It was a common scene in the mid-20th century: while shopping downtown, stopping at a peanut shop for a little bag of freshly roasted peanuts.
Peanut shops started appearing in America’s downtowns in the 1930s, and most of them were built by the Planters Peanut Company. My hometown of South Bend, Indiana boasted one in the thick of the shopping district on Michigan Street, the town’s main thoroughfare. Planters got out of the retail business in 1961 and sold many of its stores to their operators. South Bend’s store was among those, but it held on for only another dozen years, give or take.
I passed by a handful of times. I was very young, so my memories are dim, but I’ll never forget the delightful but almost overpowering scent of freshly roasted peanuts that radiated for easily 30 feet from the front doors. I also remember the peanut-filled windows being at eye level. What a marvel! I stood on my toes trying to see over the nuts.
I think I remember being inside once. I definitely remember seeing the peanut roasters in this picture. If we went in, it would have been on one of a small handful of days when Mom took my brother and I downtown on the city bus. I think Mom was trying to give us some connection to the good lifestyle available during South Bend’s better days. She grew up downtown and always told stories of shopping there, especially at Christmas when Michigan Street was decorated for blocks and the department stores’ windows were filled with festive holiday displays.
Mom could see that downtown South Bend was in decline. As was happening all over the country in the early 1970s, shopping was moving to strip centers and enclosed malls at the edges of town, and downtown was scrambling – and failing – to remain viable. Historic buildings in downtown South Bend became unable to sustain tenants, fell into decay, and were systematically demolished.
In an ill-advised attempt to stanch the hemorrhaging, in the mid-1970s South Bend closed busy Michigan Street (which was US 31 then) to motor vehicles and turned it into a pedestrian mall. It didn’t work. More businesses closed and more buildings were lost. In the background of this photo, you can see the Indiana Bell building under construction, a rare boost for downtown during a time of decay.
I suppose the Peanut Shop relied on impulse buys – who could resist the wonderful scent as they passed by? I’m sure falling pedestrian traffic is what killed The Peanut Shop.
Most of my downtown memories of the corner where The Peanut Shop stood involve the building in this photo. Michigan Street was restored to limited vehicular traffic 15 or 20 years ago, thank goodness, when the failed pedestrian mall was removed. Retail sales are said to have immediately gone up in the few shops that survived that disastrous experiment. Some new businesses have moved in, notably the South Bend Chocolate Company and its Chocolate Cafe, which a favorite place for me to stop for coffee when I visit town.
This 2011 Google Street View image shows the Indiana Bell building (now the AT&T building) complete, as it has been for 40 years. But the demolitions haven’t ended – the former Avon Theater, a 1920s movie house at left in the photo, was demolished last year.
Even though the peanut-shop era has been over since the 1970s, a few incredibly tenacious shops remain across the nation. See some of them here.
Except for the Google Street View photo, I found the rest of these photos on a Facebook page about South Bend.