Waco residents of a certain age may remember Gladys’ Bookstore at 710 Austin Ave., which was operated by Gladys Strakos, though truth be told her orange-and-white tabby, Wallie, ran the place when not lounging in the storefront window.
Strakos, who turned 90 on Tuesday, made ends meet well before business activity started growing downtown again. There were no fluttering red banners proclaiming “Austin Avenue District,” no streetside maps to navigate points of interest, no Jake’s Texas Tea House, Hey Sugar or Simply Irresistible.
And the centerpieces of Magnolia Market at the Silos were simply aging, rusting relics.
Strakos moved downtown in 1992, taking a vacant space at 719 Austin Ave. Two-and-a-half years later, she moved right across the street. She and other merchants were hopeful the new state office building at Eighth Street and Austin Avenue, in the renovated Raleigh Hotel, would create a crowd.
Their appetite was further whet by the Veterans Affairs Regional Office’s move from Valley Mills Drive to Seventh Street and Clay Avenue near downtown.
“We were told it would be good down here, with the state and VA,” Strakos told the Tribune-Herald then. “But they don’t support us.”
Strakos turned the page in 2001, closing Gladys’ Bookstore for good.
What has happened to Austin Avenue and its environs the past two decades became a topic of conversation Tuesday. Strakos, smartly dressed and wearing her signature turquoise jewelry, sorted paperwork while sitting in a Honda Odyssey’s middle row. She was about to embark on a weekly mission, to deliver Meals on Wheels lunches to the clients on her list.
First of all, she sadly confirmed, Wallie “is deceased.” Yes, she once confessed to the Tribune-Herald, more people came to her shop to spoil Wallie than to stock up on murder mysteries, biographies and works of fiction.
Strakos said she enjoys watching anything on TV and loves to cook at all hours. She figures she has been volunteering at Meals on Wheels more than a decade and relishes the opportunity to make life better for others. She gets her hair done on Thursdays, friend Nancy Cagle giving her a lift.
It was Cagle also driving the van parked Tuesday at the Meals on Wheels parking lot at Fifth Street and Waco Drive. The Meals on Wheels staffers were a beehive of activity, toting lunches to waiting cars and making small talk with regulars and visitors parked and ready to carry out their charitable duties.
Cagle, 80, said she and her late husband, Charles Cagle, were walking their North Waco neighborhood years ago and encountered a very unhappy Strakos sobbing on her front porch. They struck up a conversation, then a friendship, all the while encouraging Strakos to get involved in this or that activity.
She has been a Meals on Wheels devotee quite some time.
“I don’t think she was used to her husband being gone,” Cagle said, recalling the emotional occasion that brought together her family and Strakos.
Strakos’ late husband, Ben, was a longtime employee of the Tribune-Herald who later repaired furniture in a shop above Gladys’ Bookstore.
Today the stretch of Austin Avenue the bookstore once occupied serves as home to Waco Winery Tasting Room and Rooftop Patio, Pura Vida Facelogic and Elite Day Spa and an eclectic shop called Twisted Sisters Shoetique.
Colt Kelly, with Kelly Realtors, said more development is bound for the 700 block of Austin Avenue, above these ground-level tenants. He is offering about 3,000 square feet of commercial space for lease and is finalizing marketing material.
“We hope to stir up something soon,” Kelly said.
Lisette Medina, who was staffing Twisted Sisters on Wednesday, said foot traffic again is gaining momentum following a pandemic-induced lull.
Medina grew up in Hewitt, spent more than a decade in Chicago, then returned to discover a Waco she hardly recognized. Young people on light-blue scooters cruise Austin Avenue, vehicular traffic is plentiful, and women taking “girls’ trips” from Austin, Dallas and Houston stop to browse.
She said the transformation of downtown in just a few years is remarkable. The change since Strakos sold books at 710 Austin Ave. is unbelievable.
“It’s not the same,” Strakos said, remembering familiar faces on frequents visits to her shop.
Whether she is impressed by the change, she did not say.
She was driven by Magnolia Market at the Silos on one occasion. What she saw is nice, she said, but closer inspection was out of the question. Strakos remains spunky, but lacks mobility. She remained seated in the vehicle during stops Tuesday, with Cagle executing the legwork.
Cagle’s not complaining, saying Strakos’ presence adds spice to the mix.
No shrinking violet, Strakos more than once Tuesday suggested strongly to Cagle that it was time to get the Odyssey rolling, that hungry clients were waiting. Cagle reminded her that the Meals on Wheels crew was not quite finished sorting and loading the meals bound for East Waco.
Strakos’ packet included a “Happy Birthday” message from the staff.
Friends from Houston would arrive later to wish her well. Strakos is generally healthy, but did undergo a heart-related procedure last October.
“I don’t feel 90 years old,” she said, eyeing her card.