Familiar names are being joined by new businesses in Conway, Ark., as merchants and restaurateurs cater to residents who no longer think it should be necessary to drive to Little Rock to find what they want.
Photography by Sara Edwards Neal
[dropcap]Conway’s[/dropcap] Bell & Sward Gentlemen’s Clothier, at 1020 Oak St., started, basically, for want of a shirt.
“There was a day I needed a new, good white shirt,” Erik Sward said, “and I asked [my wife] Lindsey why Conway didn’t have any place. That’s where the idea was formed.”
So he started brainstorming with Lindsey’s mother, Zanette Bell, and they agreed that since the closure of the venerable Ed Camp’s Men’s Store, there was a definite need for a specialty menswear store in town.
“That was early spring 2013, and we spent a good nine or 10 months planning it out and getting everything in order,” he said.“We did a tour of fine men’s stores in the South and looked at brands and talked to store owners,” Bell added.
Their instincts have been proven right since Bell & Sward made its debut last March in the city’s historic downtown core. “A lot of customers tell us, ‘I’ve had to go to Little Rock for the last 15 years since Ed Camp’s closed,’” Sward said.
Downtown Conway has been the site of several new retail startups, which join a cadre of homegrown stalwarts in a walkable neighborhood with picturesque buildings. For the past decade or more, downtown has benefited from an infusion of millions of dollars in public and private investments, making the area a destination.
Oak Street is the downtown’s main drag, and it’s thick with places for shoppers and eaters. One place to start the day is Bob’s Grill and Cafeteria at 1112 Oak St., a classic diner with a reputation for tasty, filling plates served by the kind of ladies who’ll call you “sir,” “ma’am” and even “hon,” if you’re lucky. One of downtown Conway’s stalwarts, it’s been in business since 1959.
We were there in the morning, so breakfast was our goal. While there were homemade cinnamon rolls big enough to swamp a small plate, we opted for two of their best sellers among the morning crowd: the three-egg omelet and the hash brown plate. You can get either decked out with as little or as much as you want in the way of additions; we chose everything: ham, bacon, sausage, onions, peppers, tomatoes and cheese. Nobody walked away hungry.
While you’re on Oak Street, you will be tempted to duck inside some of the comely storefronts offering home decor and furnishings. You should give into this temptation. Perhaps start in Park Hill at 1011 Oak, Todd Smith’s store filled with eclectic decor and delicious aromas.
A rustic theme runs through the store’s collection. Distressed wood and repurposed materials are all around. Antique ladders hang from the ceiling, with freeze-dried hops vines suspended from them. You’ll find pillows with prints of farm animals, hand-made soaps with natural herbs and candles with evocative scents and names to match — like the store Burlap & Barn Wood, which is redolent of cedar.
Cross the street to 1008 Oak and find yourself in White Goat. Open since October, it’s the Conway branch of a home decor store established in Little Rock, Ark., by Anna and Thomas Dickinson. Here you not only have a chance to accessorize your house but also the opportunity to learn how to upcycle old furniture through the chalk paint products developed by British designer Annie Sloan.
“The thing that’s so nice about the chalk paint,” manager Anne Stocks said, “is you don’t have to prime, you don’t have to strip furniture anymore — you can just paint.”
White Goat offers chalk paint classes twice per month, covering four basic techniques that will allow customers “to go out and paint anything,” she said. “Since we’re painters and love to paint ourselves, we try to add helpful tips that work for us.”
If painting isn’t your thing, the store offers bath and body fragrances, upholstered furniture, case goods and a bridal registry.
Another Oak Street neighbor offers inspiration of a different kind. Rocket Fizz, at 1010 Oak, is a throwback to the old-fashioned novelty candy and soda store. The only in-state branch of a California-born chain, it’s owned by Danny McMullen and Diane Murray, and managed by McMullen’s sister-in-law Diane Brewer.
“It just had the wow factor and the fun factor to it,” Brewer said of the store. “It’s about that and nostalgia and taking you back to your childhood.”
In addition to stacks and stacks of candies from around the world, the store stocks lines of sodas in all flavors you can imagine … and some that are hard to imagine, like bacon and sweet corn and ranch dressing.
“They all taste exactly like they say,” Brewer promised.
There’s plenty to do outside of downtown, too, especially in a city with three colleges, namely the University of Central Arkansas (UCA), Hendrix College and Central Baptist College. The campuses often offer intriguing entertainments. The Baum Gallery in McCastlain Hall at UCA features rotating exhibits, and the Conway Symphony Orchestra will perform at the college’s Reynolds Performance Hall on April 25 at 7:30 p.m.; the show will feature cellist Roman Borys on Elgar’s “Cello Concerto in E Minor.”
On April 29, Grammy-nominated guitarist Sturgill Simpson will perform in Staples Auditorium at Hendrix College.
The Village at Hendrix, a residential-commercial development adjacent to its namesake college, has a number of shops and eateries, including locally famous The Purple Cow and Zaza’s Fine Salad & Wood Oven Pizza Co., as well as sushi restaurant How Do You Roll. It’s also home to Monrow, a women’s boutique clothier opened by Caroline Rodgers in 2012.
“It’s just a place where Conway [residents and visitors] can come for the latest trends,” said Rodgers, a native of the city who returned after college. “They don’t have to go to Little Rock, they don’t have to shop online. They can come here and find a good, wide selection.”
Rodgers said the look she aims for with her shop is “very eclectic. You’ll have grandmothers looking for something to wear, then a 16-year-old. We don’t ever really shut anyone out.”
