I have written before about the difficulty of keeping pace with the changes that the modern world has generated. I got another reminder of that recently when I realized that Amazon seems to be delivering packages in our neighborhood all day and half the night. If those trucks become any more ubiquitous—and if corporatism embeds itself any further in our culture—I expect to see eight tiny Amazon vans pulling Santa’s sleigh next year.
[At the risk of starting yet another sentence with “When I was a boy,”] When I was a boy, Christmas shopping meant going downtown to a department store. In Baltimore where I grew up, that meant Stewart’s or Hochschild Kohn or Hutzler’s. For you youngsters out there, a department store was something akin to Walmart only with class. Each department had a manager who made sure that the sales clerks tended to your needs. They were all well-dressed (as opposed to the current times when half the sales staff at any store appear to have assembled their wardrobe from the dumpster behind the Good Will.) The department stores themselves, located in the city as they were, also rose into the city skyline; therefore, one floor might contain ladies fashions, another men’s, a third televisions and radios—you get the idea. If you needed stocking stuffers or wrapping paper or cigars for Uncle Gilbert and candy for Aunt Vida, then you shopped at what was known as a “five and dime.” Woolworth’s, Kresge’s, Newberry’s, McCrory’s were something like Dollar General. Only with class. And a lunch counter.
Then along came shopping centers, which were essentially uncovered malls. They didn’t rise, but rather spread out across all that suburban space. About 15 years later came the malls, but you still couldn’t shop on a Sunday because of something called the “Blue Laws,” which set aside Sunday as a day to go to church. The problem was that malls that see no traffic for a day don’t make money, so laws were passed that allowed for shopping on the four Sundays leading up to Christmas. You know what happened after that.
Then, somewhere along the line, merchants and advertisers brewed up Black Friday, the recipe for which included mercantile greed and consumer gluttony. Nothing says “Merry Christmas” like cold-cocking the guy in front of you at the toy store because he got a hold of the last Cabbage Patch Kid.
After that came Amazon. No need to get dressed, fight the cold, or mingle with the crowds. That’s perfect for the modern world which would rather stare into a computer screen than get out of the house and mingle with other people who share the same mission, i.e. finding gifts for their loved ones. Even the United States Post Office makes Sunday deliveries now.
Watching It’s a Wonderful Life makes one wonder if Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and the rest of Bedford Falls is even celebrating Christmas at all because the way they celebrate seems so foreign to the way we do it today. I am here to tell you, however, that what you see in that movie is really how we used to do it.
Even at Christmas—maybe especially at Christmas—it’s hard to keep pace with the world the way it is today.
Sigh … the photo that you posted of that big, beautiful department store … “WITH CLASS” … just made me feel so homesick for those times that you write about. Also, the five and dime stores “with class and a lunch counter” … ah, I remember them well, actually among my earliest recollections, going to downtown San Diego with my mother on the street car before I was 5-years old when the tracks were torn up and replaced by buses. The five and dime stores were magical to kids because there was always something there that a kid could afford. I’m homesick for a bygone era. You describe it so well.
Thanks, Bonnie. It’s not just that it all disappeared, but that it disappeared so fast!