Shadows of downtown

I walked through the downtown Boston Store yesterday, to get some gift ideas, and I was shocked to realize they had cut it in half.

The street level store area used to extend from Wisconsin Avenue all the way back to Michigan Avenue and the second floor extended for the same length.

But now they’ve walled up the store halfway. I believe I read the other part will be office space and condos or something.

It makes me sad because the downtown Boston Store is all that remains of downtown’s glory days as the city’s primary shopping area and the place to go.

The Boston Store, as well as the former Gimbel’s, were the Taj Mahal’s of department stores and coexisted along side J.C. Penny, T.A. Chapman’s, and others throughout the 20th century.

Sure, all those stores had other locations at Capital Court mall, Mayfair mall, and other malls, but the downtown stores were special. They were a delight to visit. Mall stores were small in comparison, maybe two floors and at best 260,000 square feet for the Capital Court Gimbel’s.

But downtown? The Gimbel’s and the Boston Store occupied an entire city block and were 7 or 8 stories of shopping adventure.

Shopping at these stores was an event. You didn’t just run in, grab something, and run out. No. You spent the day there. Gimbel’s had a Tasty Town grill type restaurant, as well as a delicatessen, a bakery, candy shoppe, flowers and so on. And that was just the street level.

Each floor was like visiting a completely different store. The second floor had rainwear, coats, custom wigs, lingerie, and robes. The third level had men’s clothing, men’s hats, kid’s clothing, sporting goods, and toys.

The fourth floor had housewares, appliances, oriental rugs, small electrics. The fifth floor had furniture, bedding, televisions, stereos. The sixth had lamps, mirrors, china, glassware, a gift shop, import bazaar. The 7th floor was offices, but the eighth floor had a Forum Restaurant for fine dining.

And the Boston Store was very similar. Seven floors of anything and everything you could possibly need. These were the Amazon.com of their day. Whatever you could possibly need, or imagine, could be found at these downtown department stores.

But the short-sighted removal of the trollies, the growing number of malls and white flight to the suburbs slowly killed the glamour and adventure of going downtown and visiting the department stores.

Now, the downtown Boston Store, once a glorious seven story monument to shopping adventure, has been reduced to just a shadow of it’s former magnificence, an oddity in a world where people shop online or drive to a strip mall

If you never visited one of these shopping megaliths, it’s probably hard to imagine the hustle and bustle as crowds of people moved excitedly within to the roar of conversation. The elevators were always full as they moved up and down, floor to floor, while the elevator operator chimed, “Fourth Floor. Lamps. Paintings. Mirrors. Occasional furniture.”

Sadly, the only way for someone today to get a small idea of what downtown department stores were like is by watching old Christmas movies, like “Miracle on 34th Street” or “Holiday Affair.” Unfortunately, they’re in black and white, so they give no sense of how colorful and well-lit these stores were.

The buildings still stand, but they’re mere shadows harkening back to a past when downtown was the place to see and be seen.

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That reminds me

An interesting characteristic of our brain is associative memories.

It is throwback Thursday, after all.

I’m refering to the brain’s ability to connect two completely different items or concepts.

Music, for example, has very powerful associative properties. For many of us, hearing a certain song will awaken certain memories, some happy, some sad.

Many songs will remind us of a time in our past when we first heard the song, say a childhood event, or a year in school.

Some songs give us a vague feeling, such as “Sugar, Sugar,” by The Archies gives me a general happy feeling about my chikdhood, whereas others are more specific. When I hear “Snoopy vs. The Red Baron,” I’m back in the Cub Scouts with my friends taking a train down to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Some parent had brought an AM radio along and we’d sing to somenof the Top 40 hits.

Another example is, I used to listen to Black Sabbath’s first album while a teenager reading sword and sorcery tales, particularly the Conan stories by Robert E. Howard.

Now, when I listen to Black Sabbath, a feeling comes over me, a mood, if you will, that is similar to reexperiencing the awe and wonder I had back then reading those stories.

So intense is this mood that now I’ll play their music when I’m writing, hoping to capture some of that magic in my own story.

