I have always thought of stores as celebrities, and their owners as the lead actors in fascinating plays. We don’t really know these people whom we see so peripherally, yet they overlap our lives in such important ways.
The deli where we munched on hot dogs after school … the record shop where we bought the song they played at our wedding … the hardware store with an eye-popping array of tools behind the counter … the video store with an endless supply of 1940s movies … the gift shop … the pictures framer … the hairdresser … the odds and ends emporium selling ribbons, wrapping paper, and party balloons.
Every merchant and every store stakes out a small section of memory where, over the years, bits and pieces of comings and goings make up bits and pieces of our soul.
It was at the jewelry shop owned by Mr. – what was his name? – that you bought the locket for your sister’s sixteenth birthday. He was so patient as he displayed one necklace after another until finally, almost an hour later, you exclaimed, “That’s it. That’s the one!”
A gentle Vietnamese couple – rumor had it that they were Boat People – owned the pet store where you bought the yellow canary who sang so sweetly until your Dad decided to give him a bath ... in the kitchen sink!
A retired golf pro ran the sports shop where your parents bought you the bright blue Schwinn bicycle that you kept from your thirteenth birthday until long after college, when it mysteriously disappeared.
And you will never forget the grandmotherly clerk at the bath shop who sold you those truly terrible (but they seemed so wonderful at the time) “His” and ”Hers” towels for your Mom and Dad’s anniversary.
With every shop owner and in every store, pleasantries were exchanged: “My neighbor loved the peaches that she got here last Tuesday” or “I like your window display” or “Your new sales lady is just terrific.” Sometimes, a conversation alluded to nothing more personal than the weather, the new stop sign on Main Street, or the Memorial Day Parade.
Of their lives, we knew little or nothing. Did the merchants have children? Were their parents still living? Did they love their spouses? Did they live above the shop? Did they have homes of their own?
All we knew was that one day, they were there for us.
And the next day, they were gone.
Which brings us not only a sense of loss (“Oh, my God. I bought my first camera at that store. The owner spent two hours teaching me how to use it, and I don’t even remember his name!”), but also a sense that, in some sad way, we let them down, these friends who were not really our friends but who contributed so many rewarding hours to the pleasure, efficiency, and productivity of our days.
Why had their store closed? Why had they left us?
Did the owners retire? Had they been robbed? Did they get divorced? Become hospitalized? Leave the country? Die?
Had the economy killed them? Little by little, had they been going broke? Maybe we should have gone in more often and bought a beautiful scarf, a hat, a pound of coffee, or a jar of mayonnaise.
Was it our fault that they are gone? Had we spent too much time in department stores and not enough at the Mom and Pop shops that we thought would never, never, never abandon our local streets?
When I see an empty store window where once had glimmered diamond necklaces, or romped puppies, or displayed tennis rackets, bird seed, canoe paddles, pastries, or books, I grieve in a shallow way (no tears. Just regrets) for a no-longer thriving enterprise that had once been someone’s dream.
Like the movie star who dies after giving us so many hours of one-sided pleasure, they will never know how much we will miss them.
We never had a chance to thank them.
And we never had a chance to say goodbye.
Shelly Reuben has been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. She is an author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit www.shellyreuben.com.
Copyright © 2013, Shelly Reuben