Growing up in Louisa – Downtown!
Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn
Do you remember when Louisa had a vibrant downtown that was busy with all kinds of commerce and what I’ll call, social events? The bank, stores and the theatre were busy most every day but especially on Saturdays. Restaurants and snack bars had real customers and the drug stores were full of men and women at the prescription counters as well as the soda fountains, jewelry, and perfume counters. Buell Lyons ran the Western Auto store where as a preteen I bought my new spokes after a bike wreck. I seem to have had a few of those as I scooted about town.
The town supported three drug stores that I remember. One was on Lock Avenue next to the General Hospital. The ‘main’ one was in the center of the main block on Main Cross. This one had big blackboards to show the voting by precinct on Election Day. The Greyhound bus would stop there and throw freight and the cans for the movies that would be shown soon at the Garden Theater. Liss told a story maybe a couple of years ago about a shipment of little yellow chicken bitties. I laughed when I read it, immediately identifying with his dilemma, but that’s another story. I remember the black and white tile floors at this store that many folks are installing in their homes today and calling it ‘retro.’ Large ceiling fans hung from the stamped metal ceiling and brought a welcome breeze on a summer’s day. I remember the interior being a little dark, but that likely helped keep it cool.
Ed Land had another on the corner of Madison and Lock Avenue, straight across from the post office. This more modern store was air conditioned in my day, and a good deal brighter. Neither was it as crowded with men as the first store. To me it was less intimidating. I remember when Ed had a nut machine installed near the front door, like the one I had seen at the drug store in the West Virginia building in Huntington. Hot nuts, especially cashews, were so good. I usually couldn’t afford to buy much other than an occasional small bag, but those were devoured quickly enough. He had a soda fountain in the back that as a teen, I would visit as often as my money allowed. I was so skinny that I wanted to gain weight, so I tried to have a milkshake or malt daily if I could in hopes I would fill out. Not a problem anymore, I afraid. Oh, I could afford to buy them now, but I don’t need to grow any larger. I probably weight twice what I did in those days.
Downtown was a big part of my life pretty much from when I was a toddler and for the fifteen years or so until I was a high school graduate. It was always something special when I turned the corner and Main Cross came into view. Some of the buildings may have been in need of a paint brush, or updating, but I didn’t notice if it was true. Most of the store owners swept the sidewalks, picked up trash thrown to the ground without even thinking it was unsightly. I remember when school let out at noon for the lunch break great herds of kids would rush out in a big wave to hit the restaurants, snack bars, and pool halls downtown. Some would buy a hamburger and others would make do with coke and nabs, but like clockwork the tide would turn and the mass would head back to beat the warning bell that Bascom Boyd would ring.
If you wanted to take a girl on a date your only real choice was the Garden Theater. At least it was the most affordable because eating out would demolish your budget for the rest of the week. Sitting in the dark watching a movie, even if you’d seen it before, was how most of us were trained. Parents would instruct us younger men on how to treat a lady and be a gentleman. As we grew older we received warning on behavior that many of us heard, but sooner or later found hard to follow. Youth has its ways. Roller skating was another thing to do out at the rink on Mayo Trail next to the Flattop Inn. I spent a lot time there, sometimes raising blisters, but becoming better and better at skating. I dreamed of the day I would have my own skates. Couples only skating was something I had to grow into. First of all, I was shy. I really would have been devastated if I had been turned down, so I simply hung on the steel rail until the lights came back on and the announcer said, “All skate.”
When I was a preschooler my mom would take me on trips downtown. Those were special events in my life that were filled with wonder. My young eyes would widen as I surveyed the many colorful and shiny objects that lined the shelves of the stores. I loved the five & dime even through its isles by today’s standards would be seen as dark and overstocked. Trousers and jeans were stacked high, as were pajamas and tons of toiletries. It would be a few years before store owners learned that for marketing purposes, less is more.
