Monday, February 27, 2006

We visited Oneonta on Friday, something we do every year or so. It was a nice time, as always. But I was left with a melancholy feeling. Later, I tried to figure out why. Because I could have happily lived forever in that little city? Or is it the passing of time and aging? On campus, after the trip to the college store to pick up tee-shirts and other alumni paraphernalia, despite the bitter cold, we walked around a bit near the academic buildings, and went inside one that used to house a favorite coffee shop. It was sad to see that the coffee shop is gone, replaced by a vending room. All the chairs and tables were there, as well as the memories. In '70s orange. I scanned the faculty directory. The offices for mathematics, sociology, philosophy, anthropology, and education are located there. I only recognized one name in the list. We both noticed how friendly the staff and students were at the college union, such a contrast to here in Albany. Because it is a smaller campus? Because it is in Central New York? Because the focus in undergraduate education? We weren't sure why. Later, someone told us that the coffee shop we missed moved to a different building, and transformed into a Starbucks. Typical.

Downtown we visited a favorite bar and found it unchanged, the pizzeria where Bob worked (which has been extensively renovated), and a health food cafe. It was vegetarian when we were students, but now it serves meat. We bought a funky lantern at a small gift shop that sold used DVDs (Bob guessed they are like currency to cash-strapped students), tapestries, a huge selection of pot pipes, and incense. We ate at Brooks (yum!) and had dessert at at small cafe.

As we strolled along Main Street, we were saddened by the empty storefronts. Even when we were students, there was talk of the difficulties of owning a store there, of the threat from the east and west ends of town. But as it turned out, the suburban fringes didn't do that much harm. Students didn't have cars, the campus bus stopped near Main Street, it was tradition for folks to drive in from the outskirts to shop on Main Street, and the chains Ames to the west, and Barkers to the east both have gone out of business long ago.

The anchor of Main Street was Bresee's, a classy three-story department store that was founded in 1899. Little shops, restaurants and bars filled the rest of the street. In the basement of Bresee's was the "Health Bar," a wonderful coffee shop. I still remember two cookies were 15 cents, and a turkey sandwich on a roll was $3.00. Another sandwich choice was cream cheese on banana bread with canned peaches for that same low price. They were closed Sunday, open the other days until 5:10 and Thursdays until 8. We ate there nearly every day - twice on Thursdays - and our favorite waitress was Grace. The last time I saw Don was sitting in a booth at the Health Bar. Several of us had coffee and talked about Pink Floyd "The Wall."

In 1994 Bresee's went out of business; the Health Bar closed, as did many departments, but the store stayed open - it still operated under the Bresee's name, but sold only furniture and appliances. At least it was still there, in a way, the building maintained, a friendly presence. So I was shocked on Friday to see it vacant, and many of the surrounding stores out of business, as well. When we got back to Samsonville, I searched in Google, and learned that in late 2003 the building sold. The store stayed open, but they auctioned off much of the memorabilia that was stored inside - a lifetime of retail point-of-purchase. At Christmas time there were enormous snowflake lights that would adorn the storefront, and in the windows, a series of animatronic elves entertained passersby - all sent across the block. I wish I knew about that auction! I would have loved to go, and get something. There was a carousel horse that they sold - of course that would probably have been out of reach. But even a Health Bar menu would have been nice to have.

I could find no mention of the store going completely out of business since then, but the posters in the window said that the inventory and restaurant equipment had been auctioned off in January. There was no year, but we assumed it was 2006, since the poster was still intact. So perhaps I felt sad because Bresee's is gone?

There is no mystery as to why. Students bring cars to campus now; Oneonta has paved some formerly green spaces. Perhaps the newer generations, who inherited the buildings and stores on Main Street, are not interested in retailing. Then, people in general are willing to travel greater distances because of the allure of the malls - I'm sure lots of folks go to Binghamton or Albany to shop. Just have to have lots of selection and the latest plastic thing, you see. And it seems few people are loyal to old fashioned, small retailers. This is the philosophy: If it can be made in China, then bought for 5 cents cheaper at a big box store at midnight the day after Thanksgiving...stay outa my way on the highway, baby.

The east and west ends may have been no match for the venerable Bresee's, but Southside is booming. What was only a Howard Johnson's, a Holiday Inn and (ominously) a new, small mall (that struggled) when we were students, now has a variety of bland, awful chains: Home Depot, Hannaford, McDonald's, Taco Bell, WalMart. I didn't bother to look, but there probably are Target, Olive Garden, etc. too. You could be anywhere on this planet. It isn't special enough to be Oneonta. A flyer in the newspaper announced the grand opening of Lowe's. Samson Floors, where Bob bought paint and wallpaper, left Main Street - moved into the closed movie theatre building (because, of course, the mall has a cinema 1-50) and has since gone out of business there, too. If Samson Floors couldn't make it, how can Oneonta need both a Lowe's and a Home Depot?

I was thinking that I understand better something that eluded me when I was younger. When a senior citizen would say, "I'm glad I'm not young, because I don't like X and I don't want to see Y in the future," I would think, how ridiculous. Change is exciting, progress is good. The past may have been great, but the future will be too. Now I see all the big box chains that people fall all over themselves to support, the destroyed community that is left behind, and I see a part of contemporary culture that I don't like at all. I mourn for Bresee's, and Main Street. I even mourn the two small supermarkets adjacent to Main Street, on Chestnut Street, both now bankrupt. So now you would have no choice but to have a car, if you wanted to buy groceries. Southside is not residential, or pedestrian friendly.

A few small businesses have opened recently, to replace some of the grand stores that once graced the street. They are mostly small, exotic gift shops, and cafes. They seem to be low budget operations that cater to students; I hope they make it. Anyway, in searching, I found this blog with pictures of Bresee's, and this website, with pictures of Main Street.

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