Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Retro Wednesday-High Street

In honor of Gman's birthday today I will follow his lead in a manner and do a Retro Wednesday post. I don't have paraphernalia but I do have memories.

Who among you remembers when shopping was a main street adventure rather than a mall experience? Maybe you grew up in a town with a vibrant downtown. Maybe you were like me and grew up in a smaller place and traveled to town for shopping on High Street. The town we went to was 7 miles away and it was always an event when we drive in, partly because of the the excitement of going to town, partly because we had so many relatives connected to downtown. Of course, in December there was the added fun of seeing all the decorations and visiting Santa's shack.

Often the adventure would start when we arrived in town and went to the newspaper offices to visit Nana, who was telephone switchboard operator there. First of all, it was a thrill to think we could stride right into the offices at such an important place and be ushered around to the desks of so many people to say hello. Second, it was always nice to be greeted excitedly by Nana. There was never a time she didn't squeal with delight to see us. I was also always amazed and impressed by what she did behind her switchboard. It was a huge wall filled with plugs that she'd pull out and push into different spots in order to connect callers to the person they wanted to talk to. She'd be taking calls through her headset and her hands would fly across the board even as she continued to talk to us in between. Between her ability to know where each plug had to go, doing it quickly, keeping up a conversation with us, and knowing how she could whip through a crossword puzzle, the Jumble puzzle, and the Cryptoquip in the paper each day I was sure she was some special kind of genius. On our way out Nana might give us a piece of candy from a bowl on her desk or maybe give my brother and me a little money to spend on a treat when we shopped with Mom.

From the newspaper offices we'd walk the two blocks to where the big action was, High Street. High Street was always an amazing sight to me. Our town's main street was short and narrow, just wide enough for two lanes of traffic and no parking. We had only recently gotten a traffic light at the second end of it. I could easily walk from one end to the other. High Street was longer than I'd want to think of walking as a child and it was wide enough for 3 lanes of cars with parking on both sides. All sorts of stores and shops lines both sides of the street. At one end was the diner. At the other was the library and hospital. My little town had no library or hospital. High Street had to be special to be so big and have so many important sorts of buildings and businesses on it.

Our next stop would be to Mr. Reuben's store where my other grandmother, Mom-mom, worked. It was a small women's clothier. Whether it was Mr. Reuben or Mom-mom who saw us first we'd be greeted warmly. Mom-mom would beam proudly while Mr. Reuben remarked about how my brother and I had grown and ask us how we were doing in school. He always seemed as happy to see us as our grandmother was. Mom-mom would introduce us proudly to anyone else in the shop she knew. Since she had worked in the same shop for 30 years she knew quite a few people. We'd be gathered up in hugs and kisses before heading back onto the street.

A trip to High Street almost always meant a stop at the New York Store. This was a local department store with three whole floors! Now you have to understand to a kid from the country a store that big was most impressive. There was a Sears on High street that was newer and had a bigger floor but even in the Sears customers never left the ground floor. At the New York Store we could explore the ground floor or go down the creaky wooden stairs to the basement or climb to the second floor. The New York Store seemed to have all sorts of things you couldn't find in other places and all sorts of interesting nooks and crannies to explore. Mom would pay for whatever purchases she had there. By then we'd be begging to go to Town Toy.

If the New York Store was impressive for its wide array of wares Town Toy was kid heaven simply because it was the only place I had ever been that was entirely devoted to toys. I couldn't imagine so many toys and here were piles and piles of them all under one roof. Mom usually made us endure whatever other shopping had to be done before we were allowed to enjoy this particularly favored destination.

We didn't get to High Street often so when we did there was usually a visit to the shoe store in order. How many pairs of Buster Browns did we go through in our childhood? I was especially hard on my shoes because my favorite playground apparatus was the swings. When I needed to stop I'd drag my toes in the dirt on each downswing to slow myself. I went through the toes of shoes so fast my mother threatened to buy me steel-toed shoes. I do recall Mom walking me past the work boots on one trip and asking me if that's what I really wanted to wear instead of my pretty shoes. The salesman would measure my feet and bring out boxes of shoes to try on, carefully preparing them before sliding them gently on my feet and squeezing the sides or pinching the toes to see if my foot rested in them properly. I liked the Brannock device. It fascinated me that someone could use this funny metal thing so deftly to know what size shoe I should wear.

After seeing our grandmothers and walking through the New York Store, the shoe store and Town Toy my brother and I were getting tired but there were more places to go and things to see. Fortunately, there was a bus service in town. This was more evidence to me that we were in a big, important place. No buses ran in my little town. My Uncle Duke drove buses for the city so Mom would find his line and we'd take a ride on "Uncle Duke's bus," as if he personally owned it. We always hoped there were seats near the front so we could sit right behind him and watch him closely. It was very impressive that he could maneuver this huge vehicle all around the streets and know where to go. I was sure I'd get lost or crash into something if I had to do his job. It felt good to rest on the bus before Uncle Duke dropped us near to our next destination, the library.

