Monday, April 26, 2010


Sometime between 1970 and 1976, my grandfather would load up his white Ford with a blue interior with his two youngest sons, his two grandchildren, and his wife and head south for a day-long trip.

Our destination was Hills Department Store in Christiansburg and then to Floyd County.

Hills to my young eyes (somewhere between 7 and 12) was a marvel to behold. It held aisles of goodies unseen elsewhere, for in this age there was no Tanglewood Mall and definitely no Valley View. Most certainly there was no Walmart.

No, we had Hills. The store was a shiny wonder, neat, clean and full of stuff. I was intrigued by little statues of ponies and horses, Johnny West dolls, and  action figures (I never was much on Barbies or baby dolls.). Usually we went sometime in the summer, I suppose during my grandfather's vacation. Our small fists clutched a few dollars as we sought out treasures that we could not find at Newberry's in Salem (now a bank, I think) or at Arlan's on Williamson Road (where Happy's Flea Market is now).

They also gave away popcorn!

Once those purchases were made - and what a time my grandparents had rounding us kids back up and getting us in the car and away from the wonderland - we headed to Floyd (I think). I am sure we stopped to eat somewhere but it was our next destination that I awaited.

This was a store called either Sunnyside or Sunnybrook, I cannot be certain, that also held marvels. These marvels were a little on the darker side and appealed to my sense of the macabre; skulls, crossbones, dragons - things not of this world but of the imagination. I recall the store had two levels and the one which the kids gravitated to was not the level my grandparents visited. I do not recall what they purchased there but I know I sometimes regretfully saved my money whilst we were in Christiansburg in hopes of finding some strange and bizarrely enchanted piece to clutch and take home. I usually was rewarded.

I was reminded of these scarce but welcome expeditions when I was in Walmart this morning. Trips to this all-purpose mass department store depress me but are unavoidable. Sometimes it is the only place you can find what you need.

As I roamed the aisles searching for a salad spinner (which I found but did not buy), I couldn't help but think about how despairing I feel whenever I go into the big box store. Looking around, I saw people hurrying about their business, eyeing the yellow smiley "lower price" tags, faces unsmiling, bodies bent and broken.

I wondered what was the point. There was no wonder here, no delight in seeing something for the first time. It all looked tired and stale. Not to mention how bleak my thoughts grew when I thought about all of the poor underpaid foreign workers who have slaved to make $3 a day so that I could buy a salad spinner for $2.47.  Or the poor cashiers who make minimum wage and have no benefits but do have swollen feet and aching backs.

I once edited a book for a wealthy old gentleman. In doing this, I spent many hours in his home. His wife, complaining one day about his array of papers strewn about the living room, asked me what I suggested for organization. A filing cabinet, I replied.

When she asked where she might purchase one, I suggested Walmart.

"I do not shop at Walmart," she huffed. "I would never set foot in that store. I am surprised that you do."

I explained that I otherwise could not afford some of the things I needed if I did not shop at Walmart. Apparently she had been a woman of privilege for so long that she had forgotten that not everyone - actually most people - could not afford to hold to principles. I gently reminded her of that fact.

Department stores have a long history in this country. From five and dimes to Walmart, they have been the places where Americans shop.

Somehow, though, I don't think they are really the places where Americans dream.


  1. I've been here long enough to remember shopping at the Hills in Christiansburg....before Walmart! There was a drive-inn movie across the street. It may be still there. A holdout. So I still say "near where Hills used to be?" whenever I get directions for that part of town. A ghostly landmark now.

  2. I remember shopping in the local hardware store of my early childhood home of Prague, OK. I can still smell the smell of the hardwood floors, see the big bins of seeds, the pink corn, the beans, and the marvelous aisles of wondrous stuff. My sisters and I saved for months to buy a set of steak knives for my parents from that store. Then there was Gibson's, in Lampasas, TX. Gibsons had the most amazing paper dolls. It went out of business when the Wal Mart came to the edge of town. The hardware store in Prague went out of business when the Wal Mart made it to the town 15 miles down the road.

    Principles. I just had a friend buy my labels at Sam's because (hypocrite, me), I won't step foot in the store, but realized I couldn't afford to buy them anywhere else.

  3. It sounds like Hill's to you when you were young was like EJ Korvettes in Brooklyn to me when I was young.

    There was a Hill's in Cave Spring Corners when I first moved here. I liked Hill's but to me it was pretty much the same as Walmart, only smaller. Then it changed to Ames which was a grungier Hill's that carried cheaply made inferior products and really tacky clothes. Now it's a Kroger. All in all I'd prefer it was Hills again or some other discount department store since there's another Kroger one block away.

  4. For me, that magical store was Katz in Kansas City. Oh my goodness, if someone gave me five dollars, that's where I wanted to go.

  5. You really do do department stores in a way we cannot replicate! It struck me actually that this must be a size/population thing, because we couldn't in the UK get anywhere near the prices that you can in the USA - presumably because the big stores can buy in bigger volume, bringing costs down. Can't say I am overly sad about it.

    Of course - we do have Asda - so Walmart has a presence here too.

  6. Ginger, I think it is hard to stick by your principles where money is concerned. You have to do what you have to do to survive.

    Elena, I remember the Cave Spring Hills too. It did not come to Roanoke until the 1980s. It was a much better store than the Ames that it turned into and I wasn't sorry when it went away, although it never "charmed" me like the Hills of my youth.

    Top Champ, I appreciate your comparison of department stores with your country!

  7. What great memories!
    I think about this a lot. We had Joy's and of course Woolworth's. If we needed something really big, we went to Montgomery Ward. I see you use the word "depress" in describing your Walmart visit. That's exactly how it makes me feel when I go in.


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