Melinda Leibinger stood in a cloud of dust, feet planted on the tumble of debris, arms cradling chipped and chalky bricks. Her husband, Len, moved around a rubble pile, picking up small pieces of what used to be the Missoula Mercantile, examining them, then tossing them back or adding them to his wife's collection. All around, people were doing the same.
"I want them all," Leibinger said, her gaze sweeping over the multiple mounds of brick heaped across the Firestone building parking lot.
Back when she was eight, or maybe nine, Leibinger recalls standing on the second floor of the Mercantile, gazing down at the people on Higgins as she shopped with her mother. The building had "a smell to it," she said, "a creak to it." To see that memory torn down was sad. So, like hundreds of other Missoulians who turned out May 14 for Home ReSource and ZillaState Realty's Merc brick giveaway, Leibinger vowed to take a piece of it with her.
Those picking over the wreckage or standing in line to get a brick with a commemorative plaque attached all had similar stories. Diane Powell's mother used to drag her to the Bon Marche as a child. Vicky Erhart's brother Ben worked there as a stockboy in the 1970s. Marcy Mickey held down a job at Macy's before it closed.
"It's sad to see a part of Missoula's history being torn down," Mickey said, the front of her coat covered in brick dust. "It's cool they got to save the pharmacy part of the building."
Though that was the plan, it remains to be seen whether the pharmacy building will survive. The day after the brick giveaway, the roof and second story floor of the pharmacy began to sag, raising concerns of a collapse and prompting the closure of a portion of Higgins Avenue. The pharmacy was still standing as of press time.
Sunday also happened to be Mother's Day, a coincidence that wasn't lost on Catherine Rose. Rose's memories of the treasured downtown space are inescapably tethered to her mother, who wore Chanel No. 5 and reveled in regular trips to the Merc.
"She passed away in 1998 of breast cancer," Rose said as she clutched a single brick. "That's what the memory holds for me getting dragged to the Mercantile to go shopping with my mother."
Loitering on the nearby street corner, Bonnie Leifer, her husband, Tim, and friend Mark Van Loon considered themselves lucky. Bonnie had heard something about a brick giveaway, but hadn't known the details. It was "serendipitous," Tim says, that they happened to walk by on their way to get coffee.
As sunshine turned to sleet and back to sunshine, the trio lingered, eating ice cream and sharing their fears about the changing face of Missoula. "Once it starts going to glass and metal buildings, the modern stuff," Bonnie said, bricks at her feet, "that doesn't have much soul."