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April 15, 2024

The Lives of Stores

By Dan Mulhollen

If one were to spend several years away from their childhood neighborhood, the first thing they'd notice upon returning would be the changes to the stores. The beloved old candy store of their youth might now be a tavern, and the pharmacy where they nervously made their first "grown-up" purchase, be it a bottle of wine or pack of condoms, has unexpectedly become a day-care center. Another few years and these stores might change again -- or be gone completely.

The neighborhood where I grew up was typical of sudden growth that happened in many American cities around 1900. Immigrants were flooding into the United States and investors were buying up the farmland just annexed by the city. Whole neighborhoods were being built in a very short time. Cars were rare, and most people shopped near their home. So there were many small stores built in these new neighborhoods.

Typically a four-way intersection would have a store on each corner. There would invariably be a small grocery store, a bakery, and a bar; the three essentials back then. The fourth corner might have anything from a butcher shop to a stationary shop.

This pattern continued well into the 1960s, although by then this was already an anachronism. Most people had cars. Supermarkets had been built and were only a few minutes drive away. And pharmacies, which had once sold mainly health and grooming products had expanded to carry much of what had been sold in the smaller shops.

The grocery store on the corner near my house continues to be something of a grocery store. It still has the carbonated beverages and snack foods it always has. However most of the other groceries are gone; replaced by a larger selection of beer. When I was very young, the counter was in the rear of the store, definitely a vestige of a bygone era. Now the owner sits in something of a fortress; bullet-resistant glass separating him from the customer.

The bakery had a good assortment of normal bakery items and traditional Polish baked goods. In the late 1960s the also began selling excellent tasting pizza (somewhat ironic for a Polish bakery). Eventually it went out of business and after being vacant for a few years was turned into a beauty parlor, which it remains to this day.

The bar went out of business by the mid-1960s (there were two others within a five minute walk, and probably a dozen within a ten minute walk). For many years the storefront remained abandoned until destroyed by fire (the owner was later convicted of having paid to have the fire set). Eventually a couple new houses were built on the site, but being on the corner of a "changing" neighborhood proved difficult to sell.

The old card and gift shop remains. Yet from the many empty shelves, and memories of what it once was, it is difficult to walk out of there without getting the feeling that its golden days are long passed.

If you walk further down the street, you'll see storefronts that once sold Catholic school uniforms, tiny grocery stores, and hobby shops now converted into rec rooms.

There once was a poultry shop nearby. You'd walk in, select a live chicken, turkey or duck, and while you waited, the bird would be killed, plucked, beheaded, and gutted (in probably that order), then handed to you neatly wrapped in white paper. That is now a three-car garage.

In the 1980s it was decided libraries needed a drive-thru window. The old library, that had that wonderful old book smell, became a medical clinic. A used car lot was purchased and the new library built there. The computerized book index may be more efficient, but personally I miss the old card catalog.

Pharmacies went through the same transformation. There are four pharmacies within a ten minute walk of where I live. Only one of those lacks a drive-thru window -- and that building used to house a supermarket. The rest are all new buildings, although annoyingly similar with their boxlike shape and corner entrances.

While funeral parlors usually remain as such, those that don't can have an interesting afterlife. Many become homes, although with the large rooms, high ceilings, and often telling exterior features, considerable remodeling is necessary to make these "homey". Another became a pizza parlor after that establishment's original building was destroyed by fire. I never ordered from there, for some reason.

However even location and reputation might not be enough prevent change. A large bank once occupied the building at the most important intersection in the neighborhood. Eventually (possibly around 1929) it became a department store, which it remained until the early 1970s. It then became a second-hand hubcap store, which it remains to this day. Talk about how the mighty have fallen.

I sometimes think of how the neighborhood was originally. A slower, calmer time when most everything one could need -- clothing, food, entertainment -- was all in walking distance. Most everything else was a short trolley ride away.

Then I remember past holiday seasons; the crowded malls, long lines, and the battle to stave off panic attacks ... This year, I did almost all my shopping online; no hassles, no anxiety ... Perhaps, in some odd way, we have come full-circle.

-- Daniel Mulhollen

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-01-22
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