Bennett's Military Supplies opened in 1870, which makes it unquestionably the oldest surviving retail shop in Little Rock.
The fact that Bennett's still exists downtown is nothing short of a miracle, especially when you take into account that Bennett's previous home, across Third Street from the current location on the site of the parking lot directly east of the old Arkansas Gazette building, burned flat in the late 1960s.
Sheree Meyer is the owner of Bennett's, having inherited the business from her father when he passed away in 2003. Her history is threaded through the store. She sold magic tricks from a case at Bennett's when she was 12 years old. She said that the fire that destroyed their original store almost killed the business.
"It was previously a two- or three-story building at the time. Bennett's was on the first floor, and there was a candy company on the second floor. ... One of the [cooking] pots caught on fire, and it turned into a major fire. The whole building burned down. It was pretty devastating for my grandfather and father."
After a move to a storefront in the Fulk Building at the corner of Third and Main, Bennett's came back and has pretty much stayed the same down through the years, selling military surplus and camping gear. More recently, it's expanded into police tactical items, biker leathers, and airsoft guns. Folks who have been going into Bennett's since the days when Meyer's father or grandfather ran the place will notice one significant change, however. After Meyer took over, her first official decision was that the store's dusty window displays had to go.
"My grandfather and dad had a philosophy of, you put everything you sell out in the windows and you leave it there and it never moves," she said. "That was going to be my contribution to a new generation. ... I decided that the interior of the store was pretty much going to stay the same, but those window displays had to be changed."
After clearing out the windows for more modest displays "all hell broke loose," Meyer said, with customers and reporters calling for several days to ask if Bennett's was closing. The business is still there and will be for the foreseeable future. Meyer said that though they may have to relocate temporarily in coming years to renovate the building, "that's kind of projected speculation right now," and it depends on how Main Street revitalization goes.
Asked why Bennett's has stayed on Main all these years even as other businesses left for the 'burbs or disappeared entirely, Meyer said the stories she hears every day from people with fond memories of the store are the reason.
"It's where our roots are," she said. "It's where our customers know we are. It's a comfortable place to be. There was a time when people fled Main Street, but my dad was such a proponent of Main Street and city progress. He really felt like it was where we needed to be."