Hiding in Plain Sight
Seventy-five years of Lawndale Shopping Center and the oldest bar in Greensboro
By Billy Ingram
“He realized suddenly that it was one thing to see the past occupying the present, but the true test of prescience was to see the past in the future.” — Frank Herbert, Dune
Seventy-five years ago, southbound transients riding the rails typically leapt from open boxcars around Cornwallis Drive as locomotives slowed their roll into Greensboro city limits. In 1949, those so-called “hobos” would have undoubtedly been surprised to encounter a row of storefronts that was rapidly devouring a major portion of a wooded oasis they’d been bivouacking in for decades. To accommodate this nascent shopping center, the city extended a boulevard running parallel to the tracks that previously began at Cornwallis, a street once known as Fairfield, rechristened in the 1920s as “Lawndale.”
A further encroachment on their leafy lair — directly behind that emerging retail corridor overlooking Irving Park Elementary — was a collection of handsome duplexes under construction on Dellwood Drive and a freshly carved cul-de-sac called Branch Court.
By the time I started third grade in the 1960s, that emerging shopping center from 1949 had become a bustling Lawndale Shopping Center. As an 8-year-old, I was expected to walk to my home on Hill Street from Irving Park Elementary, a 1.5-mile trek. Yes, uphill both ways and it snowed year-round. On school days, a quarter rested in my pocket to pay for cafeteria slop, but I skipped lunch on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Those days, new comic books were released, 25 cents being the exact amount required to buy two DCs (12 cents each with a penny tax). So as soon as the bell rang, I’d hightail it in the opposite direction of our house, to Lawndale Shopping Center.
Lawndale Shopping Center was a genteel, modestly upscale row of clothing stores, druggists, hair salons and neighborhood taverns in the mid-’60s, a lineup practically unchanged from the very beginning.
Entering Lawndale Shopping Center from Sunset, past Bill Blake’s Texaco, was Mr. & Mrs. Q-Ball (Elizabeth’s Pizza today), erected a full decade after the strip was fully completed in 1954. This was the city’s first and only co-ed pool hall, open until midnight and decorated in space-age splendor with blue-and-tangerine gaming tables, a pink-tiled ladies lounge and gleaming vending machines surrounding multicolored, molded plastic seating.
Nearby was The Pied Pier Lounge (Boo Radley’s Tavern now). When the waitress at Brown-Gardiner’s lunch counter left to tend bar there, it ignited a cause célèbre. That place was widely known to be a (gasp!) gay bar, although no such place was allowed to legally exist.
A few doors down was my fave place growing up, Franklin Drug Store (a Hookah lounge in 2024 — wait, what?!?). With seven locations around town, Franklin’s at Lawndale was almost 10,000 square feet, packed with nearly anything a kid could desire: a soda shop, two comic book spinner racks fronting rows and rows of magazines and paperbacks surrounding the opening for an escalator, which led to a cavernous toy store below that sold everything seen on the teevee and more.
Mom’s favorite clothing boutique was Gin-Ettes (Acme Comics today), specializing in the Mary Tyler Moore look during the 1970s. Sadly, that boutique closed in the late-1990s after more than 50 years. The optometrist’s office now next door was The Briar Patch, where I picked out my back-to-school Lacoste shirts as a preteen. My bristles were buzzed for the first time by Gilmer (Ed) Jones at Lawndale Barber Shop (it’s been the Hair Shop for decades).
For the most part, if you lived in Irving or Latham Park, your drug store of choice was either Brown-Gardiner or my parent’s preference, advantageously located in the Lawndale Shopping Center, Crutchfield-Browning, both offering speedy delivery and charge accounts so mom’s lithium ’script never ran out. And the liquor store was right next door to the drug store — how convenient? Both were located under what is currently the Hannah’s Bridge sign.
The Big Bear Super Market (“The Thrifty Store That Saves You More!”) anchoring this retail daisy-chain wasn’t just air-conditioned in the summer; it was refrigerated, a veritable meat locker. As soon as bare feet hit that store’s frosty Formica floor, you were engulfed in bone-chilling frigidity, no matter how hot it got outside.
Every purchase at Big Bear earned shoppers a scratch-off ticket listing three horses competing in three races in that Saturday’s 6 p.m. broadcast of Off To The Races on WFMY. If one of your designated nags came in first, you got $100; place and show netted a few bucks or S&H Green Stamps. Every week there was a fresh list with dozens of local winners posted.
Despite original tenant Scruggs Florists closing very recently, there is some comforting continuity. For instance, Head Hunter Salon has been styling and profiling in the same location for an impressive 50 years.
Surprisingly, there is one remaining original tenant from 1949: Lawndale Drive-In, by far the oldest bar in Greensboro, once a popular watering hole for Irving Park businessmen wishing to avoid country club stuffiness. This was affectionately known in those days as Mrs. Mac’s, referring to owner and barkeep Bernice McCloskey, whose husband founded this saloon in 1942 in a more rural setting before relocating here seven years later. After his untimely death, she became LDI’s proprietress.
Lawndale Drive-In was a happy hour bar then and it still is, only open from 4–10 p.m. on weekdays, longer hours on weekends. I vividly recall wandering past this joint en route to Crutchfield-Browning as a youngster, oftentimes to pickup Mother’s tampons and other icky stuff (how embarrassing!). Seemed like that barroom door was always open, the afternoon sun illuminating an unbroken row of men seated at the bar. I wondered then, “Can you make money doing that?”
My last visit was some 20 years ago, but what I discovered on a recent visit to Lawndale Drive-In is a proper but casual dive bar, populated primarily with long-time regulars who made this stranger feel welcome. A back patio was added in the 2000s when the place changed hands, but not much else is different from back in the day. LDI’s grandfathered-in decor and weathered wooden bar lends an air of warmth to the surroundings. More importantly, the beer is served refreshingly ice cold.
Is there more comfort in familiarity than in any contempt that it might breed? Looking back, a wealth of memories are triggered by Sach’s Shoe Store, G.I. 1200 surplus store, Sports & Hobbies Unlimited, Lawndale Music House, Warren’s Toyland, Piedmont Jewelers and Straughan’s Book Shop.
Well into the 1990s, randos could be found guzzling Thunderbird in what was left of the woods between Lawndale and Branch Court. There’s hardly a tree surviving today. And so what if pedal pushers and penny loafers have given way to hookahs and THC dispensaries? Lawndale Shopping Center remains to this day a disparate collage of locally owned enterprises, precisely as it always has been for three quarters of a century now. OH
Billy Ingram wishes to dedicate this article to the late Linda Spainhour Cummings, a very talented artist and poet who will be fondly remembered at Page High’s 50-year reunion of the class of ’74.