardware store, and the kitchenware department, until the spring of 2005, when suddenly, the inventory was marked down, and the notices went up. Everything was cleared out in short order, by generations of customers in deep mourning. A manager told me sorrowfully, they could not find a building large enough in Alamo Heights, since 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 eventually the bulldozers came and went, and so did the construction crews: there is a Chili’s and a Wachovia bank branch on the site now. I don’t thing I will ever patronize either, for all unknowing, they desecrated one of my very favorite shrines, the place where San Antonio’s most eccentric retail establishment once stood.