Closer to UCA, two friends are reaping the benefits of pursuing their dream. A few years ago, Jeff Born and Terry Chatelain decided that Conway lacked an amenity most other college towns had: a place with good food, great beer and all the sports you can watch. So they opened The Draft Ultimate Sports Grill at 2235 Dave Ward Drive, with an eye toward elevating the experience beyond typical bar food and bottled beer.
“The place is absolutely amazing, it has exceeded our expectations,” Born said. “The beer wall, to me, has been a defining point for new technology. That and the self-service table taps.”
That’s right, beer lovers, you can sit at a table with a tap to pour your own. And check out the selection on the beer wall, which includes Lost 40 Brewing’s Pale Ale and several other specialty beers from the Arkansas brewery.
While folks seem to look at The Draft as a bar first, Born points out it’s a family friendly restaurant that devotes serious attention to its food. The wings are fresh, never frozen; the burgers are made by hand; and the ingredients are fresh, too. That’s clear when you order the Bases Loaded Nachos, a huge plate that will feed two hungry people. You can have chicken, beef or both, and it’s covered in fresh tomatoes, jalapenos, onions and peppers, as well as a tasty house-made guacamole.
“An after-work destination is what we’re known as, a place to come and relax that gives you a big city feel in a small town setting,” Born said. “We would like to move into Little Rock next, in 12 to 18 months is our goal.”
You can obviously eat yourself silly in Conway, but, fortunately, there is help to burn off some of those calories. Since 1999, The Sporty Runner has outfitted exercisers with the shoes, clothes and other gear they need to ease on down the road.
“I retired from Southwestern Bell and started running,” said co-owner Linda Starr, “and anytime I tried to find [running gear] for women, it was hard to find.”
She started the store as The Lady Runner but soon had men coming in and telling her they were tired of driving to Little Rock to get their shoes and equipment, so she broadened her inventory. Now she’s happy to get everyone moving, however fast or slow.
“I didn’t start myself until I was 49. What we tell people is anybody can run if they want to, but there’s nothing wrong with walking.”
Runners, walkers and hikers will find plenty of places to stretch their legs around Conway. Parks abound, such as the Cadron Settlement — the second-oldest European-American site in the state — and Toad Suck Ferry, from which the city’s famous Toad Suck Daze festival draws its name. The Arkansas Game & Fish Commission operates Lake Conway and the 2,000-acre Bell Slough Wildlife Management Area, which offers birding, hunting and fishing.
There is also the Grassy Lake Water Trail, where you can paddle your canoe or kayak through miles of cypress-tupelo lakes and wetlands, observe herons, songbirds and turkeys, and look for frogs, beavers and other animals at home in the water. It is, according to Arkansas Game and Fish spokesman Keith Stephens, “one of our best wildlife-viewing spots.” For more information, log on to agfc.com and search for “Bell Slough” or “Grassy Lake.”
Not the outdoorsy type? Do you prefer to enjoy your adventures around a table with family and friends? Not a problem. You can hole up in The Bat Cave at 1155 Front St., where owners James and Nicole Kellar have purveyed comic books and board games for six years.
If you hadn’t heard, we’re in something of a Golden Age of board games, and titles like Settlers of Catan rival Monopoly and other classics in popularity. James Kellar has a theory about the resurgence.
“I think a lot of it stems from when I was a kid, pre-Nintendo,” he said. “I think now, 30 years later, people are realizing where the roots of [computer games] come from. These were pre-technology games.”
In addition to stocking comics and games, The Bat Cave has a dedicated gaming room filled with tables for customers to come in and while away a few hours — or a lot of them, since the store is open 10 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week — with card games like Magic: The Gathering or Pokémon or board games like Ticket to Ride, in which you build railroad empires. It’s one of Kellar’s top recommendations for the board game newbie.
“Their slogan is, ‘Five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master,’” he said. “It’s a game an 8-year-old kid can learn to play and never play the same game twice for the rest of his life.”
When you’re ready to wind down your day, you’ll have choices aplenty. Dinner spots like Mike’s Place and Pasta Grill have wooed lovers of good food and become rightfully popular. Or if you just need a cup of warm comfort before heading home, check out Blue Sail Coffee at 1028 Front Street. The brainchild of 23-year-old Kyle Tabor, a marketing graduate of UCA, the coffee shop will celebrate its first birthday next month and recently started roasting its own coffee.
“I was backpacking through Italy the summer between my junior and senior years and fell in love with the coffee culture over there,” Tabor said of his inspiration. “Coffee shops facilitated creativity, collaboration, business, friendship — that really inspired me to do that very same thing in my hometown of Conway.”
It can’t hurt that he’s in a three-college town, offering caffeine to students burning the midnight oil as they study for tests and write papers — until he closes at 11 p.m., at least — in a high-ceilinged space with exposed rafters, brick and painted plaster. Tabor also intends for his business to do well, especially for the growers in Burundi and Guatemala from whom he buys coffee.
“I’m going to be a strong importer of coffee from around the world and, I guess, a huge milestone of my vision is I want to help out, to be a part of the innovation at the farm level,” he said. “I really want to be in these communities, in these coffee-growing regions, helping them out, supplying them with equipment that helps their quality of life.”
For all that is new in Conway, there’s one long-standing tradition always worth visiting: the annual Toad Suck Daze festival, which will be held May 1 to 3 this year. With music, vendors, a 5K and 10K, golf tournament and more, it’s one of the state’s most visible festivals and a guaranteed hit with attendees of any age. Besides, it also gives you a chance to explain to your out-of-state friends where the name “Toad Suck” comes from — a fun piece of Arkansiana for which we say to Conway, “Thank you.”