The journey to the Argenta Arts District begins by crossing over the Arkansas River via the Junction Bridge. Photo by Sophia Ordaz
by Sophie Barnes and Sophia Ordaz, staff writers
Junction Bridge is a huge metallic beast. Its joints are connected by heavy iron screws. Its spine is a rollercoaster of curves. The Arkansas River churns beneath this steely bridge, and as we take one last look at downtown Little Rock’s skyline, the Argenta Arts District grows closer and closer with every step.
There’s a Greyhound bus station. People coming and going like ants from their hill. A campy pawn shop with a mysterious limo parked out front. The street intersects and Main Street is just around the corner.
Main Street is the heart of the Argenta Arts District. The environment is relaxing and welcoming. Trees line the sidewalks, offering shade to passers-by, and the district is thriving with its locally-owned businesses. Entrepreneurs of all ages and backgrounds band together in what locals call a “big family.” Main Street existed long before the city of North Little Rock, along with the Argenta Drug Company, a national historic landmark.
“The Argenta Drug Company is the oldest pharmacy west of the Mississippi River,” Brandon, a four-year pharmacy student says. “I wrote a business plan for the building, and I had to do a big research project of the history of this building. This is all original tin ceiling; some of the paint is chipping up there in the back corner.”
Needless to say, the Argenta Drug Company has seen a great deal. It dates back to when North Little Rock was still known as Argenta and when Main Street was just a dirt road.
“This is a 130 year old pharmacy, and right now it’s only the fourth owner, so people who’ve owned this place stay with it for a long time,” Brandon says. “In fact, all three previous owners were Justices of the Peace, and people would come and get married in the back office. These couples will come in for their anniversary and talk about how they got married here.”
We take another look at the historic pharmacy. The hand-laid tile floor is black and white, and little mistakes in the pattern can even be seen by the naked eye. The ceiling is chipped and the wallpaper is peeling. Glass cases still hold prescription bottles dating back to the ‘50s, and regular customers crowd the pharmacy just as they did a century ago. The Argenta Drug Company is a living history book still being written.
Toward the end of the strip, a small congregation of tents and people has set up camp. We approach it excitedly, hoping we’re right in our guess that this is the Argenta Farmer’s Market. We are, and we enter the common ground to not just find homegrown tomatoes and freshly picked parsley, but other products like honey, soap, and hummus dip are sold by over twenty vendors that line the visitor’s walkway.
“We are a certified farmer’s market”, co-founder Barbara Armstrong states proudly. “Every farmer who is here has to grow what they sell.”
Armstrong likes to call this walking community a type of “cottage industry.” She takes much pride in the fact that her market is fresh and at the River Market, not all of the products sold are freshly grown.
“It’s just about making people aware that this is a true farmer’s market…Everything you see on this table, I grew,” Armstrong insights. “I’ve actually had to ask people to pull things off the table. It’s just the rules and regulations we follow.”
An intern from Hendrix College in Conway, Molly, enjoys working at the market because it teaches her how to handle herself with new people, a skill that will carry with her for the rest of her life.
“I like that the Argenta Arts District provides a lot of opportunities for a wide variety of people. This district is really interesting and diverse,” Molly says.
An internship with the market is just up the alley of students who want a beginner’s view of entrepreneurship and would like to be involved with a community project. If you, like Molly, have an interest in being an intern for the market, visit www.argentafarmersmarket.com for more description and contact information.
Mug’s Café was founded in 2013, and since then it has certainly become an important part of the Argenta Arts District. Mug’s Café doubles as the Church of Argenta, where a service is held every Sunday at ten-thirty a.m. Comfy chairs and sofas fan around the raised platform where the pastor speaks, and there’s a wood carving of the world’s continents on the back wall. This laidback environment exists throughout the café. The walls, some red brick, some wood, are covered with artworks created by local artists, and the tables where we eat are of a modest dark wood.
The sound of plates clinking, chairs scraping, and people chatting fills our ears as we open the glass door to Mug’s Café. We step into the café and order at the counter where we can see cooks chopping colorful vegetables and hear the sizzle of meat in the kitchen. The lunch menu offers dishes like the Smoked Salmon Club Sandwich, Cranberry Turkey Sliders, and even a vegetarian wrap. After some thought, we finally settle on the Chicken Salad Sandwich and head to a table by the front window to await our order.
When our orders are up, we bring the food back to the table. The chicken salad sandwiches are accompanied with green apple slices, and as we dive in, we strike up a conversation with the two women sitting at a neighboring table. We learn that the two friends, Joanne Williams and Linda Armstrong, met at Mug’s Café and that both women love living near the art district.