Aside from the toy store my other favorite place was the library. It was so big. I was just amazed that there were so many books in one place. Of course we had a library at school but this was just so much larger and had so many grown ups coming in and out. It had a lovely little children's section that was bigger than the one at school. It made me feel good to know that this building full of grown up books had a special place for kids. I liked that no one hurried me along too. During library day at school we only had so much time to pick a book before we had to line up and I'd always get lost in the stacks trying to decide what I wanted. At the library on High Street I wasn't being rushed. I could take out a bunch of books and look at them before getting more to look at and finally deciding what I wanted to take home. Oh bliss!

By now it was getting late and we had two more stops to make. We'd trudge back from the library and take a small break part of the way when we stopped at great-great Uncle Lloyd's general store. Uncle Lloyd was a tall, thin man with a long, lean, smiling face. The apron he wore at the store and the broom he carried to keep the worn wooden floors clean seemed to mirror his lankiness. He'd owned and run this little store for decades. He was a kind man and gave many a young person their first job. Unfortunately, by the time I was a child his business was waning quite a lot and he was sliding into senility. He was easily taken advantage of by the people he hired who began stealing from him. I prefer to remember his happy smile and the meticulously kept old fashioned store.

After visiting Uncle Lloyd we'd have renewed vigor as dusk was falling and the Christmas lights flickered on up and down High Street. We knew there was one last stop and this was the one we'd most been waiting for, the one we'd pestered Mom about since we'd arrived in town. Up ahead of the side of the main intersection was a red shack with a Christmas tree, a candy cane fence around it, and a tall red and white striped pole. Santa's Shack! We'd get in line for our turn to sit on Santa's lap and have our picture taken. The earlier visit to Town Toy had allowed my brother and me to refine our wish list. When it was finally our turn to go inside and see Santa we were ready. We'd each have our turn then both sit on his knees for the picture before being given a candy cane to take home.

Our trip to High Street was over and we'd head back to the car carrying the day's purchases, books from the library, and sucking our candy canes. During the drive home my mind would swirl with the images of switchboards, city buses, huge libraries and toy stores, creaky wooden floors, doting shop owners, a wide street, and Santa himself....perhaps a sugarplum fairy or two tiptoed in as well...but High Street was special enough when I was little.

Happy Retro Wednesday and Happy birthday, Gman. What retro Christmas memories do the rest of you have?


Cocotte said...

Our downtown had three department stores. We'd go every year just to see the store windows, which had the animated elves, etc. Then we'd visit Santa's Wonderland and get our picture taken with Santa. As a child, it was magical! Santa's Land was dark, full of white, fluffy, sparkly fake snow and all those 1960's style (think Bass/Rankin) characters. Truly the best Christmas memories that I have.

I remember visiting Santa's Wonderland one last time in college with a boy friend and it was still magical!

The last store closed in 1988. Very sad.

VE said...

My childhood memories are blocked out. What a mess! I'm currently living my new childhood and writing those memories in real time... I'm hoping for a Baby Alive doll this Christmas...I'll get it online...

Sheri said...

Wow what a wonderful post. Thank you for writing it.

S said...

We also have a High Street in my town.

And then of course, there's
NO HIGH Street
(north high street)

And its a HUGE joke around here, because all the hippies live on High, and No High is a much more conservative neighborhood....
The HUGEST parties of all in this town are on High Street!

Have a lovely day!

G-Man said...

What a wonderful trip down Memory Lane Trini. You don't need photo's cause your mind paints such a beautiful picture...
Thanks for the Birthday Shout-Out!

Suldog said...

Wow! I adore this post, Lime!

First off, I worked in a shoe store for several months and I never knew it was called a Brannock device. We just called it "The Measurer".

Second, and more important, you dredged up all sorts of wonderful (and impossible to replicate) experiences of my own. Downtown Boston was a wonder, even for a boy who wasn't keen on shopping, back in the day. It is hideous now; closer to a mall than the bustling and exciting place it used to be. They closed some streets to auto traffic, thus making much of the area a place for surly teens, hookers, winos, and other assorted riff-raff to hang out in between meals (or bottles, as the case may be.) My Mom used to dress me in a suit to go shopping there. Now you'd have to dress me in a straitjacket just to get me IN the area.

There used to be so many interesting stores. Now, most of the space has been bought up, chewed, and spit out by Macy's. Jordan Marsh, the biggest department store in Boston, and utterly inconceivable to any kid as someday not being there, is gone. Jordan Marsh was where Santa lived in Boston, in The Enchanted Village. Just say "The Enchanted Village at Jordan Marsh" to any person my age from Boston. You'll see them first get dewy-eyed, and then start to work up a mad because of the way things are now.

Third, you've given me the germ of an idea for my own writing. I wanted to do a new Christmas piece in ten days or so, but wasn't sure what. Now I know. Something to do with The Enchanted Village!

Bless you.

Craver Vii said...

This post got me thinking about childhood memories. Unfortunately my childhood experiences were so bland, that my brain has discarded most of those files. There was something about a big honkin' fire truck and an electric organ that I never learned how to play.

No wait! I remember one! We let Dad sleep in one Christmas morning, and gathered around his bed with ribbons and bows. It was so funny to turn him into one big present.

AndyT13 said...

