How Main Street Changed Over 40 Years
The notions department at Vogue Fabrics
Published in ChicagoNow, February 25, 2016
When was the last time you saw a sales clerk write out a receipt by hand and add the numbers on paper? It happened to me yesterday when I visited one of the few original stores left on Main Street in my hometown of Evanston, Illinois. I spent $2.81 on a strip of Velcro at Vogue Fabrics. It took me 20 minutes, but it was worth it for the nostalgia of remembering how things used to be before the bakery became a restaurant and the Main Junior Department Store closed its doors.
What I miss about old Main Street, some 40 years ago, was that I knew all of the merchants and was able to buy things I actually needed without having to travel to my nearest Target. The shops were a bit grungy, much like the old fabric store. And I guess I was in less of a hurry back then, so I liked chatting with the owners.
In particular, I loved that little department store. It was a place to buy what I needed for everyday life: underwear and socks for the kids, kitchen items, and basic household items like light bulbs or a screwdriver. The owner, Ken, was friendly and helpful. Going into that store for me was like entering the Cheers bar “where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came.”
When the Cabbage Patch doll craze began in the early 1980s, my youngest daughter had to have one. They were impossible to find. I stopped by Main Junior and was chatting with Ken about this dilemma when he promised to call me as soon as the dolls he had ordered arrived. And he did. He set aside a doll that came to be known as Anna Tina after gender reassignment on his/her/their birth certificate by my young daughter.
Over the years, the stores changed. The toy store where the same clerk watched my children grow up departed. A fancier toy store moved in across the street. The Mexican restaurant that had been on the corner forever is gone, replaced by a new and chicer one. Now I can buy guitars, exotic plants, and Amish furniture on Main Street. I just can’t buy my grandkids a pair of socks.
Thankfully, my Main Street does retain a bit of its original flavor. There is still Verag’s Jewelry Store, which has been there since 1936, where they actually fix watches. Dave’s Rock Shop, opened in 1970, delights my grandkids with its collection of fossils, geodes, and stones as it once did for my children. The art store, Good’s, no longer sells art supplies and is smaller, but I can still go there for ready-made or custom framing.
And then there’s Vogue Fabric and my Velcro buying experience.
I went straight to the third room that sells notions. What are those? Well, they have buttons, sewing supplies, and every imaginable thing I could want for creating a costume. So, I knew they would have Velcro in strips, not just those Velcro dots I could buy at my local Walgreen’s or Office Depot. The store had just opened, but there was a woman ahead of me buying some kind of silver trim, with two clerks helping her. They chatted about her project, the weather, and where she might buy something else.
This conversation took a while, but I waited patiently, unlike how I react in the chain franchise stores where I feel lucky to find someone to help me or scan my purchase. When the clerk asked how she could help me, she thanked me for waiting. Of course, they had Velcro, but what width and color did I want? She showed my all of my choices, advised me one yard would be enough for my project, told me to get home ASAP because a major snow storm was predicted, and wrote up the sale on her receipt pad.
I guess I should feel fortunate that the Main Street I loved when my kids were young is not filled with empty, boarded-up stores. The new merchants are local and pretty friendly. Times are different and it doesn’t make sense for small independent stores to compete with Target or Walmart. No way could they match their prices. I get it.
Main Street has changed and most of the specialty stores carry gift items or things I don’t need on a daily basis. But I am grateful a few of my old haunts have survived and happy to still have the opportunity to spend 20 minutes buying Velcro from a clerk who cares if I get caught in a snowstorm.
Postscript: Vogue was recently knocked down to make room for a condo with retail on the bottom level.