Growing up in a small town in the Midwest the options for shopping were limited to ordering from JC Penney’s and picking it up at the sad little storefront where your goods were shipped to. You’d walk into something that kind of looked like a Little Caesars, but without the smells and stoned teenagers greeting you. It was a sterile and white room with a counter where an older lady greeted you and asked your name. They’d look you up, go into the back room, then return with your wares in a clear plastic bag. You’d unceremoniously say thank you and head back to your car.
This was shopping for me as a kid, that is unless my mom got the urge to drive an hour to the closest mall. Our town was too small for a mall, but we did have the Lake Village shopping plaza, which consisted of a Kmart. That was the flagship store, and a place I do remember getting gym shoes occasionally. But we stopped getting clothes there early on. I think my mom thought it was all pretty much trash, though in the early days of Kmart they had an Olan Mills portrait studio. They also had an old school kitchenette/diner. It had a long bar with stools, as well as booths that lined the windows looking out into the parking lot. I do recall eating there a few times, but never got my pictures taken at Olan Mills. I guess we took enough photos at home.
The Kmart shopping plaza had a few other stores attached to Kmart, shaped into a big “L”. There was a Maurices and Fashion Bug, which were both womens clothing boutiques. There was also a Sally Beauty Supply and a Pizza Hut, complete with a small arcade setup so bored kids could play Pac Man and Asteroids while they waited for their Super Supreme and cheesy bread to hit the table. Years later they would build a separate building off to the side of Kmart that had a Blockbuster Video and Hallmark Store. Both of those eventually closed, with a Wings Etc taking over for the defunct Blockbuster. I think Hallmark is still empty, filled with the vague sent of Yankee Candles and card stock.
Early on there were a couple retail stores in my town that we frequented quite a bit. First there was Harvey’s, which was located just outside of downtown in a strip mall built on marsh land. Even after spending two years sucking those wetlands dry the stores built there still sunk a bit. Harvey’s floors would eventually buckle a bit, giving the shopping experience a sort of post-apocalyptic feel. It was like a slow motion earthquake had gently buckled the floors, so you never wanted to run in there.
Besides the wavy tiles, Harvey’s was sort of the precursor to Walmart. They had a little bit of everything in there; clothes, sporting goods, toys, pets, and music. I do remember going to Harvey’s quite a bit and stocking up on printed t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts before school started. I’d stare at the fish in the fish tanks and try and get my mom to buy me some realistic looking toy cap guns. It was a pretty great place to go to when you wanted to buy something but you didn’t want to leave town.
I actually still have dreams about Harvey’s. More so the outside of the store and the parking lot, and usually it’s at dusk in my dreams. They’re not nightmares, but they’re not pleasant dreams either. It’s more like being somewhere familiar and completely unknown at the same time. As if aliens tried to replicate your childhood from reading your memories, but they’re a child’s memories so they’re kind of discombobulated and not very reliable.
Harvey’s eventually closed up and a furniture store moved in. The next place was 3D which was on the opposite side of town. It was similar to Harvey’s in that it was a jack of all trades kind a store. They had clothes and sporting goods, as well as toys and music and even some home furnishings. I remember going to 3D and my mom would buy my brother and I pajamas. They came with tops and bottoms and were long-sleeved. They were in these clear plastic bags and had various celebrities on them. One time in-particular my brother got some Mork n Mindy pjs, while I got the BJ and the Bear pjs(yes, I’m that old.) It was pretty exciting to get new pajamas. Walking around the house with Robin Williams and a chimp on your top was pretty cool.
3D eventually closed and turned into a Big Wheel, which was kind of the same store only a different name. They changed names just about the time I stopped playing with toys and got into music. I can remember going into Big Wheel once a week and buying one or two AC/DC cassettes, probably the summer of ’86(right around when Who Made Who came out.)
My parents listened to AC/DC when I was growing up. They had Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap and Highway To Hell on 8-track, while they had Back In Black on vinyl. That was definitely the beginning of my AC/DC love, but Who Made Who pushed me into obsession. Big Wheel had a great selection of cassettes and vinyl, so when I didn’t get a special trip to Butterfly Records downtown, Big Wheel had what I needed. The last album I bought at Big Wheel before they closed was Warrior Soul’s Last Decade Dead Century.
