Mr. Donut, Small's, Gasen Drugs -- wish they were still here

For the Belleville News-DemocratApril 6, 2014 

It's natural to be a bit sentimental during the city of Belleville's 200th birthday this year.

I've seen a lot change in the city, and have seen a few places not change at all.

Friday's South on South Illinois Street is pretty much the same place, inside and out, that we used to hang out in the late 1970s.

I always feel good every year when I see the Skyview Drive-In has opened for another season.

Belleville's bicentennial has made me think about some of my personal favorite places in town that I wish were still here today for the big party:

Mr. Donut/West Main Street

Late at night, you could get three jelly doughnuts for a dollar. On really special nights, you could talk baseball with owner, the late Van Smith, in his white apron, white flour on his face and hair.

Just up West Main Street in west Belleville was another favorite -- Bert's Chuckwagon -- where you could get three infamous tacos for 99 cents.

The 1970s were great time to grow up for so many reasons. Safety. Security. Great music. No haircuts. Another is the price and availability of really good, late-night food.

Small's/Downtown

Where every salesman made you feel like a hundred bucks even if your new suit and shoes cost only $59.99. Ben's Crafts and Floral is located there now. Occasionally, when Iwalk through the building, I think about a bigsale on sweaters or overcoats.

Westhaven Golf Course

It was the perfect nine-hole course, located behind the swimming pool and Elk's Lodge. Close to home. No matter how badly you played, you were done in two hours or less. Fore! I'm just glad one of those wild tee shots into the pool area never hurt anyone.

Grant's Department Store/Bellevue Park Plaza

As a small kid growing up in East St. Louis,we'd climb in the white station wagon and drive east along an immaculate West Main Street. Halfway to the big fountain, we'd reach Bellevue Park Plaza on the left. We always stopped at Grant's. The store always smelled new. Next stop: McDonald's, if we had behaved on our drive "up the hill."

Ricco's

Located at 317 W. Main, which is now the home of Lutheran Child and Family Services of Illinois. Ricco's was a small nightclub where some of the best bands in the St. Louis area played. We were in high school but we'd sneak in the back door to hear quality bands like Arrow Memphis and Full Moon Consort.

Lame Duck Records

Maybe my favorite job of all-time. The store was located in Carlyle Plaza on the east end of town and then moved to Bellevue Park Plaza on the west end. While in college, I worked in a record store and listened to music, very loudly. Yes, vinyl albums. I still have crates of them in the basement. I remember when Springsteen's "The River" came out. We played that album so loud it shook the store's glass front windows.

Don Kaffer's, 17th & West Main

They had some great fried chicken at that old burger place. What I remember most was the Piggly Wiggly grocery store behind it where the video store is today. Piggly Wiggly. What a great name for a good store.

English's

Located at the top of the Edgemont Hill on the west end of town. My mom loved their fish sandwiches. I always figured it was as close to Ireland as I'd ever get. I once met wrestler Andre the Giant there. He had a few plates in front of him on the bar with at least a dozen large pieces of fried fish on it. I remember Andre had the biggest head of any man I've ever met.

My second favorite fish sandwich came from the old Lyle Fischer's Tavern, on the corner of North Virginia and East Main Street. No better place to watch a University of Illinois game than Lyle's.

Stag Brewery

I was always proud that Stag was brewed right here in Belleville, with pure "Richland Creek water." That was not true, of course, but it sure sounded good until you visited Richland Creek.

Gasen Drugs

There was a store on the east end (Carlyle Road) and west end (6400 West Main) of town. There was a pharmacist there that I used to enjoy dropping in on. Small man. Mustache. Really dry sense of humor. Big sports fan. Took him lunch occasionally. From Mr. Donut. Or Bert's Chuckwagon. He was my dad.

There are so many others. Dollus Brothers. The Hitching Post. Cadillac Bob's. Sav-Mart. Mallo's Bakery. Western Auto. Shop-n-Save. Tom's Deli. The Elevator. Derby Inn.

We all have our favorites. We can't bring them back. But occasionally, when I walk through Ben's Crafts and Floral, I think about buying a Navy blue, double-breasted blazer at Small's.

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