Sunday, November 3, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Classic Main Street Department Store Closes, Leaving Nostalgia Behind


SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. - As Bobby Vinton tunes played, Kenyon's sales clerks hand-cranked oversized cash registers, ringing up sales with a cha-ching that could be heard back in the curtained dressing cubicles.

"That's music to my ears," one man told sales clerk Pat Lund.

A few days later, after 140 years, the music came to an end. At the end of October, Kenyon's, one of the last of the old-fashioned Main Street department stores, closed for good.

No longer will customers walk up two wooden steps onto hardwood floors and be greeted by merchandise displayed on tables and by sales clerks who figure tax in their heads and write out receipts in longhand.

Owner Carol Kenyon Hazlehurst, whose great-great-grandfather William Kenyon opened the store, says her two sons have their own careers and don't want to take on what she calls the store's "terrible burden." And, at 55, she wants to enjoy an active retirement with her husband.

A Wal-Mart that opened 20 minutes away didn't help. Clerk Tina Taylor, 79, is convinced that was the store's undoing.

"Too much competition," says Taylor, all business in a navy suit.

The original Kenyon's opened in a building a few doors down from the current store, which since 1891 had been housed in a wooden, Queen Anne-style building with a brick foundation and glass display windows.

On the main floor, stacked on tables and shelves, were men's shirts, women's sweaters and socks. Customers could rent a tuxedo - or just daydream about the past.

"They sat and they roamed and they whistled and they sang to the songs. It was kind of folksy," Lund recalls.

The bargain basement was reached by a wide wooden stairwell just inside the front door. Flour sifters, bottled rust remover and lamp shades were among the household goods that shared the sales floor with clothing and underwear - the plain kind.

While the merchandise stayed much the same for more than 100 years, Lund says she noticed fewer customers over the years.

Kenyon's stayed proudly the same, though. On the wall of the men's department were framed yellowed newspapers with headlines, "Hurricane Kills At Least 125" and "Briton, Hitler Confer; Czech Cabinet Falls" on Sept. 22, 1938, from the former Evening Bulletin of Providence.

The silver dome of a hat-stretcher sat on the high, oak clerk's counter, waiting to expand shrunken wool into shape after rain. Such hats have gone the way of the blue book, a ledger in which longtime customers could charge goods and pay later.

A steady stream of customers on a recent day perused clothing, 10 percent off before the closing.

"In a little town like this, you depend on a store like this," said Isabelle Langdon, 80. "I'm going to miss it."

Another shopper said she made an annual pilgrimage to Kenyon's, even though she found few clothes in her petite size.

"I loved the quaintness of it," said Lisa Deignan, 32.

The nostalgic browsers' loss is the local hospital's gain. Hazlehurst is giving the three-story building to South County Hospital, which her grandfather co-founded and where she is on the foundation board.

The hospital plans to open a medical supply store, keeping the ambience of Kenyon's by including the chest-high oak desks, cash registers and the sign outside.

That leaves Hazlehurst satisfied that the store's presence will remain for the business district of Wakefield, a village that began when William Kenyon bought 100 acres and donated the dirt streets.

"Time goes on," Hazlehurst says. "I don't really know if it's progress.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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