Name Dropping

As local stores disappear, so does homegrown flavor

Rich’s department store in Atlanta, now part of the Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center

Credit: Library of Congress

When I was a kid in Plainview, Tex., my retail world encompassed just four local establishments. One was the grocery store my Uncle Bryan owned, where I was allowed the occasional free candy bar and thereby became the envy of all my friends. Another was the drugstore with a soda fountain where we sat on spinning stools and gulped root beer floats until dizziness showed us the error of our ways. Then there was Anthony's, a department store both depressing (it was where we shopped for back-to-school clothes) and fascinating (it had a system of pneumatic tubes that sucked up little containers with a loud thoop! and sent them flying off to who-knew-where). And there was Woolworth's, which for some reason was known in my family as "Woolsworth," and which sold just about everything a kid could want.

Bryan's Food, West's Pharmacy, Anthony's, Woolsworth. They all seemed utterly permanent, but they're gone. Not the buildings, you understand—the last time I visited my childhood hometown, the buildings I remembered were still standing. It's the names that have vanished.

Now that I think about it, the course of my entire life can be traced through the names of businesses that no longer exist. As a teenage would-be fashion plate in Lubbock, I bought my penny loafers and button-downs at Dunlap's or Hemphill-Wells. Later, when I lived in Richmond, Va., I could choose between Thalhimer's and Miller & Rhoads, giant emporia that loomed across the street from each other—or visit the hushed confines of the Berry-Burk men's store, whose entrance was crowned with the carved stone image of a dandy in a top hat.

Gone now, every last one of them, gone the way of Woodward & Lothrop and Strawbridge & Clothier, I. Magnin and B. Altman, Marshall Field's and Rich's, and scores of others. Once in a while, their names show up in florid script on boxes or shopping bags found in the back of a closet, and you can sometimes spot their dimly remembered logos carved above doorways or painted on the sides of buildings. But if you actually walk inside one of these erstwhile mercantile palazzos, don't expect to be greeted by solicitous salesclerks proffering neckties and foundation garments: The old Miller & Rhoads flagship store is a hotel now, and the Berry-Burk building houses upscale apartments. At least those stores fared better than Thalhimer's—partly torn down a few years ago to make way for a new performing arts center.

Well, sic transit gloria mundi, and what difference does it make? Actually, a pretty big one. As distinctive local brands disappear, everyplace gradually turns into anyplace. From Maine to Arizona, we all shop at the same stores and eat at the same ubiquitous (hmmm, rhymes with iniquitous) restaurants, and the whole country is becoming as thoroughly homogenized as a quart of milk. Goodbye Hi-D-Ho, where carhops delivered Hidy Fries; hello McDonald's, where machines extrude Whateverburgers.

What can we do? It's pretty simple: We can't resurrect all the long-gone institutions we once knew, but we can certainly cherish the ones that are left. Heeding the familiar admonition to "buy local" is good for the soul as well as the economy.

A recent book called Whatever Happened to Tanganyika? is all about "place names that history left behind"—like Batavia and British Honduras and the Gilbert Islands (now rechristened Jakarta, Belize, and the Republic of Kiribati, in case you haven't been keeping up). Admittedly, changing the name of an entire city or country is a much bigger deal than the disappearance of a single store—but the way I see it, a loss is a loss is a loss. And they have a way of adding up.  

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