Big Wheel gave way to a Big Lots which was a junk store pretty much. The big shopping spot in town ended up being the Marketplace Shopping Center. They had a Tepes(another retail store turned distant memory), a Sears, Payless, Pier 1, Uhlman’s, Little Caesars, Claire’s, Subway, for a short while Big Wheel, then Buy Smart, On Cue(which turned into a Sam Goody), JC Penneys and a Radio Shack. This was where I did most of my shopping in town; Penneys, On Cue, and Little Caesars. I worked at a video store called Video World right out of high school. They opened a Video World East in the Marketplace shopping center and I was set to move out there when I got a job at a local paper. That job didn’t go as planned and I kind of wish I’d a gone out to Video World. It would have only lasted maybe three or four years, but it would have been fun. I bought a lot of music from Video World, and of course I’d rent movies there, too.
As the years rolled on the stores would change names; Uhlmans became Elder Beerman, which turned into Carsons, which turned into a big empty building. Sam Goody went out of business in 2009 and the DMV eventually took over the spot. Pier 1 and Dunham’s Sporting Goods went out of business, as did Payless and Sears. Three quarters of the Marketplace Shopping Center is boarded up. Subway, a coffee shop, a fitness club, and the DMV are all that exist out there. Lake Village, where Kmart was is all but a ghost town. There’s talk of putting a sporting goods business in where Kmart is at. It’ll fail as well. And about half a mile east is where the original Walmart sat in the 90s. It too was a pretty booming plaza with a video store, restaurants, and a Staples. It’s now just a dying Staples and a China Buffet. The Walmart was a Big R for years, which then switched names to something else. Something less than a Big R. It’s now on a third name and ready to board up.
If you take US 30 west to east from Merrillville, IN to Fort Wayne, IN you’ll find several of these strip malls; once booming bastions of capitalism now just shells made of concrete and bankruptcy. You can’t even say that it’s capitalism gone awry. It’s just the ever changing buying habits of Americans. You make it easier for us to buy(looking at you Amazon and Wayfair), then we’ll go with easy. The small town five and dimes gave way to chain stores and shopping plazas; the shopping plazas gave way to online purchases and our ever growing desire to stay away from people. Hey, I’m just as guilty as anyone of buying online. Christmas got a whole lot easier thanks to that “Buy Now” button. I don’t think we can ever go back either. Once that genie was out of the bottle there was no putting it back in.
I went for a chai tea one day after work last week at that coffee shop in the Marketplace shopping center. Driving thru it really struck me at what an absolute waste of space I was looking at. These concrete and rebar eye sores sitting empty, the ghosts of commerce past haunting aisleways where Midwesterners used to shop for Christmas, birthdays, or for the new school year. Hell, I walked those aisleways with my mom as a kid, and I walked those aisleways with my own kids. Now they’re dark and dingy, doing nothing for the community. These line the highways and bi-ways of the Midwest(and beyond, I imagine.)
As I sat sipping that chai I thought about what they should do to these dead concrete monoliths and it occurred to me : demolish them. Bring them down to the ground, clean the areas, and plant some trees. Make these once vibrant shopping spaces vibrant again by putting the land to good use. Not by putting more stores that will surely crumble in them, but put up parks. It’d still be a place where people could gather, but make it something that generations could enjoy. You never have to worry about a park going out of business. Build an amphitheater where local artists could perform. Have farmers markets, booths where local artisans could sell their wares. You could still have businesses, but they’d be supporting local business; your friends and neighbors, not conglomerates that will sell out to some private investment firm that will bleed the business dry, pick at the corpse till the bones are dry, and then leave the empty building as a memorial to failure.
I know, it’s some hippy dippy pipe dream. Trading capitalism for community parks and local business growth. Stupid, I’m sure. I guess it was just some random, caffeinated thought while sipping a chai in a big, empty parking lot.
I wish I still had those BJ and the Bear pajamas, though. That’d be pretty cool.