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Levy: Durable as the stuff in a hardware store 

click to enlarge BRIAN CHILSON

Seen from the interstate, on the way from somewhere to somewhere, Levy looks picturesque, even pretty, nestled in the bowl of a valley west of North Little Rock's Park Hill, a patchwork of rooftops sticking up above the trees.

Once you get off the freeway, you can see that Levy is really a town within a town. It's a working-class place, as it has been since the start — plain, honest, maybe even a little gritty. Many of the businesses that anchored the community for years, like Venable Lumber Co., are boarded up or gone. For a lot of people, it's a middle place now, somewhere they drive through to get elsewhere, someplace they leave at quitting time, someplace they live but want to leave when they can afford better. The best symbol of Levy these days might be the monolithic overpass that leaves a swath of the old downtown buried in shadow a good bit of the day.

That said, while older businesses have moved on, others — many of them catering to the area's growing Latino population — have sprung up: Mexican grocery stores, restaurants and a Latino-patronized billiard parlor downtown. There are still old-line businesses there, still people there, folks who say they're in for the duration. And if a neighborhood isn't about the determination to stay, to make something new from the old, then what is it?

The town of Levy was started by Ernest Stanley, a young businessman who opened a hardware and grocery store there in 1897, near a field where farmers often camped while bearing their crops to market in Little Rock and points east. Morris Levy, a German-Jewish shopkeeper from Little Rock who later opened a successful dry-goods store in nearby Argenta, had provided Stanley with enough money to start his new store, so Stanley named the town that grew up around it after him. North Little Rock was apparently hot to annex Levy nearly from the beginning, so Levy incorporated in 1917 to try and cling to municipal independence. They couldn't stop progress or the expanding borders of their neighboring city, however, and Levy was officially annexed into North Little Rock in 1947.

The hardware store started by Ernest Stanley is still in Levy, if you can believe it, making it one of the oldest continuously operated businesses in Central Arkansas. It's not in the same place as the first incarnation (that spot is occupied by a gas station under the interstate overpass now), but it's still the same name out front in the latest location at 4308 MacArthur Drive.

People drive in from miles around to shop at Stanley; to get their mowers worked on, their chainsaws sharpened, to buy bags of framing nails, canning jars, jar lifters, sandpaper on rolls, draw knives, oil cans straight out of "The Wizard of Oz," cast iron skillets, pocket knives and woodworkers' spoke shaves in two sizes: small and large. A big black and white cat — which the clerks have named, perhaps inevitably, Stanleycat — came in from the cold a few years back. They didn't have the heart to put her out, so she stayed, sleeping amongst the cans of paint and prowling the aisles. The clerks know most of the customers by name, just like clerks before them knew many of the current customers' fathers by name. It's that kind of place. There aren't many like it anymore, in this world of Faster/Cheaper trumping all.

Jeff Dumboski bought Stanley from the third-generation owner in 2005. Dumboski grew up in Levy and remembers coming to Stanley with his dad. Levy back then was a whole different world.

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