A STRIP MALL BACK IN TIME
by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- In my area the local strip mall, called Putney Road, is a useful mess of chain fast food restaurants, car washes and curb cuts. Ugly does not begin to describe it, and everybody knows it.
Then there's our glorious red-brick Victorian Main Street, thriving again with its art galleries, ethnic restaurants, hip clothing stores and scented soap shops.
What's wrong with this picture? Plenty.
Let me take you, for a moment, to a strip mall I have fallen in love with, Lincoln Park West in Plantation, Fla. It's about the size of a strip mall that has a chain supermarket, a Rite-Aid, some small shops and a Home Depot, and it's as ugly and nondescript as every other mall in America. But look closely and you'll find something rare.
There are several jewelers. The upscale one buys and sells antique jewelry and diamonds. The huge costume jewelry place is packed with rings, necklaces, watches and handbags. In the back, a tall, heavyset older man sits on a stool and patiently takes 45 minutes to fix a bracelet for me and put new batteries in two watches. Then he asks me to marry him. The total cost? Believe it or not, it's $6.
There's a store for greeting cards and another for Judaica. The owner sees me taking notes and pops her head out. "I love this place too," she said. "You'll see some empty stores as you walk around, but they fill up fast."
There are two beauty shops. At the huge Salon Salon, an older Jewish woman runs the desk and takes the money, but it's Shirley who gives me a manicure and pedicure. She's a dark-skinned blonde from Jamaica by way of Canada, New York City and Hartford, Conn. She has long red fingernails, short red toenails, two gold toe rings, and a creamy décolletage that I can't help but notice as she bends over my chair. When I comment, she smiles and says, "I'm wearing an expensive push-up bra."
She warns me that I'm going to need a color job soon, because "White folks need it done every three weeks." She takes an hour and a half to buff and shine my hands and feet. She charges me $28.
The florist is next to the dollar store, which sells national brands I've actually heard of. There's an eyeglass factory outlet, a chiropractor's office that also offers a licensed massage therapist, and then there's a huge Italian deli boasting "The finest meats in town." I wander in to be confronted with enormous bright red beefsteak tomatoes going for 79 cents a pound. The shelves are stocked with about 100 brands of olive oil and real balsamic vinegar. At the meat counter, there are hand-cut meats to die for laid out in designs, different kinds of salamis, hard and soft cheeses and packages of proscuitto ends for $3.96. The deli counter is a delight of meatballs, stuffed peppers and salads. There's an entire freezer full of stuffed raviolis, and an in-store bakery that uses real butter.
At the other end of the strip, balancing out all this Italian abundance, is a Jewish deli called "Poultry King," where you can get roasted chickens, knishes, chopped liver and real chicken soup, hot or frozen.
As I walk around, I am passing African-Americans, Latinos and older Jewish couples. I even meet people I know from my mother's condominium.
There are several clothing stores ("men's shirts $5") and a real greengrocer, "Fruit Emporium - Fancy Fruits and Vegetables," where they sell pineapples two for $3.00. For an extra fifty cents, they will peel and cut them up for you. You can also get two Florida avocados the size of cantaloupes for $3, and two boxes of blackberries for $2. All in a line, there is an Italian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, a breakfast place and a pizza parlor. There's also a drug store, a podiatrist, a bulk candy store, a shoe store, a shoe repair shop (remember them?), a travel agency, and an interesting place called Med-Care which sells canes, wheelchairs, walkers, bedside potties and every known kind of truss.
The Family Barber specializes in "flat tops and fades... walk-ins welcome." There's also a flooring company, a place to get hearing aids, an accountant who does taxes, a real estate agent, a printer and a fish store.
All these stores are laid out in a large horseshoe around a huge parking lot where palm trees give no shade at all from the brutal August Florida sun and the only decoration is an enormous American flag on a center pole.
Here's what it doesn't have: an "anchor" store, a chain supermarket, a Wal-Mart, a McDonald's. Instead, you get everything you really need for a life in a human scale and at human prices. It's what we used to call a "downtown," only today our downtowns have abandoned their true function to some crazy mad idea of attracting tourists. But the idea of a downtown, and our heart's need for it, has never gone away.
A town center is a vital place, and Main Street has abandoned us. We need to get it back, even if we have to move it to a strip mall on Putney Road. And to hell with the word "upscale." And scented soaps.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about
culture, politics, economics and travel.