Postcards from the past…

Two weeks ago I passed a few days in the house where I did most of my growing up. For all my travels, I’ve always managed to find my way home at least at Christmas time.

I get up early. That doesn’t change just because I happened to have a few days off. One of the perks of waking up before the sun is that you get to see it rise over the Appalachians. In a lot of ways, those clear mornings were a throwback.

On a dead calm Boxing Day morning, the wood smoke hung thick in the George’s Creek valley. A hundred years ago it would have been coal, but for a distant observer it didn’t make enough difference to notice.

For a couple of minutes, it was like watching a living picture postcard from another age – a sight that realistically hasn’t changed much from the 19th and 20th centuries into the 21st. It was one of the first times I think I really appreciated just how slow time can move out there in the hills.

It’s the rare moments like this one that fill me with the idea that maybe someday I’ll go back to stay… but before long other realities of time and space crowd in and the moment is gone. There are real reasons I’ll never really go home again, not to stay… but those reasons will never, ever be because I’ve gotten tired of the view from down the crick.

Just different…

I’m old enough to have caught the tail end of what could be called “local retail.” When I was a kid even our small town of a few hundred had what in generations past would have been called a dry good store. My home town wasn’t big enough to justify its own hardware store, but the next town of any size in either direction along the George’s Creek valley had one – Pritchard’s in Frostburg anchored the central stretch of Main Street, Ternent’s in Coney sat (where it still does business) at the center of town on Jackson Street. Ames provided a primitive “big box” style of retail while G.C. Murphy represented the last bastion of traditional American department stores. Murphy’s, though, was “in town” and usually involved a special trip. You didn’t end up there to pick something up on a whim.

There was a proper 1980’s mall, of course, decorated in shades of beige with it’s glass dome and sunken fountain centerpiece. It was anchored by JC Penny, The Bon Ton / Eyerly’s, K-mart, and Sears.

I’m taking this stroll down memory lane because of all these stores – many of them one-time giants of American retail, only a handful remain. Ternent’s lives still, I suspect as much due to the loyalty of the surrounding community (and inconvenience of making the 30 minute one-way drive to the next closest hardware store) as anything else. JC Penny creaks along providing the area with “something that isn’t Walmart. Now Sears has filed for bankruptcy protection. Its lone store back home isn’t on the closure list this time, but I don’t think anyone really expects it will last forever or even that it will last long. It’s only a matter of time before Sears too becomes part of consumer history.

Protected here by my walls of books and largely tucked away from people to the extent I can manage, it’s easy to dismiss just how much the world has changed in the last 30 or 40 years. A guy I use to work for was fond of saying that on average “it’s not better or worse, it’s just different.” It’s a nice sound bite and maybe it’s even true. But I can tell you without a moment’s shame that the older I get the less interest I have in “different” overall. Slowly, the words “different” and “worse” feel like they’re becoming synonymous.

I know intellectually that bankruptcy delivers creative destruction to the marketplace, but I’d consider it an awfully big favor if we could somehow avoid sweeping away all vestiges of the world that was.