I am behind on my reading. The deer dressing story was especially....interesting.
I like the dog poop heart too LOL
Retro Xmas stories...
How 'bout the aluminum tree?
Or the crazy fake plastic one?
Xmas lights the size of your fist?
Loopy Holidays!

Anonymous said...

Wow... Christmas Memories! :) Ilove how I can completely see and even feel the excitement of visiting High Street! :) Awesome post!

I'll have to think of a really good Christmas Memory for you!

ArtSparker said...

Amazing post, I think we may be contemporaries...sounds like your family OWNED that town. My mother used to take me into NYC before Xmas, with a stop for sure at F.A.O. Schwarz (mouse houses!). And the library, yes...remember the covers on the old books, like heavy oilcoth?

Desmond Jones said...

Nice, Lime.

My hometown was actually sorta the regional metropolis for our sparsely-populated corner of the state. We actually had a downtown (and Penney's even had a mezzanine!), and folks from smaller towns and the surrounding countryside (of which there was much) would drive an hour to shop in our town. And of course, my mom and aunts would drive 3 hours to shop in a bigger town.

But, the last time I went back to the old hometown, there was a new mall on the edge of town, and all the old downtown shops had been converted to the tourist trade (I don't know what they do in the wintertime).

Thanks; this was a fun trip down Memory Lane. . .

Lulda Casadaga said...

I was very fortunate to have similar memories of our local downtown at Xmas. I would love how everything was decorated. And what about those tree selling lots?! Ah, the smell of pine...just love it!

I am again fortunate to have a little downtown area where I live. With a train station, ice rink and pretty twinkling lights.

But of course, it is not anything like the downtowns of our childhood memories. Those can't be beat...thanks for a walk down memory (X-Mas) Lane!

MyUtopia said...

By the time I was born, downtown Detroit, had started to decline. We did most of our shopping at malls and strip malls.

The Zombieslayer said...

There aren't too many places left that are Main Street, but let me tell you, it's coming back. Chico, California, which is a small college town in Northern California, is a Main Street.

But Walnut Creek, Lafayette, and Danville, which are three wealthier suburbs outside of Oakland, California, are now Main Street shopping experiences. Santa Barbara has State Street, which is their Main Street, and all the shopping gets done there instead of in a mall.

Funny thing you mention Buster Brown shoes. I kept hearing about them but can't remember what they were.

Femin Susan said...

Congratulations....Your posting is very interesting...Keep writing.. Welcome to my blog...
Wishing you in advance "A Merry X'Mas and A Happy New Year''

barman said...

MyUtopia, it sounds like you missed out on the downtown Detroit JL Hudson's. They closed doors in 1983. I do not know how many floors it had but I remember at least 7 floors. We generally never went into Detroit but I ended up downtown a few times. The Hudsons building with something else. Many years later I actually worked in downtown Detroit (right near Cobo Hall) and I had a few occasions to walk through the downtown that used to be. It was such a shame to see so many stores with gates closing them up, all the glass smashed out, and just generally such a mess. Detroit, in it's hay day, must have been a wonderful place to be.

EmBee said...

I was so hoping this post would include a photo of little Lime and her brother on Santa's lap.

You know, our little town is a bit like this. We even have a High Street, but that's where the baseball diamonds are located.

I like to think that at one time our little town was bustling like the one you described and I'm hoping that sometime in the near future it will become viable again... Or maybe those days are gone. :-(

Next time you come for a visit I'll take you to the Pharmacy on Main Street for lunch and one of their famous milkshakes! :-)

barman said...

Lime you do such a wonderful job painting the pictures that a picture would only just be a nicety but not required. That was a wonderful trip down memory lane and I feel like I grew up doing the very same thing. You are most seriously a wonderful story teller. Every family needs at least one of those. You no doubt are your families story teller.

I do not remember a lot special about the first 8 years of growing up. I mean I remember the real trees, the toys, the family getting together, and the making of Chex mix. I remember going to the tree lots to pick out the trees. A few visits with Santa in there too.

For me when we moved and I was 9 things changed. We moved to a town of 30,000 people or so. We had an outdoor mall, one were the stores touched each other but you had to go outside to get to the next store. I guess that would be a strip mall. The next town over had a good size mall open about 4 years later which is where we got Hudsons, Pennys, and others. Out Sears was about 10 miles away from that in another strip mall.

Our town center I guess is where the Library was. Eventually a city hall was built near the Library. I remember an eternal flame running year round here and a Christmas tree that would be decorated for Christmas. Just down the street we had a drive in theater and another strip mall. Nope, we really did not have a downtown. Now the next town over, now Wyandottee has something that sounds a lot like what you painted for us Lime. They do not have a lot of the big chain stores. They are a lot of Mom and Pop stores and one of a kind stores. They decorate up nice for Christmas.

Hilary said...

This is a beautiful post. It has caused all sorts of wonderful memories to surface. As you took us through the old stores, I could smell the wood floors. I could hear pages of the library books being turned.I could feel the tickle on my feet from being measured for shoes. I was tossed around with each bump that your uncle's old bus took. And the candy cane was delicious. This is a gem. Thanks for that. :)