Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Christmas Shopping Trek

Ten days since I posted. That's a long time. During the last 24 hours lots of ideas passed through my head of what to write about. I could write about the good family Thanksgiving just finished (except for the leftovers still to be consumed). I could write about the good Life Group lesson series we are now in, based on the book The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson.

Health, wealth, writing, leisure are all candidates. However, based on a post in our high school class Facebook page, I've decided on this Christmas memory: shopping in downtown Providence. We did that several times a year, always once during the days between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Almost certainly it was a Saturday, and probably an afternoon affair. Dad would have worked Friday night and so would have slept Saturday morning. So right after lunch we'd pack the car and drive downtown.

At this time, say in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Providence had passed its peak and was a city in decline. The population peaked around 400,000 in the 1950 census, and dropped sharply in the next 20 to 30 years, till by 1980 it was perhaps under 200,000. The migration to the suburbs was on, and Providence seems to have been hit harder than other cities. However, the decline was not evident at first. For a while those who had moved out still came to downtown Providence for major shopping. In, say, 1958, when I would turn seven shortly after Christmas, until 1963, after which Mom would have been too sick to do a major downtown walking tour, downtown Providence still thrived, and we went there for a major shopping trip each Christmas.

I don't remember whether RI route 10 was built or not. If so we would take that and get off at West Exchange Street. We might park on the street and feed the meter, or we more likely park in Municipal Parking Lot, right below the state capitol. Before Route 10 was built we would have driven north on Reservoir till it joined with Elmwood, and continued on that till it joined with Broad. That would take us right through downtown until we arrived at the municipal lot. A landmark was the Round-topped Church. We knew when we saw that we had arrived at downtown.

Turning from the capitol, downtown stood before us. Store after store in multistory buildings with common wall construction. It seems we had to walk about a block to get to the first store we went in, Cherry & Webb. The layout of Providence streets is a fading memory. I remember Westminster and Weybosset in addition to West Exchange. Beyond that I don't remember all that much.

Now, don't ask me how I remember all this. It was a long time ago, most likely last done as a complete family in 1963, maybe even 1962. I remember one or two trips to downtown Providence after Mom died in 1965, but for specific items in specific stores. My memory was that the first store we stopped in began with a "C". Beyond that I had no specific memory other than that we always seemed to go in City Hall Hardware. Not remembering exactly where each store was, and what was closest to the Municipal Parking Lot, I figured that must have been it. Then, about a year ago at one of the Cranston memory pages I'm a member of, someone mentioned Cherry & Webb as a downtown Providence story, and I immediately knew that was the one.

From Cherry & Webb it was on to other stores: the aforementioned City Hall Hardware, Shepherds, and, if strength and time allowed, the more distance Outlet Department Store. I'm sure that in between these were other stores, specialty shops that demanded we go in. Each store had display windows, all dressed up for Christmas. Inside the stores were garland-decked counters, aisles stuffed with shoppers, Christmas trees in various places. The air outside was always crisp and invigorating. Inside would be hot, and we buttoned and unbuttoned our coats many times. Each department store would have its Santa Claus with a long line of kids waiting to see him.

My favorite store was Shepherds. Someone says it as on Westminster Street, and I suppose that's right. There was the Shepherd's clock mounted on a post on the sidewalk in front of the store on Westminster. Inside was everything I described before. I remember the dark wood everywhere, and how rich this made me feel. Aisle after aisle, rack after rack of clothing, shelf after shelf of housewares. Riding the escalators. Leaving with more things to carry.

I know a couple of times we went to The Arcade. This was a prototype of the indoor shopping mall, built perhaps 80 years earlier than the larger suburban ones. This was a quaint little building, having much less bustle than the department stores. I don't know why we went in there, or what we bought, but it is a memory I have. Years later, when I was in college (or perhaps late high school), I remember going downtown and to the Arcade and buying a book there as a present for my grandparents: a book on New England birds.

It was probably dark, or nearly so, by the time we headed back to the car. I imagine we three kids were complaining about having to carry so much. Then it was home, most likely along the city streets rather than the highway, so that we could look at the lights along the way. Home for our Saturday traditional meal of hot dogs & beans & potato chips, eaten in front of the television. Then Edward and I went downstairs with Dad to shine our shoes for the morrow, then our weekly baths and bed. If we were lucky the evening was capped off by Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

Yup, good memories of Christmas past. Distant, yet good. Something my wife never experienced growing up in a town of 1,800 people. Something my kids never experienced in their formative years. But I had it, from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. And I'll keep that memory, pull it out once in a while, dust it off, maybe bring something to mind I hadn't thought of for times measured in decades or half-centuries.

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