A Saturday in Branson

It was almost 4 p.m. Saturday when we walked into Dick’s Old-Time 5 & 10 on Main Street in Branson, Mo.

As usual, the store was crowded. We could barely move up and down the narrow aisles. By the dozens, tourists pushed their way through the glass doors. It was stuffy inside.

Those who know me will be quick to tell you that I’m not one to go into stores. But I was here to see a friend from my college days, Steve Hartley, whose father began the business half a century ago.

Wedging myself between the tourists, I looked for Steve. He wasn’t there. But I knew he was working on this summer Saturday. Heck, he’s always working.

Finally, I asked an employee: “Is Steve in today?”

“He’s gone to lunch,” the employee replied. “He should be back in the next 30 minutes.”

So Melissa, Evan and I crossed Main Street (our older son, Austin, was back at the Hilton Promenade working out in the fitness room) to have homemade limeades at Mr. B’s.

We returned to Dick’s shortly before 5 p.m., and I still didn’t see Steve. But then I saw his mom, June, hard at work at age 80.

“Welcome to Dick’s,” she said with a smile as people walked in.

Every other year during the 1990s, when the Ouachita Baptist University football team would play Southwest Baptist University in nearby Bolivar, I would spend a weekend with Steve. On a couple of those occasions, I was honored to have Saturday lunch at the home of Dick and June Hartley.

I went over, said hello to Mrs. Hartley and immediately received a big hug. Then, she went to the back room to retrieve Steve, whose day had become even busier than usual when the air conditioner in the building had given out.

Steve and I attended Ouachita at the same time. He was an excellent baseball player, and I covered the team as part of my job as sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald. Following college, Steve began a career with Dillard’s Inc. Because he was smart and a hard worker, he quickly rose through the ranks, eventually managing one of the chain’s largest stores in Nashville, Tenn.

I have no doubt that Steve would now be a top executive had he remained with the company.

In 1993, however, he had to make a life-changing decision. Branson was booming, and his father asked him if he would come home to help run the family business. Steve chose at that point to give up his Dillard’s career and has never looked back. He has a closet filled with the suits he wore as a Dillard’s store manager. They’re rarely used. In Branson, the dress is casual. But the hours are long.

The Hartley family was in Branson before Branson was cool. Now an anchor of Main Street in the old downtown section of town, Dick’s has become somewhat of a landmark in a place where so much of what now exists is less than 20 years old.

My father, who was a downtown businessman in Arkadelphia for decades and a salesman at heart, would stop in to say hello to Dick Hartley whenever my parents would visit Branson. That’s because Red Nelson and Dick Hartley were kindred spirits — both born in the 1920s, both veterans, both hard workers who built businesses from scratch. Dick, who died in December 2006 at age 80, was a natural-born retailer.

Dick was born in 1926 in Springfield. He joined the U.S. Army upon graduation from high school and was stationed in Tokyo following the conclusion of World War II. He went to college at Drury in Springfield and graduated with a degree in economics. In 1950, he moved to Chicago to work for the S.S. Kresge Co. (later Kmart), renting a room at a YMCA and learning the five-and-dime business.

In 1956, Dick accepted a management position with TG&Y and moved to Midwest City, Okla. He and June, also a Springfield native, were married in 1959.

“After being transferred to Norman, Okla., Dick developed a desire to own his own five and dime,” says the store’s website at www.dicksoldtime5and10.com. “Dick and June agreed together that they wanted to take on this challenge. The next big decision, ultimately one of the biggest decisions of their lives, was where to locate their business. There was talk of Abilene, Kan., because of an available building with a favorable lease opportunity. There was also talk of the communities surrounding their hometown of Springfield.”

There was, however, something about Branson on the banks of the White River that felt right. That’s where they decided to open their business. At first, Dick and June were the only employees. Dick even built many of the counters used in the store. The folks in Branson said no one could outwork Dick Hartley. It’s an attribute inherited by his son.

In the 1970s, a competitor closed down and Dick Hartley bought the building that now houses the store. On Dec. 9, 2006, he closed the store at 9 p.m., went home and passed away.

Steve had the pleasure of working daily with his father for 13 years. Following his father’s death, my friend began to work even harder. His brother-in-law, Dave Montgomery, joined the thriving business in 2008.

There are more than 50,000 items in stock at the store.

“My father would have a fit if he knew how much inventory I have,” Steve says. “But it’s moving.”

There also are the collections on the walls — the autographed aviation prints, sports memorabilia, arrowheads, train memorabilia and more. Many of the more than 100 aviation prints are autographed by pilots and crew members. There’s the Memphis Belle, the Enola Gray and more.

In the collection of autographed sports prints, one can find Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Dizzy Dean and many others.

The walls are covered.

Unlike most Branson visitors, I do my best to stay off Missouri Highway 76 west of U.S. Highway 65. I hate traffic, and I don’t really have any desire to attend the shows. We made one futile attempt to drive through that area Sunday morning but turned around in the face of bumper-to-bumper traffic. I prefer to remain downtown.

Steve says the $500 million Branson Landing development has helped his business. More than 7,000 cars go up and down Main Street on an average day. People now flock to the development along Lake Taneycomo, which boasts two Hilton hotels, condominiums, more than 20 restaurants, more than 100 specialty shops, a Bass Pro Shop, a Belk’s department store, a marina and the $7.5 million water fountain show that’s synchronized to music with lights and fire.

Partners Rick Huffman, Sam Catanese and Marc Williams of HCW Development Co. are the men behind Branson Landing, which opened in 2006. In December 2008, the development was given a design award by the International Council of Shopping Centers.

As the economy continues to struggle, the overall tourism numbers in Branson are relatively flat. But east of U.S. 65, in the old downtown and at Branson Landing, the crowds are heavy. Steve said business at Dick’s has been good — very good.

If you’re like me and don’t care to fight the traffic on Highway 76 West, stay east of U.S. 65, visit Steve and June at Dick’s and eat at one of the old-style restaurants downtown — the Branson Cafe, the Farmhouse, Clockers or The Shack.

Had he lived, Dick Hartley might have been amazed at the size of the Saturday night crowds that show up these days down the street at Branson Landing. But he wouldn’t have been surprised by the crowds at his store or the work ethic of his son. Like father, like son, no one outworks a Hartley.

Post to Twitter