Main Street, U.S.A.

Round Rock = Small Town, Texas?

With its high lime- stone walls and cozy low-porticoed storefronts, Main Street in Round Rock -- particularly the length between Mays and Sheppard Avenues -- verily shouts Small Town, Texas. But murmuring beneath are whispers intimating that this might not be what it seems. You can tell from the artful arrangements of yaupon on the traffic island, the styles of the cars and the cut of the men's suits, as well as from the number of cars, and suits, and mobile phones in use on this deliberately sleepy main drag, that this is no small-town yokelville.

Most of us, when we moved to Austin from somewhere else -- as most of us did -- likely had no idea that Round Rock was anything but a late-model suburb, sprung like Plano from the prairies as a slice of post-modern America incarnate. It is surprising to think that anything there is more than a century old. But here we are, amidst buildings first erected in the 1870s, when Round Rock moved east to meet the railroad; the original townsite lies less than a mile away, where the Chisholm Trail crosses Brushy Creek, a confluence still marked by the circular stone outcropping that gives the town its name, with spotlights trained on it at night.

What of old Round Rock? The Chisholm Trail historic district has the requisite olde-towne street signs, but they point the way to vacant properties and for-sale signs, bowed lanes of vintage dog-trots, sheds, and Sunday houses being peddled in the booming Williamson County real estate market. The Main Street drag itself -- with its own nostalgic signage that confusingly (until you know the above bit of history) dubs the commercial district "New Town" -- does not look quite as forlorn, although there are some empty storefronts. Poke around a little, and you get the sense that the heart of Round Rock is poised for some sort of transformation. Into what has yet to be determined.

The diversity of commerce on Main Street is fairly remarkable given the complete transformation of Round Rock from cattle-trail way station to booming high-tech edge city. A sign shop, two small realty offices, a gun and knife shop, the Longhorn Title Company, a print shop, Mexican and American specialties at El Matador. A toy store, the Round Rock Civic Center in all its parts, a man who does nothing but change flat tires, Rubio's Family Grocery that's been there since the Flood, a storefront church, an expired ladies' boutique with placards in the windows giving thanks to Round Rock.

And an antique store, and another antique store, and another, and another. Travelers through Central Texas' small-town downtowns might think there was some massive statewide grant program for vendors of antiques and collectibles, or that owners got tax breaks for filling old commercial properties with weatherbeaten Hoosier cabinets, "Nixon's the One!" buttons, carved images of barnyard fowl, and things that smell like potpourri. There are far greater evils in the world, of course, than freeing people of their disposable income, and nothing evil at all about making a living in small business or finding meaning in the past (most of the furniture in my house comes from places like these). And these latter-day Main Street tenants deserve credit for liberating the buildings on the main drag from the shackles of late-Sixties stucco and Speed-Crete.

Sue Walsh, along with husband Jim, owns the Main Street Mercantile, housed in what was originally a dry goods store, and then -- after being burnt out to the bare walls -- the home of two different banks since 1927. Bank No. 2 went under in the 1980s, and the building has cycled between FDIC receivership, a short-lived print shop, and the present emporium, in business under the Walshes since January 1.

Expectedly, Sue Walsh -- a brassy woman with enough vim and vigor to be cast in revivals of Hello, Dolly! and The Unsinkable Molly Brown -- is bursting with bright ideas for the place, especially to highlight the heritage of the well-restored bank building and of the street itself. The old loan officer's booth and the vault itself, complete with steel door, are sublet by individual vendors, as is typical, but Walsh would like to restore them to their proper appearance, proposing a display of Round Rock memorabilia in the vault. She doesn't have to look far for source material -- husband Jim is a fourth-generation Round Rocker who grew up on a ranch five miles out, now turned into suburban dream homes. "My mother-in-law will meet people out there and tell them they live in her back pasture," Walsh says.

Main Street's commercial heyday was back before the first boom, when most of Round Rock's few citizens lived on such ranches, when school district taxes made owning large stretches of scrub and low pasture financially impractical. Even back in 1976, when Sue Walsh first moved to town, "it was a tiny little town -- that was the only stoplight," she says, pointing to the corner of Mays and Main. "We had one grocery store and no traffic; I moved here from Houston, and it was like being let out of prison. Now it's totally changed."

These changes have given downtown Round Rock an identity crisis. Even though there is still commerce there, and an adjoining residential district that's both occupied and in good shape, it no longer serves the needs of the people of Round Rock, who can jam down 620 to Lakeline Mall and a host of strip centers, or do the same along I-35. Walsh concedes that most of her business, and that of other antique shops on Main Street, comes from people outside Round Rock or "from newcomers to Round Rock who didn't even know Main Street was here," she says. "I think a lot of new Round Rock people don't think about downtown very much, and we want to change that."

