Jerry White, owner of Whitehall Mercantile, says his longtime Route 66 antique store will close within the next few months.
HALLTOWN – Route 66 is more than a road: It’s a collection of unique shops, stops and memory-making characters serving as landmarks along the way. Soon, however, one of those places and faces will be no more.
After more than 30 years of greeting visitors on the Mother Road, Whitehall Mercantile in Halltown is set to shutter.
There are a number of reasons behind the decision to close, says owner Jerry White, who opened the store with his late wife, Thelma, in 1985. One was the building’s ownership status, which has gone into probate after its previous owner passed away.
But more than that, it just seemed like the right time. “It served its purpose,” says White of the store. “I don’t think I could’ve (closed) it in 2010. Too close to her death. And we’ve done all right in the past six years. But I’m feeling the pressure of age.”
White’s shop is housed in a building dating to 1900, which was the town’s grocery store years ago.
While White has more than 30 years of store-bought memories to look back on, his recollections of the town actually go back much further. He grew up around Halltown, and remembers the day when his mercantile was actually the town’s grocery store, complete with pot-belly stove, a post office — and fronted Route 66 during the road’s heyday.
“You had to run like the devil to get across it,” he recalls of Route 66’s busyness in the 1930s and ’40s. “Because (traffic) was so thick. And of course, we told the little kids that we let cars bounce off our chests for exercise.”
A conversation with White is a collection of stories: He contracted Scarlett Fever when he was 12, resulting in complete loss of hearing in one ear. When he went to college, he studied drama. “They sent ‘George’ here from Hollywood to teach me (how to do hair),” says White. “Now don’t ask me why. He was a hairstylist in Hollywood, and he taught me razor cut so that I could style hair for theater.”
He was a minister for more than 50 years. He was a psychometric examiner and an advocate for children. He holds seven lifetime teaching certificates in the state of Missouri. He was in a horrific car accident in 1970 that virtually crushed half of his body, and keeps him in therapy today.
And most of those things were done with his wife by his side, who he met as an undergraduate at Ozark Bible College in Joplin. “She was the number one student,” he says. “So I married her.”
After several moves in subsequent years for teaching opportunities, the couple came back to Halltown — and the farm where White grew up — in 1974. “I was born in the house I live in,” he remarks. “83 years ago.”
A great variety fills White’s shelves.
In 1985, the couple leased the building and opened the mercantile. It was before Route 66’s renaissance began: In fact, the road was completely decommissioned that same year. But it wasn’t long before things began picking up. The business became a frequent stop for tourists, especially those from foreign countries.
Like his customers, White’s stock represents little bit of a lot. Estate sales are primarily where his wares originate: Shelves are filled with marbles, fishing lures, glassware (one set has been in his family for decades), a few pieces of furniture, sheet music, vintage butter molds, and even a stack of Bibles.
There are knives, and framed wall art; a rack full of canes, and Civil War memorabilia. Stacks of vintage license plates and postcards fill the store, which are some of his biggest sellers.
They’re things that attract those traveling Route 66.
“You really only need one good customer a day,” he says. “The girl who comes in and buys 100-some-odd dollars worth of buttons. That’s my customer.”
Whitehall’s longevity has made its owners authorities on Route 66. In fact, in 1990, Thelma White was actually one of the founding members of the Route 66 Association of Missouri. And its presence has resulted in the store’s feature in a variety of documentaries — except one in particular.
“(The producer) called up, and he said, ‘We’re gonna be there at 11 o’clock Sunday morning, and we want you to open the store for us,” recalls White. “I said, ‘Well, I have a previous engagement with God, and I think He’s a little more important than you are.’”
White lost his mention in that project. But, if one takes a look at the VHS tapes of the documentary that he has for sale, he hasn’t forgotten. “These sell for $12 wholesale, and I’m selling them retail for $6.66,” he says with a laugh.
Most people, however, seem to have taken a liking to White.
“I decided that I would tell stories and, you know, entertain (customers) so to speak,” says White. A harmonica player, he’s “blown” guests away with his abilities. He’s told those aforementioned stories — and he’s listened, too.
“One German couple said they sold their house so they could come over here,” he recalls. “You know what I wanted to ask: Where you gonna live when you get home?”
White goes over to a guest book he keeps at the store, listing countries such as Norway, France, China, and Brazil that fill its pages. A sticker from the Dutch Route 66 Association adorns his front window, placed there by a fan of the store — or perhaps of White. After all, even he has framed fan mail for Dr. White (yes, he also has a doctoral degree) from some who’ve stopped by the store and written to him afterwards.
There are the busloads who stop by, and the bicyclists. And, being from foreign countries, there are those who supposedly don’t speak English.
“But they know the word,” he pauses, “discount.”
He recounts the tale of two Australians who decided to skateboard the route, and a woman who stopped by while jogging the entire way. The German father who planned for years to take a Route 66 trip when he was 66. And the man who was walking it, a few miles a day, who wanted to sleep on the store’s porch until 5 a.m. when he’d begin again.
“Weird people,” says White. “I fit right in!”
Want to visit?
White at Whitehall’s.
While White doesn’t have a definite last day for the mercantile, he expects it’ll come around Christmas. The store is currently open by chance: However, if one really wants to shop and he’s not there, his phone number is posted on the store’s front door — just give him a call and he can often come over.