I grew up in the Lake Ontario Snow Belt outside of a village of approximately 2,500 people. While we didn’t live on the “other side of the tracks”, we lived about four miles from the quaint little downtown area. A mile in the other direction brought us to a very small hamlet with less than a dozen businesses. The former was described as “going downtown”, the other was “going uptown”.
I have fond memories of shopping “downtown”. Some of my earliest memories are of a drug store that still had a soda fountain and I remember visiting with my mom and godmother after going to the nearby “yarn shop”. There was a Sears catalog store, a department store, a men’s clothing store, a ladies’ dress shop, and a whole bunch of small, locally owned businesses. I can still hear creaking floors and warm smiles as we walked in.
The last time I drove through “downtown” there wasn’t much in the way of commerce. There were a couple of service based businesses, a hair salon, a Chinese restaurant, and several of the storefronts had been combined to form a tavern that had apparently closed during the pandemic. The building that housed Western Auto and a grocery store was removed for a bank drive thru.
We often look back at our childhood and focus on the fond memories and I can’t help but smile when I think back to the excitement of going from store to store while “downtown”. Businesses began leaving the shopping district when the department store was built out by the Interstate. That spurred fast food restaurants and the relocation of some of the small chain stores from the downtown area out to the new commercial area.
As a guy in my mid 50s with a good memory, I’m happy to have experienced this earlier version of small town shopping districts. The world seemed bigger while the community seemed closer. There seemed to be more smiles on faces. In the 80s it was the malls and in the 00s it was about the online shopping experience.
When I go on my storm chasing trips I often drive through “Business Districts” (as guided from the roadway designed to bypass the original town), hoping to see glimmers of what I once knew. Once in a while I find it; this year it was Garden City and Independence, both in Kansas. Last year it was Gothenburg, Nebraska. Smiling faces, fairly business shopping districts, pleasantness.
Sometimes I wonder if moving to online shopping is really progress.