Saturday, March 2, 2002

The way we shopped

by Mo Palmer

Albuquerque's Downtown is on the rebound.
But it's still just a pale reflection of the bustling center city jampacked
with shopping venues that it was before suburbanization did it in.

I just figured out what's wrong with Downtown.

See, I give tons of boring lectures. I'm always asleep long before the audience is. Last week, while I was on auto-pontificate, ranting about landmarks lost during Urban Renewal, someone woke me up with a question.

The insightful inquirer asked if Demolition Man wiped out cities other than Albuquerque. Well, of course, and for the same reasons: suburbs, shopping malls, parking problems and freeways. People want to shop in their neighborhood. When folks move, merchants must follow.

We're investing a lot in Downtown revitalization. There's a new theater, free parking, galleries and excellent eateries. Confusing one-way streets are back to simple old two-way head-on crash boulevards. New buildings look eerily like old ones—spooky but exhilarating phantom phoenixes rising from cement ashes and all that jazz. Apartments are being assembled.

Seems it's not quite enough, though. What's missing are the stores. There's no place to shop before the movie, after lunch, before cocktails. I think we miss our buildings, but we also miss what was in them. Downtown was everybody's neighborhood market, where you coul buy anything.

Take groceries, for example. Piggly Wiggly, Barber's, Skinner's Hawkin's, Safeway—all were there at one time or another. For a long time, ladies shopped for produce, meat and perishables daily, when only ricos had refrigerators and everyone else had iceboxes. You handed the grocer a list, and your order was assembled for you.

Barber's was a pioneer in the self-serve supermarket—a newfangled notion, where food was stacked all over the place, you selected it and carried it to the register in a basket. Wow, what a concept! Some people were delighted, but others were offended by this change from personalized service. You've got to wonder what they'd think of Wal-Mart, which, contrary to its ads, seems to have no staff at all.

Capo's Restaurant at Eighth and Central was Skinner's grocery. Look into its exquisite art deco face. Just up the block, between Sixth and Seventh, there's a smaller art deco storefront that was Fremont's. Check them out. They'll seem wee, compared to today's acres of asparagus aisles.

Once there was a huge Reddy Kilowatt sign standing guard over the gas-and-light company at Fourth and Central. Reddy was an electrocuted-red lightning-stick figure with a round head, a lightbulb nose and plug outlets for ears. He symbolized the wonderfulness of Benjamin Franklin's invention—electricity—and all the gadgets it powered.

Al Kurman remembers buying appliances at the utility company. The show windows were full of wringer washers, stoves, refrigerators, irons and everything else a housewife needed to electrify drudgery. The cornice was covered with incandescent bulbs, so the place glowed like an enormous birthday cake when the sun went down. Maybe some day they will re-light the dandles, so we can warble "Michael row the boat ashore" and have a group hug or something.

There were some serious stores Downtown. Remember Fedway with its rooftop parking? You drove up this awful, steep driveway in cars with clutches, so when there was traffic in front of you, you rolled back into the car behind you. Pretty scary for novice drivers. I used to peer over the ledge onto the street below and feel giddy from the height—two stories. My mom says you used to shop all day, then run to the rood, get in your car, and drive like hell to beat the kids home from school.

Sears had three locations. An early store stood near the Sunshine Building, from 1928 to 1929. Probably the Depression shut it down. Sears returned in the '30s to a spot between Fifth and Sixth and built that classy, streamlined, modern, curved, yellow building at Fifth and Central. (I think it might be painted now.) You could buy everything there for family, farm, Ford or whatever. Anything over $10 could be put on the Easy Pay Plan. Nothing new about plastic payments.

Lots of grownup children recall snorting hot dogs across the street at Lindy's while Mama shopped.

Sears was almost destroyed in 1953 when an unhappy rebel with an unknown cause hid in the closed store and started a fire. Luckily, she escaped, and no one was hurt. But the behemoth conflagration made Fire Chief Westerfield think Downtown might be swallowed up by flames. It was a spectacular fire, subdued by 2 million gallons of water and some heroic firefighting.

Sears temporarily moved to the Rainbow Roller Drome building on San Mateo south of Central, originally erected for a Billy Graham revival. Says something nice about The Rev. Graham—certainly no Elmer Gantry in a canvas temple. While the retailers were therein esconced, business increased about a zillion percent—an early warning bell ringing for Downtown.

