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Diner's items will help Greensboro History Museum tell story of pandemic

Diner's items will help Greensboro History Museum tell story of pandemic

Smith Street Diner (copy)

Beth Kizhnerman at her now closed restaurant, Smith Street Diner, in downtown Greensboro. She closed the popular diner for good in May.

GREENSBORO — When it comes to documenting the history of the coronavirus pandemic, there’s almost nothing the virus hasn’t touched, including the demise of longstanding businesses that could not weather the economic storm the shut-down of the country brought on.

That’s what Beth Kizhnerman was thinking after completing the first of two sales to liquidate Smith Street Diner, a restaurant she had operated for over 15 years.

Kizhnerman decided in May that she could not keep the diner open at the mandated 50% capacity intended to prevent the spread of the virus. So she locked the door.

After selling off worn white service ware, some tables and chairs, even T-shirts bearing the restaurant’s logo, her marketing manager mentioned that the Greensboro History Museum was accepting donations of items to archive for a future exhibit documenting the pandemic’s effect on the city.

Kizhnerman called the museum.

“The diner is important to people,” she said. “It’s part of Greensboro history.”

The diner is just one of many incarnations as an eatery the building on Smith Street has been. Before Kizhnerman took it over, it was a black-owned business called Robinson’s Restaurant. Freida and Roosevelt Robinson operated the restaurant for 23 years serving homestyle cooking not much different from what Smith Street served. Kizhnerman said the building was also once a pharmacy with a lunch counter. She felt it was important for history to note that the storied building had been brought to its knees by the pandemic.

Carol Ghiorsi Hart, director of the Greensboro History Museum, agreed.

“It’s history in the making that people in the future will look back on and try to understand,” Hart said.

The museum took a menu, a table and two chairs, a T-shirt, and even a flyer saying the restaurant was closed due to COVID-19.

“The story of businesses closing due to COVID and other things is a story we want to document,” Hart said.

Hart recognizes the importance of the diner and its loss. The museum has two stools from when the restaurant was Robinson’s. One of those stools may have been one future President Bill Clinton sat on when stopping in Greensboro during his campaign. Smith Street was named one of the South’s Best Diners by Southern Living magazine and one of the 50 Best Diners in the Country by Food Network.

“It was beloved in the community and known for its style of cooking,” Hart said.

Through the History Happening Now initiative greensborohistory.org/history-now, the Greensboro History Museum is asking the community to donate items that reflect the pandemic’s impact. It has extended the solicitation to include items that reflect the recent protests and social unrest, including procuring 30 murals painted on plywood that covered downtown shops after glass was shattered during a protest in May.

“We have contacted a few of the stores in South Elm impacted by closing and looting,” Hart said.

The museum is also turning to everyday people for donations of items and photos that are reflective of the pandemic and social change. Items, such as homemade masks and photos of neighborhood drive-through graduations, are useful in showing the history of this time. The museum is collecting stories on how people are coping with challenges during this time.

“We’re trying to tell the story of our community and the community is the expert. We need the help and participation of anyone in the community,” Hart said.

Hart calls it rapid response collecting.

“We want to make sure we’re not missing things,” she said.

Like the death of beloved business, such as Smith Street Diner, that could not survive the mandated shut down.

“I think it’s important someday when people say ‘I forgot about that place’ or ‘I used to go there all of the time,'” Kizhnerman said.

Contact at 336-373-7145 or at carl.wilson@greensboro.com. Follow on Twitter at Short_OrdersNR and on Facebook.

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