1979 Crash Hurried Magic Mart's End

by Jack Whitsett  on Monday, Mar. 31, 2014 12:00 am  

Sam Grundfest was handed the keys to the first Sterling store in 1921. For better or worse, the 2,500-SF variety store in El Dorado was defaulted to him as sole payment for a bad debt.

Grundfest, just out of the U.S. Army and new to the business world, had come to Arkansas from his native Mississippi to serve at Camp Pike in North Little Rock. He wasn’t quite sure what to do with the store.

So he called his 20-year-old brother, Dave.

The two began opening variety stores in various small Arkansas towns, and in 1927 the young company established a beachhead in Little Rock with a store at Capitol and Center streets. The store remains today, the only location left bearing the Sterling name, though it is owned by Duckwall-Alco.

The two eventually spread Sterling stores beyond Arkansas, and at its peak, the chain ran variety stores in Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Texas and Tennessee.

Variety, or “five and dime,” stores represented something new on America’s retailing frontier, bringing together goods formerly sold in separate locations and selling them at competitive prices — the supercenters of their day.

Most Arkansas towns large enough to have a town square boasted a Sterling store on one corner, selling fabrics, thread, housewares, toys and clothes, and smelling of fresh popcorn.

As the business grew, so did the stature and influence of the brothers. Active in numerous civic organizations, the Grundfests took an interest in politics as well. Letters from both are preserved with the papers of Sen. J. William Fulbright in the Special Collections Division of the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville.

In a 1952 letter scribbled on four sheets of stationery from the Albert Pike Hotel in Little Rock, Sam Grundfest revealed plans to symbolically nominate Fulbright for president at the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

Dave Grundfest Sr. wrote Fulbright aide Lee Williams in September 1968 offering to make a short speech, possibly a television commercial, supporting Fulbright.

“Here is a one-minute presentation about which I spoke to you,” Grundfest wrote. The letter was typewritten on Grundfest’s personal stationery. “Hope that you understand I am not trying to get into the act. All I want to do is help Bill get re-elected.”

Driven by Dave Grundfest’s boundless enthusiasm — “Who — who but you is the most important person in the whole STERLING organization? Nobody ... not even me,” was a typical message employees would find with their paycheck — the chain eventually included about 100 variety stores.



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