Never mind whatever mom wanted to see! Take me to the toys, I thought. Thank goodness I was careful not to blurt that kind of thinking out loud. I was young but already knew if I fully disclosed my mindset, it could reverse mom’s intent and I’d be directed down another isle, or taken straight home. I had learned it was better to be patient and get rewarded for being good. Sometimes I’d see some other kid throw a tantrum when their mom nixed a plea for a toy. I was careful not to pull or try to lead my mom. I had seen from the bad examples that asserting myself could cost me a treat of some kind, even if it wasn’t a particular toy. In fact, I knew to be pleased over anything, even just a piece of candy, so mom would continue in her generosity. I remember that when mom ran into someone she knew in the store, and stopped to talk, that I would slink behind her in hopes of being unnoticed. It they saw me they’d make an appropriate fuss and I would be delayed from seeing the toys even longer. My mind would stay focused on the mystery of what I might soon see once I got to the toy section.
Regardless of the season, when we first came into a store a wonderful smell would smack me in the face. It was a symphony of smells that included hamburgers on the grill, baked meat loaf, and above all – POPCORN! Whoa, that sent my stomach juices roaring and my mouth watered in hopes there would be enough money for some of that. I remember some stores smelled musty, but the dime store was alive with good things being cooked, and perfumes being sprayed. I couldn’t imagine being rich enough to take all these goodies home. After all, I’d been warned that we didn’t have much money.
I really didn’t know much about money, except that I had been told over and over we didn’t have enough of the stuff. I knew what a penny looked like because sometimes someone would slip one into my little hand. I’d carry it in my fist until it got sweaty and hurt a little. I would find somewhere to lay it down and then I’d forget the treasure. If it made it home it would go into a jar in mom’s room. Later I would run through a series of banks made of metal or glass, including a proverbial ‘piggy’ bank. Oh, I had seen some of the other coins, too. The dime was a favorite since it was what they wanted for the ‘March of Dimes.’ It had a face that mom later told me was the President. Wow! The March of Dimes paid for a number of iron lungs and other equipment to battle polio. I knew a couple of people that had contracted that dreadful illness. One of them was to become a very good friend in my school days.
Because of the money issue, I had learned that there was no need to point out the big toys to mom, like a peddle car, toy construction equipment, or even a pistol set with holsters. I might get lucky at Christmas or on my birthday, but until then I figured if I aimed low, I’d have a better chance of getting at least a little something. A little toy car or truck would be something and it was more than I had when I left for downtown. I had learned to define success as getting something, instead of nothing. As I got older I saved some of the coins and actually offered to contribute toward getting something that cost a little more, or was something I really wanted.
I don’t remember for sure which store had the caramel corn, but it was a thousand times better than just the plain popcorn. Later, I would have Cracker Jacks and learn to fish for the prize at the bottom of the box. Speaking of prizes, do you remember saving box tops and sending off for decoder rings, or some other toy? It was a marketing trick that had the children of the world harassing their moms to buy certain brands. After all, it would allow their sweet muffin to have a genuine membership card. I remember once saving to get a square inch of Alaska. I figured that they would let me know if anyone found gold there. I could take my deed and go make a claim. Guess they didn’t, but I guess it’s just as well. I’ve never done anything to improve the property.
My favorite short-cut was the corner store that made up most of the ground floor of the Brunswick Hotel. One of my uncles had set up a medical office upstairs for a while. He closed shop and moved to Texas, only to return to Huntington later on. I don’t remember ever going upstairs, but the novelties in the store downstairs were good to look at as I ran the main aisle and out the other door. I could never understand why older people didn’t cut through there, but chose instead to walk around. Thinking about it, I’m sure it was frustrating for those working there trying to make a living with little kids cutting through all the time.
After returning home with mom I would settle back to play with my new toy. That night as I lay in bed I would relive my big trip downtown and the excitement over seeing all those things. I wish it was still there for more generations of kids to experience. My dream now is that someday it will revive itself and live again.
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