Fondren’s Grand Old Lady

By AVERYELL KESSLER,

I met her when she was young, but I was too. She was called Morgan Center, the first suburban shopping center in Jackson, and a modern hub of commerce for folks who didn’t want to drive downtown. The anchor tenant was a new Jitney Jungle and it attracted my mother like an electromagnet. She had just learned to drive, and Morgan Center was our first destination. Mama loaded me into the front seat of her two-door Chevy coupe, and we were off, heading north away from leafy Belhaven and following State Street until it reached Old Canton Road. We saw it at the top of the next hill, a long low structure taking up what appeared to be an entire city block. Jackson had arrived.

Morgan and Lindsey were there too; we called it a 10-cent store. Inside, there was a myriad of treasures, yoyos, paper dolls, coloring books, crayons and school satchels, also sewing supplies, and a wide selection of Simplicity patterns. It also featured an abundant candy aisle, decorations for every holiday, as well as toothpaste, shaving cream and Max Factor makeup. For some odd reason, they also sold birdseed, parakeet cages and dog food.

Brent’s was on the east side of the Jitney. Always has been. Where else could one have an egg and olive sandwich, purchase a bottle of Bactine, fill a prescription, select a birthday card and check out Raymond Chandler’s latest from a lending library. At Brent’s everybody knew everybody, and strangers did not exist. (And we all remember Fish.)

Brent’s neighbor was Sudie’s, the finest children’s shop in town. Presided over by the ebullient Sudie and Jack Schultz, Sudie’s outfitted many northeast Jackson children from birth to 15. A unique feature of the shop was custom made polka dot wrapping paper which made a Sudie’s gift immediately recognizable at a child’s birthday party. It was usually opened first.

Beyond Sudie’s, there was a barber shop and a beauty parlor (an archaic term for salon). Can’t remember their names, but I do recall the aroma of shaving cream, Aqua Velva and pungent smell of permanent wave solution. We passed by quickly.

 

Things got ritzy at the far end of the center. Frances Pepper sold upscale women’s clothing, wedding dresses and outfits for fancy occasions. Inside, everything was hushed, satiny and smelled of Channel #5. Sales women swished forth in black silk, carrying gorgeous dresses on ornate hangers. Wow. We’re talking big time fashion now. The most unusual feature of the shop was a graceful, circular sofa covered in peach velvet. It did not welcome adventurous children.

At the far end of Morgan Center was Josephine Hackney’s hat shop. Also, seriously chic. The entrance faced Old Canton Road. Once inside, a sweeping stairway led to the second floor where everything from wide brimmed Sunday hats to jeweled cocktail headbands floated on the metal arms stretching out from the showroom walls.

After Mama and I visited all the shops, we made a quick pass through the Jitney to inspect the bakery shelves and take home a few groceries. “What did you like best?” Mama asked as we drove back to Laurel Street. “Everything,” I answered. “Can we go back?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “I liked everything too.”

Thankfully Fondren’s Grand Lady is still here. As Woodland Hills Shopping Center, she anchors downtown Fondren and has somehow escaped eager developers who might tear her down or bulldoze her off the face of the earth. She’s been spiffed up and remodeled a bit, but her charm survives. The original shops are gone. They’ve been replaced or remodeled by new tenants, brimming with bright ideas and intriguing merchandise. She must be pushing 80 now, celebrating Fondren’s renaissance-like transformation into a joyous blend of southern tradition and eclectic funk. As always, children scamper into Brent’s to sip a milkshake at the counter, and visitors to the city wander in and out of her unique shops. It’s still possible to take home a roast chicken from McDade’s, as well as a plate lunch and a carton of the best pimento cheese in town. Many of her original shoppers survive. I am one of them, having crossed her slanted sidewalks more years than I care to remember. I plan to keep visiting the old girl, as long as she’s still around. She’s home, and as my mother said, “I like everything, too.”

Averyell A. Kessler is a native Jacksonian living in Fondren.