How One Block In Kansas City's River Market Transformed Before My Eyes: A Father's Day Story
The 400 block of Delaware Street always had charm, but for the longest time, no foot traffic. I know because my dad ran a bookstore there in the 1990s — right before he died.
Near the corner of 5th and Delaware — where the streetcar grinds to a stop and tourists join sweaty crowds darting into pizza shops and ice cream stores — there's a wooden bench with wrought iron legs, bolted to the red brick sidewalk.
That bench has been there as long as I can remember.
In 1995, when this stretch of Delaware was quieter than quiet, I sat on that bench with my dad, looking out at the downtown skyline. It was his favorite view of Kansas City.
When the bookstore we ran together didn't have customers — and we rarely had customers — he used to call me out to join him.
"If you sit right here and look that way," he'd say, pointing to a break in the tree cover revealing the urban vista, "you can pretend you're in a real city."
My dad's attitude was particular, but this was also just how people talked about Kansas City back then: with a serious inferiority complex. This stretch of Delaware is also very different now; it doesn't require much imagination to see its charm.
It's the block with Betty Rae's Ice Cream, where lines stretch around the corner on hot nights, forcing staff to remind people to wait outside instead of crowding in (against the Fire Marshall's orders). There's also the pizza shop, Il Lazzarone, where they've taken to advertising the maximum capacity for sidewalk seating.
And there's Keith Bradley of Made In KC. Bradley sells coffee and local artisan goods out of an old-timey trolley car, parked on what used to be a grass lot. The refurbished vehicle, long-since decommissioned, was added to a block with high demand, no vacancies and unusual amounts of foot traffic.
"Just anecdotally, outside of the Plaza on a busy day... it is one of the densest and most walkable parts of Kansas city by far," says Bradley, who has locations all over the metro.
This was true even in a pandemic. Bradley opened the trolley car location of his business in October 2020, and he has regulars of more than one species.
"Early on, we saw regulars coming with their dogs almost every single morning, so we added some dog treats," he says. "We added a dog vending machine."
A dog vending machine. I can almost hear my dad laughing.
A Chicago native, my dad — a doctor known to close friends as Herbie — never quite felt at home in more suburban corners of Kansas City. He obviously liked things about Kansas City. He raised his kids in Kansas City.
But when people asked where he was from, he didn't miss a beat: "The South Side of Chicago."
My dad's childhood hadn't afforded him many luxuries. I grew up on stories of hunger and eviction. His college and medical school education was covered by the R.O.T.C. in exchange for years of service as an Air Force physician. Otherwise, he might have studied something less practical.
That's where the bookstore entered the picture. It was his retirement fantasy: A place where people could drink coffee, play chess and listen to classical music. His vindication and his reward—the indulgent job he always wanted, after the practical job he needed.
Finding a location for the actual store was difficult, I suspect, because my dad's fantasy probably featured a Chicago street. Very few places in Kansas City offered a setting that matched—and the one he found was semi-deserted.
My Father's Books (yes, that was its actual name) sat in space where Betty Rae's lives now. I used to price books in the dusty space next door—now a clothing boutique called Kate—but no one minded. There was no tenant and the window was papered over; I sat on a lawn chair and brought my own boom box.
In the 1990s, the only other businesses I remember on that Delaware Street block were a kayak store, a Function Junction, and an architecture firm. During the week, our stray visitors were often those who traveled some distance to buy a kayak or canoe; when they came seeking paddles, we'd point them in the right direction.
On weekends, customers stopped by after leaving the farmers' market, mostly for the purpose of using our air-conditioning.
The bookstore only lasted a few years: 1995 until 1999. I was the first employee, dutifully deciding which books were good enough to purchase. The sign on the door, which my dad commissioned, said: "We buy books... if they meet our elitist standards!" Also: "Free coffee!"
I was the last employee, too, moving back from New York just in time for the going-out-of-business sale when my dad died unexpectedly of pneumonia.
I loved that bookstore, but it was a place that didn't make sense without my dad. Closing the store was as close as I got to saying goodbye.
More than two decades later, it's healing to return to this block. That took time, partly because of grief, and partly because the block didn't spring to life immediately. The change came gradually.
The conversation my dad and I used to have on this bench 25 years ago is still happening here all around me.
Now, my companions are my husband and son. We get pizza for dinner and ice cream for dessert. But what I'm really doing is soaking up the scene. I'm people-watching.
Enjoying the music of the crowd.
Happy Father's Day.