With Black Friday nearly upon us, are any of you folks thinking “Oh, no — I’m still recovering from last Christmas and all the running around?”
Believe it or not, through much of the last century, you generally didn’t have to travel downtown or to a mall to buy what you needed for holidays, or any other time of year for that matter. Most American towns had one or more little walkable neighborhood shopping districts, and they’re a forgotten piece of our history.
Let’s take a look at daily and holiday shopping, mid-20th-century style. Here are my top 10 things that, once, you could find within a few blocks of home, but probably can’t today.
· New holiday clothes: A free-standing family clothing store was a feature of many neighborhood shopping areas. Dad could get a suit, mom a dress, and the kids could be outfitted in stuff they’d absolutely hate.
· Fresh meat and produce: If your corner grocer didn’t have the right cuts of beef or pork, there was likely a butcher shop a couple of blocks away. If you didn’t mind the mess, maybe you could even pick up a fresh-killed chicken.
· A mouth-watering ice cream soda: Love those CMPs? If there was a pharmacy nearby (and there generally was), you could grab a stool at the soda fountain (nearly all pharmacies had one) and order the ice cream concoction of your dreams, with whipped cream and nuts and …
· Medicine: While you’re enjoying that gooey treat, the pharmacist is busy filling your prescription written by a doctor who practices three doors down the street from you.
· A recent hit movie: OK, maybe the flick had been out for a month. But you could trek down to your neighborhood movie house, pay 35 cents (plus a dime for popcorn) and see your favorite stars — maybe even in 3D or Cinemascope — and with no parking problem.
· A new TV for your Christmas viewing pleasure: You could pick out a television at one of the many small electronics stores that had sprung up in the postwar years and — glory hallelujah — never again have to miss the Friday night fights.
· A set of tires: Nearly every corner had a service station, with the accent on “service.” The wizards who worked there could solve any problem under the hood and put nice new tires on the old buggy because they always had the right size.
· A tooth filling for your holiday smile: Yes, there were neighborhood dentists. Ours, in my younger years, practiced in an office above the clothing store. While your suit’s being altered, get your dental work done.
· French fries and a dance: Many of these neighborhood shopping areas had nice little diners, all of which seemed to have an arcane ability to make aromatic and greaseless french fries. They also had juke boxes, and young couples would get up and jitterbug in the aisles.
· A visit with Santa: Mini-department stores were common. Year-round, they were a cornucopia of dolls and toy fighter planes, and at Christmas they offered that long-awaited photo op with Mr. Claus. Walking home, you could give the kid a lecture on behavior — best possible time for it.
For generations, that’s the way it was, folks. Then someone came up with a better idea: Put the stores miles away from where the people live. They’ll surely enjoy fighting night-time traffic and driving around a lot the size of a small Pacific nation waiting for a parking space to open up.
Hey, isn’t progress wonderful?
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader history columnist. Reach him at [email protected]