IT SEEMED LIKE in the old days we had to exit Baltimore promptly for a summertime trip to the beach because of traffic congestion at the Bay and Kent Narrows bridges. Today, we face another traffic nightmare, the outlets.
Not that I have anything against seasonal beach shopping. I grew up on it, but in a different way. I recently met up with my sister Mimi, attired in a new summery skirt, and wearing a ring given to her by Great Aunt Cora. I can well recall the night Cora bought it on the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk, at the Stuart Kingston auction house.
On Rehoboth nights in the 1950s in July, what else was there to do? You had the amusement rides, the movie houses and the auction, which was often the best show in town.
Cora never planned to buy the ring; it just came up and became hers, like all great impulse buys.
Over the years we racked up other vacation shopping excursions. Before Lewes, Del., had become such a destination, it was a very sleepy, quaint town dotted with small industry.
I recall the nylon stocking factory and the shirtwaist dress plant, both cinderblock buildings now upstaged by expensive resort housing neighborhoods. I also recall the menhaden fish-fertilizer processing plant, but that's another story.
As a child, I was fascinated by the clatter of Lewes' milling machines illuminated by the industrial lights. The foreman, who looked just like Eddie Foy in The Pajama Game, did the informal selling. The dress factory had an order board with the names of the shipments to now-defunct stores like Hutzler's and B. Altman's in New York.
My mother, who did not like the beach setting too much despite insisting upon vacation houses overlooking it, was at her best searching out the real outlets of southern Delaware, which 35 years ago provided the goods, and then some.
I can recall fairly lengthy car expeditions to places with the innocuous names of Discountland or Decker's near Delmar. They, too, were housed in drab cinderblock strip malls known alone to seasonal retail cognoscenti.
Along the way we discovered some of the then-unspoiled and definitely unrestored small towns where it seemed like every Victorian house was surrounded by an artfully turned iron fence. The best were invariably funeral parlors.
We also discovered the Dutch Inn, a classic 1940s roadside restaurant that, for 15 cents, supplied the best sticky bun I've ever tasted.
A close runner-up was the Betty's Bake Shop sticky bun in Rehoboth. I'd toss all the panini in the Atlantic for one of these soft treasurers.
It seemed like all our shopping treks ended at the same place, the Lewes Dairy, where my mother bought her heavy cream. It was sold reasonably and did wonders to coffee, mashed potatoes, creme brulee and the strawberry ice cream she made in every refrigerator freezer ice cube tray she had. As for actual ice, we sent out for it.