Nostalgia, anyone? That’s what you’ll feel when you read this tribute to Main Street by baby boomer and “almost retired” journalist Kathleen Bailey of Raymond, New Hampshire. She calls it, “Come back to the Five and Dime, and take me with you.”
The buzz in planning and development these days is all about “walkable communities” and “mixed usage.”
Millennials, retirees, and everyone in-between wants to walk to shopping, dining, and entertainment without having to move to the city. While it’s now a worthy aim, the “Downtowns” of old weren’t planned by anyone. They developed organically. Of course in the ’50s, my home town of Concord, New Hampshire, had no choice but to have a “walkable downtown.” Some women still didn’t drive, and most families didn’t have a second car. If you wanted something you walked, or took the bus and then walked.
In junior high we walked downtown after school, hanging around until one of our fathers picked us up from work. Mothers walked downtown if they lived close enough, took the bus if they didn’t, or waited for Dad to drive them on Friday nights, when Main Street stores stayed open till a wicked 9 p.m. On Fridays my mother hit the street at 6 p.m. She visited all three Five-and-Dimes, where she knew the cashiers personally; Bridal-and-Formal even when we didn’t have an event; the candy, jewelry, and shoe stores; even the Army-Navy outlet. She didn’t get back to the car until 9, but what the hay, parking was a nickel.
We drank watery Cokes at the Rexall, got fitted for school shoes at the shoe store, bought our first Beatles albums at the record shop. We watched Saturday matinees in the musty Art Deco theater. And oh, the garden of earthly delights that was Woolworth’s.
We bought everything from a ham to a hammer on Main Street, purchased our first clandestine makeup, loaded up on yellow pencils and composition books in September. We bought goldfish that died and jewelry that turned our fingers green. On a slow day, we liked going to the department store and watching the change basket travel up the cable to the business office and down again. We fell in and out of love on Main Street, sometimes in the same day.
It wasn’t perfect. We bought the clothes and shoes that were available, whether or not we liked them, and we ate the food that was served. I was in my 20s and in Boston before I tasted a bagel. If a shopkeeper was out of something, we didn’t go elsewhere. There was no “elsewhere.” They ordered it, we waited.
Downtown had its own cast of characters, from the 100-year-old Salvation Army lady who staffed the red kettle outside of Woolworth’s to the developmentally-disabled man who walked around town with his transistor radio to the man who wore a Native American chief’s headdress. But we always felt safe. It was our downtown.
Can we get this back? No, and probably just as well. People need more choices, and they have them now. But I applaud the developers and community planners for trying.
It won’t be the Bedford Falls of Jimmy Stewart’s Christmas classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” But it will be something.