Smells also provide strong associative memories. Maybe a whiff of a certain cologne or perfume will bring back memories of someone out of our past.

Sometimes the association will surprise us because it was unexpected.

For instance, the reason for this rather bland post is because I was making coffee and enjoying the aroma of the freshly ground coffee.

Now I’ve been around the smell of coffee my whole life. There are many decades worth of memories associated with it that I could have recalled.

I could have remembered my time in the Navy, where coffee was figuratively our life’s blood. We drank it nonstop from the moment we awoke until we fell asleep. Our index fingers nearly atrophied into a permanent crook from holding our coffee cups.

On the other hand, because I do drink it regularly, the pleasant scent of coffee doesn’t always trigger any specific memories, it just puts me into a good mood.

Today I was surprised when the coffee scent triggered a memory of my childhood. I was taken back to my parents’ house before they were divorced. Back when I thought my childhood was happy.

Both my parents had coffee in the morning, so our house would fill up with the odor as it was being brewed in an old aluminum electric purculator in our kitchen.

It was similar to the old perculators they’d show in the Maxwell House coffee commercials, like this one:

I remembered that my dad, who, because he drank a lot of coffee, smelled of it. Many people remember the scent of their dad’s calogne. Me, I remember that he smelled like coffee.

My mom had made breakfast and ee were eating at the kitchen table, while my dog, Thor, lay just outside the kitchen doorway watching us. He wasn’t allowed in the kitchen and he stayed obediently on the other side until we came out.

It was an odd associative memory and I thought I’d share.

Have you had any associative memories lately that surprised you?

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Summer solstice

It’s June 21st, the summer solstice, also known as midsummer. 

As a child, June 21st meant summer vacation was well underway and there was still the rest of June, plus all of July and August before school started up again in September.

That was an eternity.

I have vivid memories of my childhood doing all these wonderful things with my friends, riding our bikes across town to play in the Menomonee River, going to the nearby park to play on the swings, teeter-totters, or play a game of hide-and-go-seek or sandot baseball, climb trees, or throw a frisbee. Going to summer camp or on family vacations to the Wisconsin Dells or down to visit relatives in Kansas. These events seemed to last forever, yet in reality, took place over a few short weeks during summer vacation.

Now, as an adult, I see June 21st as a signal that summer is in full swing. I regard Memorial Day as the unofficial start of summer (compared to the meteorological start of summer). There are still three full months to come of decent warm weather, July, August, and September, in which to go to the beach, or enjoy one or more of the many festivals Milwaukee is known for. We just had Pride Fest, Polish Fest, and the Lakefront Festival of the Arts.

Yet to come is Summerfest, the world’s biggest musical festival, Germanfest, Italianfest, Mexicanfest, Africanfest, Wisconsin State Fair, Feast with the Beasts at the Milwaukee County Zoo, and Indian Summer, to name a few and not including every church festival that we have several of nearly every weekend throughout the summer.

Then, on the other hand, there’s the part of me that suffers from Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) and that part of me sees June 21st as the beginning of the end of the long days of Sun light. To quote Shakespeare from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, “The true beginning of our end.”

Yesterday and today are the longest days of the year, giving off life sustaining and mood enhancing Vitamin D enriched Sun light.

After today, the days grown shorter, the lush greenery outside begins to fade, and before I know it, nature is hibernating again, the days are gloomy and cloud covered, and I’m in a funk struggling to keep alert and active.

But that’s months away. Let’s focus instead on how beautiful and alive the world is today, June 21st. The trees are spreading their branches, showing off their emerald glory. The sunshine is warm upon our upturned faces. The days are filled with the sounds of singing birds and the nights with chirping crickets.

It’s grilling season. Enjoy the smell of charcoal briquettes and the sound of sizzling meat as you enjoy a cold drink and celebrate the summer solstice.

It is midsummer, a major holiday in Finland, a time for family and friends. As the Finns say, “Go peaceful or go party.”

Today, is the best day of the year. All full of hope and beauty and life.

Get out and enjoy it.

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