Then again, Walsh adds, the folks at the water department didn't know it was there either, even though their offices are less than a block away. Nor has the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce -- officed in an old homestead two blocks down -- conveyed to downtown merchants much in the way of a planning or economic strategy for Main Street, though they can tell you exactly where Sam Bass was shot dead. "They did give a grant to the Downtown Business Association to produce our spring event," says Walsh, referring to the upcoming "Daffodil Days" extravaganza, with 30,000 flower bulbs slated to bloom on cue, like azaleas at the Masters, along the newly forged "trail of daffodils." "But we feel, or at least I feel, that the Chamber is primarily interested in big industry."

Round Rock likes to call itself "the quality-of-life capital of Texas," and city fathers and boosters take pride in the "quaint" atmosphere of downtown. The word is used freely in booster literature, and it implies a carefully cultured environment that goes heavy on Main Street USA ambience, much as Salado and Wimberley and Fredericksburg have done to convert their fading old business districts into tourist dynamos.

For years, for reasons a lot bigger than Main Street, in Central Texas as elsewhere, the Main Street USA trip has seemed the only viable economic future for ranch towns grown redundant. (There is an actual organization by that name that consults with small towns, Round Rock among them, on design and development guidelines for best conveying quaintness and charm.) But now Austinites have clicked into the fact that we live not in a city but a metro area -- as evinced by the who-da-thunk-it story in a recent Statesman about how Austin's suburbs were poised to exceed the city in population. And the concept of regional planning, of a metro area being a web of interdependent towns rather than a bullseye with two rings, Us and Them, seems more appropriate here (or maybe we just think so because Portland does it). And within such a framework, places like downtown Round Rock have more use and value than as nexial points between the desiccated present and the commodified past.

For at least one merchant on Main Street, the notion of downtown Round Rock as a town center serving local needs while still being part of Greater Austin is more than just a planner's rubric. If there were no New Round Rock, there would be no Saradora's, a coffeehouse, art space, and youth hangout on the corner of Mays and Main. Yet what makes Saradora's charming is its palpable relationship to the Old Round Rock, the loving restoration that owner Sarah Roberts spent a year performing on the building, within which her schedule of live music and poetry readings, her imported objets d'art and original oils from local artists on the walls, her espresso specialties and bento boxes seem perfectly natural.

In other words, Sarah Roberts has opened a typical Austin coffeehouse, except that it's in Round Rock. "They need a place like this here," she says. "There was no place to wash your hands, change your baby, have coffee. There was no place where people could simply meet and gather and have a public forum." (At least if you want to eat something other than fried frozen food or prefer a smoke-free environment.)

Yet Roberts -- a mother of three and eight-year Round Rocker, part Florentine angel, part Mercedes MacCambridge in Giant -- has more in mind than filling a market niche. "It followed from personal reasons -- for eight years I drove the roads to Austin every day, but I wanted to find happiness in my own backyard," she says. (Or at least on her own street -- she lives in the old residential quarter further up Main.) "I wanted to open a place where I had everything that was important to me, and part of that is being right in the middle of everything... My kids walk to school and walk here after school; I needed to be more centralized and have that be my lifestyle."

In other words, Sarah Roberts wanted to live in a small town. Now that Round Rock and Austin have met, it's small wonder that their cultures have done likewise. Clearly, Roberts has found a niche; Saradora's is not only doing a lot of business, but a lot of repeat business. Her live music and poetry happenings, in particular, have been a hit with Round Rock's younger crowd -- Roberts recounts one couple coming in "because it was their anniversary, and they just wanted to be around kids now that theirs had left home.

"I want people to feel that anyone can find what they need here; I don't want older people to feel out of place, and we are starting to see a more mature crowd. But when we first started, I had to ask one mother I know what kids in Round Rock did before I opened, since they all seemed to be here. She said they rented videos."

Roberts is quite optimistic about a future that integrates Main Street USA with what, in her view, downtown Round Rock is actually becoming -- a progressive neighborhood a la Central Austin. "There's a lot of community pride around here, and people feel very comfortable," she says, noting that downtown residents battled successfully to expand the current close-in campuses of Berkman Elementary and C.D. Fulkes Middle School, rather than relocating them (as RRISD had intended) to the suburban zone along 620. "I think some of the newer people, especially, want Round Rock to be autonomous and self-sufficient. They value the difference between people sleeping here and people living here." n

Rita DeBellis also contributed to this story.

Next time: Is there life after Mueller? We'll be starting a series looking at the districts around Robert Mueller Airport, culminating with a look at future development options for the airport property itself.

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