Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Small Town (and Big City) Magic

Growing up, we never ventured into the city (except for an occasional trip to the zoo or museum, but never downtown). We never had to – we had everything we needed in my small town. We had a large discount store (Fisher’s Big Wheel) and three department stores - one large chain (Montgomery Wards), and two smaller, independent department stores (which were part of smaller chains), which were awesome – multiple floors of stuff to buy, old fashioned elevators, and free gift wrapping. We had tons of shoe stores – one even had a wooden, pedal-driven merry-go-round you could ride while your parents shopped. We had boutiques that catered to women, and men, and kids. We had card shops, gift shops, and a record store where you could listen to 45s before buying them*.

We had a big 5 &10 (GC Murphy’s, but everyone called it the 5 & 10) that was two floors – we’d head downstairs to buy angora to wrap our boyfriends class ring and then head upstairs to eat lunch in the restaurant (best hot dogs ever). We had grocery stores and small markets in just about every corner. We had a book store, we had photo studios, and coffee shops, and jewelry stores.

We had two (TWO!) movie theaters, and another in a nearby town (in fact, our town was home to one of the first movie theatres in the country). We had our very own radio station (WESA). We had more restaurants than you can shake a stick at – everything from little places like Isaly’s, to fast food (as it was then) like Winky’s & Pickle Barrel, to nice, fancy places, to the “buffeteria” at Montgomery Wards (where my grandma worked). We had several pharmacies – back in the day when pharmacists were chemists & actually made stuff. One of them had a real, honest to goodness soda fountain where you could get vanilla cokes and chocolate malts. The parades & light-up night brought people from all over – they were that good.

But sadly, those things are all long gone – what the onset of shopping malls didn’t kill, the downfall of the steel industry finished off (or vice versa). So when I moved to the city, I was enthralled by downtown. I spent many, MANY days wandering around, shopping, eating, seeing the sights. Pittsburgh was magical to me. When I started working full time, I used to head to Kaufmann’s department store on my lunch hours, sometimes to shop, but mostly just to wander around or sit in the café & read.

So after we moved back to my small town to raise our family, I made a point of taking my kids to the city as much as possible, so they could experience that magic. And Kaufmann’s was always one of our destinations – especially at Christmas. Seeing the beautiful window displays & wandering around the Christmas floor became some of our favorite activities. This year was no exception.

But a few years ago, Kaufmann’s was taken over by Macy’s, and slowly, over time, our beautiful, local gem of a department store has turned into a huge, cookie cutter conglomerate store. Instead of 11 floors to shop in, there are 6. The candy counter is gone. The spa, and café, and some of the restaurants are gone. The Christmas floor is now the Christmas Teeny Tiny Patch of Carpet That Has Less Stuff Than The Mall Macy’s. Santa’s Workshop (where kids can Christmas shop) is still there, but it’s smaller and far less personal. And the windows! Oh man. What used to be a beautiful display, with a theme across all the glittering, sparkling, animated, breathtaking windows is now the most half-assed, cheap-looking, sad little excuse for a window display I have ever seen. I’ve seen nicer in your windows. It was a huge disappointment.

I’m happy to report, however, that while Macy’s was disappointing, downtown Pittsburgh in general was still magical. We missed out on the carriage ride (despite getting there early, they were already long sold out), but we did get to ride the trolley. Emily took advantage of the free balloon animals & face-painting**, we had a delicious lunch at Las Velas, we saw lots of decorations and lights. And best of all, my girl and I went ice skating with Santa and sang Christmas carols at the top of our lungs. All in all, it was a good day and I can’t wait to do it again.

*If you read that sentence and thought a what store? Listen to what?, then get off my lawn! Whippersnappers.

**Emily waited patiently in line, and was getting very excited to have her turn after the two sisters in front of her. And when the second sister was done, she headed to the chair, only to be told that she would have to wait a little longer, because those sisters’ mother wanted to get her face painted. Don’t get me wrong – everyone has a right to do what they want. And there is nothing wrong with an adult doing something fun and childlike now and then. But when it is being offered free to kids and there are 15-20 of those kids waiting in line, perhaps mom could find some other childlike thing to do instead of adding wait time to the excited, impatient children. Just a thought.

Facepaint (I think she sees it as a legal form of makeup):


Our beautiful city:

Unrelated to anything above - Christmas Dog:

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bluzdude said...

When I was a leeeeetle kid, still living in Pittsburgh, I used to LOVE when we went to the city. We used to go see the Kaufman's Christmas lights too. Always a big deal

It's a shame it's not the same any more.

Man, that would be fun ice skating there. Maybe I'll retire to Pittsburgh.

AmyLK said...

Love the face painting! I love going to the city to see the sites.

Scott Beveridge said...

This is a thoughtful post that stirs to my mind many similar memories. I miss Gimbel Brothers most of all in Pittsburgh, but am glad S.W. Randall there has survived.

Jennifer said...

Wrapping class rings in string so they fit - that memory brought a smile to my face. Do they still do that today?