Everything must go, including a town's 'somewhere-ness'

November 10, 1996|By Elise Armacost

I PAID MY LAST respects to T.W. Mather & Sons, the creaky-floored, elevator-less, dignified little department store that has presided over Westminster's Main Street since 1890. A week of everything-must-go sales had pretty much cleaned the place out. Even the clothes racks had been sold.

Among the half-priced detritus, I found a picture I've always admired and two pairs of nice earrings, coups that normally would bring the fleeting elation of a successful bargain hunt but produced melancholy instead.

I felt as I did the day they boarded up my elementary school. Older. Another link to childhood gone, another forced goodbye to a piece of the landscape that was home.

The memories are trivial but fond. Struggling in and out of Polly Flinders dresses in the closet that was Mather's children's dressing room. Drinking out of those funny envelope cups they kept by the water fountain. Poking through the upstairs tables crowded with Staffordshire, crystal and cranberry glass for wedding presents and my first set of good dishes. The curling ribbon that always distinguished a Mather's gift.

I started up the stairs for a last look at the housewares department, a glorified attic that has always been my favorite place in any store. A sales associate named Fran stopped me. ''There's no merchandise left up there,'' she said. I told her I knew that, but I wanted to see upstairs one more time. Her voice changed, turned gentle, and she looked at me the way they do in funeral homes. ''You don't want to go upstairs,'' she said.

But for the unpolished plank floor, the place was unrecognizable. The once-crammed shelves and tables were empty. Pieces of broken mannequins -- a torso here, a bald head there -- lay on the floor. Mather's co-owner, I. Manning Parsons, a kindly man of 66, watched quietly while a few customers scavenged spools of commercial gift wrap and well-worn artificial Christmas trees that will never see another holiday display.

A guy from Fox 45 TV was covering all this with incongruous cheerfulness. ''There's something special about a store like this that brings me back to my childhood,'' he said, cameras rolling. Then, stomping on the floorboards to make them squeak, he said, ''Show me a mall that sounds like this.''

There isn't one, of course. Shopping today is all volume, slickness, sales and suburban convenience. It has undeniable advantages, which is why small department stores, especially downtown stores, are dying.

I know the seductive glitz of malls; the desire to buy everything I'm going to need for three months in one afternoon in one place; the gee-whiz wonder of monoliths like Baby Superstore, where the vast array of infant socks can leave a new parent positively giddy. I have felt the gravitational pull toward businesses where my car is most comfortable -- the ones on the outskirts, with plenty of parking.

You can find better deals on good clothes at a Hecht's red-dot sale, or sacrifice quality for quantity at the various -Marts. Lower prices mean more money for people to spend on other things, which is good for them and the economy.

What's to mourn?

So what's to mourn, really, if another Main Street store goes the way of trolley cars and 5-cent Cokes? Something more, I think, than the disappearance of the the comfortably familiar and quaint. More than the lack of choice for those of us who find the bigness of today's shopping altogether too overwhelming. More even than the loss of a piece of a town's history.

What's worth regretting most is the latest step in the relentless march toward the homogenization of our culture, with commercial life in every community in every state reduced to a mall that looks like every other mall and a commercial strip disfigured with hulking cookie-cutter megastores.

What's sad is that all this is happening so fast that local businesses -- from hardware stores to cobblers to department stores -- don't have time to figure out how they might change and survive. Such businesses contribute to the uniqueness of a place; they are part of a community's personality and ''somewhere-ness.'' For each one that dies, a town loses a bit of its identity, and the nothingness of the big chains fills the vacuum.

That is why places like Lake Placid, New York, which recently waged successful war against Wal-Mart, and Warrenton, Virginia, which held ''An American Town Rally Against Wal-Mart,'' can't be accused of mere NIMBYism or of foolish attachment to the past. They see that these new superstores will damage or kill existing retailers, thus irrevocably altering the character of their towns.

With Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Caldor, Target and a mall lined up on Route 140, Mather's held on longer than anyone had a right to expect. It's safe to say more than a few eyes will mist over when, any time now, its doors close for good. I doubt we'll see anything like it the day Baby Superstore goes down the tubes.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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