Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

August 12, 2012

Balloons, bright rings, banana splits: Missing the magic of shopping downtown

The balloons behind Kresges lunch counter were mesmerizing to a child. I know, because those balloons and the jewelry aisle are vivid memories I have of the legendary shop downtown.

I was young, very young, when I went on shopping excursions with my mother and grandmother in downtown Bluefield. Thornton’s, Leggett’s, Nelson’s, Murphy’s, Kammer’s, H&M Shoe Store, Carolyne’s, Mademoiselle — we patronized these stores and more when we went on our shopping sprees to “the city.”

lll

Living in the county, outside the limits of any municipality, we always made “the trip,” to Bluefield or Princeton, to do our serious shopping. Groceries could be purchased at the stores closer to home, but for fashions one had to travel downtown (or perhaps “uptown,” depending on where you happened to be standing in Bluefield).

Some trips — such as back-to-school shopping excursions — were more memorable than others. Once, in the very early years of the ’70s, my trendy, out-of-town cousin informed my older sister that jeans with “elephant ears” were the newest trend, as opposed to the then-classic “bell-bottoms.”

So, of course, my sister had to have elephant ears.

I remember the day when Mom went from shop to shop in downtown Bluefield trying to find these specific jeans. After many unsuccessful attempts and numerous explanations to sales clerks, Mom was frustrated, and finally decided to try to pass off a pair of bell-bottoms with oversized legs as the elusive new style.

I, on the other hand, had a great day. Toddling along behind Mom, and listening to her chatter about elephants and their ears, kept me excited and happy — almost like a pre-Garanimals moment.

lll

While fall fashion trips were fun, they paled in comparison to the epitome of all shopping jaunts — Christmas.

Walking down a sidewalk window shopping, with snowflakes flying and temperatures dropping, may not sound like fun. You’re cold, and often wet — yet five minutes after entering a store you are suddenly roasting as the store’s heat penetrates the layers of winter clothes.

But, somehow, someway, it was great. Almost magical. The snow, the cold, the missing glove (you would inevitably lose one in the course of the day), the too-hot stores, the slushy sidewalks — they combined to form the perfect recipe for charm.

Don’t misunderstand, I like malls. In fact, as a teenager during the ’80s I am socially programmed to love malls. The concept of putting a “downtown” under one roof was a brilliant idea.

Problem is, by providing easy access to the shops and restaurants we craved, without the pesky problems provided by Mother Nature — no rain, no puddles, no driving snow — we somehow lost the appealing downtown atmosphere.

Shopping — for back-to-school or Christmas — shouldn’t always be easy.

lll

Last Friday, Bluefield was once again alive with excitement and Norman Rockwell ambiance as students with the Bluefield Dance Theatre performed during the weekly Chicory Square Concert Series.

Downtown was brimming with laughter, grins and colorful sequins. Parking spaces were scarce, and the smell of popcorn wafted through the air.

Parents watched children perform and play with peers in the manicured square. Concert attendees smiled at the performances and overall atmosphere.

Alas, there were no Kresges’ doughnuts to be had, as the locally famous store disappeared years ago. But the electricity in the air brought back memories of Bluefield’s glory years.

lll

My memories of long-ago Bluefield are like scenes on a favorite View-Master — slightly faded, but warm in emotion.

The highlight of my excursions downtown was the hour spent looking through the bright, shiny jewelry at Kresges. The gemstones and precious metals fascinated me, and I was constantly pleading with Mom to buy me some type of dinner ring or broach that was far too large and way too mature for my young years.

I never received the jewelry but I always got a trip to the lunch counter, which was almost as good. I can’t remember what I ate at Kresges, but I know what I didn’t eat — banana splits.

With my particular Picky Eater Syndrome, bananas were akin to onions and asparagus. They did not pass my lips. But only those who ordered banana splits got to pop the balloons behind the counter.

lll

I often wish we could go back to the days when downtowns thrived or, at least, reached a harmonious middle ground with malls — a place in time where the two could coexist successfully and peacefully within the same county.

Perhaps it’s a pipe dream. But if it ever comes to pass I’ll be there, shopping in the mall and then heading downtown (or uptown) to buy some shiny rings. I’ll finish my day at the lunch counter where, for once, I will disregard my picky eating habits and order a banana split.

I’ll never pass up a second chance to pop one of those balloons.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

1
Text Only
Columns
Editorials
Poll

What’s your favorite Easter tradition? After voting, go to facebook.com/bdtonline to comment.

Dyeing eggs
Preparing Easter baskets
Egg hunt
Attending a religious service
Other
     View Results