Penney's had three stores and one of those metal baskets where the saleslady stuffed your cash, it thwanged up this wire to the office, where an invisible person made changed and thwanged it right back at you. Amazing.

At Maisel's, real people made real jewelry downstairs and you could lean over the railing and watch them do the intricate work you bought upstairs.

At Third and Central was the Giomi Building, erected when Albuquerque was a one-horse town, in 1883. The Grant Opera House trilled upstairs over a hardware store, until it burned in 1898. The remains became The Golden Rule, a dry-goods store, and later housed elegant Kistler-Collister's, originally a department store "for women."

They sponsored fancy fashion shows at The Hilton. The building is still here, under an atomic-modern facade.

There are too many places to name. Downtown seemed bigger then—possibly because there weren't vacant lots. There were stores and offices on all the streets, not just on Central.

On First and Second were the pawn shops. I got my first guitar in Liberty Pawn at First and Central. It was candy-apple red. The strings were, like, eight feet from the fingerboard, so it was unplayable, but I felt like hot stuff carrying that home on the bus. My friend Linda Schwers and I hit every single store, desperately seeking a left-handed guitar, until some proprietor finally clued us in—we just needed to reverse the strings. DUH!

You got your new car, or one that was new to you, Downtown. Olden's Chevrolet, Galles Motors, Roland Sauer Packard, a Kaiser-Frasier dealership and other auto emporiums, garages and gasoline stations were everywhere.

And lumber yards—right in the middle of town. Baldridge was on South First, and Albuquerque Lumber was between First and Second on Marquette.

Got milk? Creamland Dairies had a Downtown "plant," and you were welcome to inspect it.

Before fur became politically incorrect—before we really knew it comes from animals&mash;you could buy a fabulous fur coat. Or one of those hideous scares with stuffed squirrels or some such animal, their little paws hanging down and their brittle, beady eyes staring accusingly at you, guilting your very soul. You could board the mink monster in the establishment's cold storage during hot summer months. Sort of a reverse hibernation.

Korber's had everything from fine china to finer silver, with S&H Green Stamps to boot.

Speaking of boots, everybody went to Simon's Western Wear on South First to buy cowboy gear for the State Fair. BTW—internet shorthand for "by the way"—when Simon's moved to Central, it took its wonderful neon cowboy sign. He's been saved and recycled. Now on a vacant building, he's a lonesome cowpoke waiting to be lassoed by a new business.

There were places for men and boys' clothes, too—Stromberg's, Washburn's, Meyer and Meyer. Mandell Dreyfuss.

At the dime stores—Kress, McLellan's and Woolworth's&mash;merchandise sat all over tables out in the middle of the room. Today, merchandise is so tightly packaged you can't open a thing once you get it scanned, de-alarmed, purchased and taken home. We never stole anything; we honored that honor system. They sold Blue waltz Perfume in heart-shaped bottles with their blue tops. I bought some on eBay the other day. It truly sucks, but the sweet, nauseating smell evokes colorless Tangee lipstick, mascara with teeny toothbrush applicators, greasy blue eye shadow, a safe Downtown and riding the bus home late at night without a qualm. Not too shabby for an eau de memory.

So what's my point? To mention long-gone places so we may all lament and moan? NOT! I'm invoking the Spirit of Shopping Past.

Downtown was the community's heart, and that's what revitalization is all about, not just architectural revival. We're giving it CPR. We have a weak pulse but no respiration. It still needs the breath of life.

Maybe it's not "If you build it, they will come," but "If you come, they might build it." So let's go to our new theater and restaurants, and give this tentative effort some solid support. We let it go ghetto, but we have a chance to fix it. If we come back, stores might, too. That would be totally cool for our town, for us, for our kids and grandkids.

It has worked other places. It can work here, too. We owe it to the past and to the future.

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, March 2, 2002. The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

The Missing Photos:
Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum/Gift of Judy Eisner
Korber's, Downtown at Second Street and Tijeras Avenue, "had everything" for sale, today's writer says. This photo from 2953 shows the store displaying a car in a wreath in its window.

Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum/Gift of Channell Graham and Harold Brooks
Barber's, shown here on West Eighth Street Downtown in 1935, was one of the first self-serve groceries in Albuquerque. Before that time, customers would give a list to the grocer, who would gather the goods for them.