“I took pottery classes down the street, and I just loved it,” says Linda. “I love how this district has everything. You can get good food here, bike, and watch films. This district affects a lot of people.”
Before long, crumbs littered our plates, and our cups ran dry. As our conversations with Joanne and Linda came to an end, we couldn’t help but notice the way the Argenta Arts District unites people through art, food, and fellowship.
The first thing she says to us is, “Y’all two are pretty girls.”
Joanne Williams, a resident of the Argenta Arts District, sits down at Mug’s Café every day for lunch of a chicken-salad sandwich and crunchy apple slices. With her apartment sitting just around the corner, it’s an easy walk from here to there. And it must be because of an accident in 1985 that left her with a concussion and a tendency for seizures that have caused her to wreck two cars and lose her independence. Joanne must depend on her children and siblings for almost every activity she decides to venture upon. However, through her perspective, this dependency is premature. She wants to experience more than she has ever been able and in Argenta, she can. She’s almost sixty years old, and her life has just begun.
The Joint seems somewhat deceiving at first glance, looking like some kind of Off-Off-Broadway Theater.
A modern coffee shop with an in-house comedy group, the place is owned by Steve and Vicki Farrell and operated by a woman known as “Tex.”
The menu holds several eating and drinking options that include their signature German Chocolate Mocha blended coffee and their homemade pastries that ooze deliciousness from their trays in the counter displays.
“I’ve been working here for almost two years,” Tex recalls. “We’ve just had our third birthday with The Joint in the past few months. Compared to a year ago, we’re much busier. I gets packed on comedy night. The Main Thing is our comedy group.”
“What’s His Name?” is the current comedy project that the Farrell duo has taken on at their restaurant. Steve’s writing has been featured on Saturday Night Live, and Vicki is a small time producer/actress. They previously owned Radio City Music Hall in Dallas, but when the two moved to Little Rock in 2011, they founded The Joint and it has only blossomed since.
As for Tex, she enjoys her line of work and feels like she’s “part of the family.”
“It’s been a great place for me. We’re all like a family around here. It’s a really neat community to be a part of, and I want to stay and be a part of it,” Tex says.
The Main Thing performs on Fridays and Saturdays from 7-8 P.M., but be sure to come by on special nights to watch Armadillo Rodeo, Arkansas’s only professional teen-improv group, perform featuring many Central students that you know and love.
Just down the way from the Joint is a new extension, the area’s hustle-and-bustle in the Argenta Community Theater. Here “Fiddler on the Roof” and many other shows were put on this past theater season. Included in this was junior Casey Labatte who got the chance to be a part of the theater this summer.
“I saw a show there last year and thought it was great,” Casey says. “When I found out about ‘Fiddler,’ I auditioned and I got a lead role.”
Casey not only gained hours upon hours of resume material and Thespian points, but also the opportunity to perform in a state-of-the-art building.
“It was really nice. Beautiful building, very professional environment, but comfortable too,” Casey says.
The area’s official thrift and antique shop lies across the street from the theater. Inside, it’s cramped. A table corner obstructs our way. It’s hard to find a path amid the countless storage crates full of old dishes and porcelain figurines. But we have to see everything on the second level of Galaxy Furniture & Design.
“My wife and I go by Retroman and Retrogirl,” owner Wayne Hogan says. “We knew customers were going to call us something…that’s who we are now.”
Hogan’s nickname reflects Galaxy’s museum of “eclectic-vintage” pieces. Flowered sofas, 60s style chairs, a rainbow of luggage, department store mannequins, and a statue of Bart Simpson the size of a five year old take up only a fraction of the second level. There’s a rack of old comics that leans against a bookshelf and a life-size cardboard cutout of Ringo Starr that presides over the extensive record collection. A red neon sign hangs on the back wall, filling the space with a soft, rosy glow. The sign reads “BAGEL,” and its nonsensical nature matches Galaxy well.
“We do sell office furniture, and that’s our bread and butter,” says Hogan. “This vintage stuff is on the side. Young kids love it. It’s new to them, and it brings back good times for the parents. Collecting this stuff is what we love to do.”
Do not let the name fool you. Galaxy Furniture & Design is more than a furniture store, and it’s an incredible addition to the Argenta Arts District.
As we end our “exploring and imploring”, the street is now behind us and the light of the day is fading. A successful Saturday of shopping, eating, and meeting new and interesting people has met its end. With its one-of-a-kind businesses, friendly eateries, thriving fine arts and theater, and locally grown and produced goods, the Argenta Arts District is a valuable addition to the Central Arkansas area. We can only hope our adventures will lead us back again someday.