There was a time when my Saturdays were spent shopping in downtown Houston. Back then we would dress in our best duds and ride a bus to the center of the city. We spent most of our time in Foley’s department store, a multistory affair with the best buys down in the basement. We’d look at clothing, furniture, and household items hoping to find great bargains. It would take hours to peruse all of the items, but once in a while we had time to check out other stores along Main Street and even take in a movie at one of the theaters. It was always great fun, but it wasn’t long before malls were opening in the suburbs taking away much of the business from the old city establishments. Slowly the places downtown closed one by one for lack of customers and our focus turned to the centers near our neighborhoods.
By the time I was a teenager I was frequenting Gulfgate Mall almost every single Saturday. I would start at one end of the complex and browse through every store until I had reached the last store. It was a kind of gathering place for everyone, and I often encountered neighbors and friends from school while I was there. As the suburbs moved farther and farther from downtown Houston newer shopping areas opened like Almeda Mall and then Baybrook. We adjusted to the changes as they came enjoying the weekend adventures at our favorite stores and restaurants.
The time came when Gulfgate Mall was torn down and rebuilt on a smaller scale with none of the retailers who had once been there. Almeda Mall also changed bit by bit until the only original merchant was Palais Royal. Only Baybrook remains as a somewhat viable shopping center in our end of the suburbs, but the hometown feeling that was once part of the experience of going there is diminished. Somehow the old weekend activity of haunting the local mall is going the way of the dinosaur just as downtown did.
It seems that hardly a week passes that we don’t hear of yet another store closing its doors. Sears is gone, leaving only memories of exciting features like a full service candy counter and aisles and aisles of tools and appliances. I first sat on Santa’s lap in a Sears store that used to be located on the corner of South Wayside and Harrisburg Boulevard. We purchased plants for our yard in the garden area there and bought our school clothes each August. It was torn down years ago and the other big Sears stores followed one by one. There are no more Sear’s catalogs or Christmas wish lists, nothing to remind us of the grand old days when the company even sold kits for building homes.
Toys R Us is in the process of shuttering its entrances, leaving behind hulking empty spaces and parking lots. I have so many memories of following my grandchildren up and down the rows and rows of toys while they carefully chose a special item. I delightedly watched two of them enjoying the huge store on Times Square in New York City when we visited not long ago. Such stores dedicated to only toys have become few and far between.
I find myself checking off so many of my favorite places that are no more. Where are Casual Corner, Coldwater Creek, Baker’s Shoes, Woolworth’s, Foley’s, Joske’s, Grant’s, B Dalton Bookseller? They have disappeared from the landscape leaving behind places that have little interest for me, and sadly there are signs of trouble for so many more that I actually enjoy. I worry about Penny’s and Macy’s all of the time because I still visit both of those places, but I hear that they are struggling to stay in business. I wonder what will become of the malls and where I will be able to go to purchase shoes and clothing. I certainly can’t do such things online.
I’m not easy to fit. I have to try on eight pairs of shoes to find one that works. Double that number for dresses. I can’t just look at a photo online and determine if it is going to be right for my body or have the quality that I expect. I find it alarming to think that my sources of basic items are evaporating before my very eyes. Target and Walmart are fine, but they don’t have all of the things that I need, nor do I get the same joy out of shopping at such places as I do when leisurely strolling through a mall. Somehow the passing of the mall tradition makes me as sad as when the downtown area withered away. Changes are fine, but sometimes I actually feel victimized by some of them.
I recall visiting Los Angeles more than twenty five years ago. At the time I was stunned to learn that so many of the banks there were little more than ATM machines. The personal aspect of having people to help with financial matters was stunningly absent and it never occurred to me that this was a trend that would ultimately make its way to my own town. The changes that are happening in retail may be making more money for the various companies, but they seem to be doing little for the customers or the people who used to have jobs in those places. Everything is moving faster and faster and we don’t seem to be willing to slow down just to walk in the town squares greeting our neighbors and friends as we purchase our goods. Instead we order online or drive through pick up stations and hurry on our way. Something rather refined is ending and we just don’t appear to have much time for others anymore. It’s become a rush, rush, rush way of life with the personalized touches fading away.
There was a time when we knew the man who fitted our shoes personally. He would take half an hour to make certain that our feet would be caressed by the leather that we put on them. He talked with us about our lives and knew about our ups and downs. Now we look through boxes trying to find our sizes and then walk around hoping that the shoes will feel okay after we have taken them home. Nobody helps us until we walk through a long queue line and get to the cash register. The idea of customer service is almost a thing of the past, and it saddens me. I miss those wonderful days of elegant window displays and retailers who really cared. I truly hope that we don’t throw it all away.