Aah, Nuts

At ninety years old, The Peanut Shop offers a piece of Nashville's old Downtown

Picture a sunny but chilly day in Nashville, December 1945. World War II is finally over, and as the first Christmas of the Atomic Age grows near, American life is slowly returning to normal. There are still some last-minute gifts to pick up, so you and the family pile into the Packard and head downtown to Harveys department store on 6th Avenue.

Sleigh bells ring all over town, and after lunch at Harveys’ famous Monkey Bar, the kids want to explore. You walk across the street to The Arcade—an old covered shopping mall built in 1902 and modeled after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II Arcade in Milan, Italy, hidden in plain sight between 4th and 5th Avenues. People in trench coats and felt hats bustle about, coming and going from the post office, Walgreens, and dozens of other storefronts. But the kids cut straight through the crowd, making a beeline for a peanut shop whose warm aroma fills the corridor. They’ve been good all day, you figure, so you buy a big bag of freshly roasted nuts . . . plus a few pieces of hard candy.

Fast forward to December 2017, and much of this idyllic picture remains. Harveys is long gone, cast aside by the likes of Rivergate Mall and Hickory Hollow, but The Arcade lives on—and so does The Peanut Shop. Sleigh bells jingle again as an ancient door squeaks open, and as a man steps through, a friendly voice calls out in greeting: “Hi! How are you today?”

Opened in 1927, The Peanut Shop is one of The Arcade’s oldest-surviving tenants, and every day customers walk in to rekindle fond memories of their youth, chat with owners Kathy Bloodworth and Olivia Swallows, and, of course, find something to satisfy their sweet tooth. The sisters sell nuts roasted right there in the shop, homemade sweets, ice cream, and chocolate-dipped everything, and they occupy a prime spot in the city’s once-again thriving core.

The air inside is a delicious mix of salty and sweet, and the man inhales a deep, luxurious breath while neon lights and antique treasures fight for attention with a large, brightly lit display case. “Can I get a quarter pound of salted cashews?” he says. And after hesitating for just a moment, adds sheepishly, “And maybe one of those peanut butter cups.”

“They love this place,” Swallows says about her customers. “We get it all the time: ‘We’re so glad y’all are still here, we hope you never go anywhere.’ It takes them back.”

From the time it opened through the early ’80s, The Peanut Shop was the place to go for a special treat while shopping downtown. Harveys opened just around the corner on Church Street in 1942 and eventually became a local landmark, drawing thousands of people every week. But as the suburbs sprang up and downtown business fell off, The Arcade—and with it, The Peanut Shop—turned into a desolate, often dangerous place to be.

A native of Goodlettsville, Bloodworth bought the shop in 1989 after a car accident left her unable to keep working for Nissan. At the time there was no indication downtown would make a comeback. Almost everyone told her she was crazy.

“The Arcade was shady back then,” recalls her sister. “My mom used to work downtown, and she’s like, ‘You can’t buy that place.’ She would tell stories about how the pimps would hang out in The Arcade, and when Kathy first bought it there was a knife fight in front of Greek Touch in the middle of the day. So I mean, it was kinda rough . . . But Kathy came in, fell in love with it, and just completely turned it around.”

Incredibly, the store has only been owned by a handful of families in its ninety-year history, and most of the original space remains unchanged. After scrubbing away the tar left behind by decades of cigarette smoke, Bloodworth got to work redecorating, but she kept the antique scales, the custom-built nut roaster, and the official Planters Peanut wallpaper on the ceiling. The wallpaper is a remnant of the store’s past—up until the ’60s the shop was one of two thousand Planters Peanut stores. Today, it’s one of four original Planters stores still in existence.

“It’s not anything fancy at all, but this is what it’s always been,” says Swallows.

Within a few years, things started to get better. The Arcade hired a security firm in the ’90s and local workers returned, and recently it feels like the good old days are back. Now that Nashville’s charm has been “discovered” by the outside world, people are moving back downtown, and tourists line the streets year-round. A giant new skyscraper now sits down the block from where Harveys once was (soon to be filled with potential customers), and over on 4th a boutique hotel is going up.

Business used to evaporate in the afternoon when workers headed home, but now the sisters are busy right through closing time—they’ve even hired two more employees to help. Ten years ago, the shop was lucky if a few CMA Fest fans stumbled in, while today people from around the world seem to seek it out.

“All you gotta say is ‘Let me know if you want to try something,’ and it’s sold!” says Swallows with a laugh.

Likewise, The Arcade itself is once again feeling alive. It fits right in with Nashvillians’ renewed appreciation for locally sourced goods and has the added bonus of letting folks experience an authentic piece of Old Nashville.

“It’s like a little Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood,” Swallows explains. “People are gravitating back to mom-and-pop style everything. I remember the days when we were thinking, ‘Gosh, we should be more like [the mail-order gift service] Harry & David,’ but that’s not who we are. Now I don’t feel like we need to be Harry & David. It’s The Peanut Shop, and people like it.”

Indeed, what was once written off as a curious relic of days gone by is now being embraced for that very same reason. It’s true that Nashville’s future looks brighter than ever, but in saving a small link to its past, the owners of The Peanut Shop have actually helped preserve the city’s soul.

Another group of customers walks in—this time clearly from out of town. The bells and that now-familiar greeting both ring out, and in between “oohs” and “ahhs,” the questions begin. “How old is this place?” “Where do the nuts come from?” “Can I try some of those hot nacho-flavored peanuts?”

As unofficial ambassadors for Nashville’s vibrant downtown history, Swallows and Bloodworth have an answer for them all. The group buys a few things and goes on their way, not even realizing they’ve just become the latest page in a nearly century-long story. All they care about are those bags of roasted goodness in their hands and the smiles on their friends’ faces. And for Swallows, that’s plenty.

 “That kind of stuff makes me feel good,” she says. “When you can make somebody’s day with something from our store, I’m all about it.”

The Peanut Shop is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday.

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