When I think of Araby, the “splendid bazaar” in James Joyce’s short story of the same name with its countless booths of exotic wares (or so the narrator, as an innocent, imagined), I think of those treasure palaces of long ago, the Five and Dime stores that were the delight of poor children in the South and across Appalachia. They have disappeared, but many of the beautiful old Kress and Woolworth buildings remain, ornate oddities from an era when people dressed up to go to town. The old discount concept survives, of course, in Ben Franklin, Wal-Mart, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree stores, but how could these possibly compare when global commerce and the glut of mass production have taken the wonder and anticipation, the mystery and uniqueness out of junk?
There is no surprise left in shopping in the US anymore–you can go to any mall in America and see the same things. I rarely go to malls unless I need something practical—sheets or shoes or underwear—even when traveling. My favorite place to shop in New York is not Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s but the flea market on Columbus Avenue and West 77th in the Upper West Side. That is a real bazaar, with everything from plants and food to furniture, clothing, antiques, and pretty much anything. I see things there I’ve never seen before—things made when handicraft was valued, things with histories, things stamped ‘made in Portugal,’ or England, or France, or, something one rarely sees today, ‘made in the U.S.A.’—and I get to haggle.
My mother’s treasure palace in the Thirties was Shanks’ Variety Store in Gate City, Virginia. It was, I imagine, a smaller version of the one in one of my favorite books, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. During the week Francie, the young protagonist, and her younger brother, children of immigrants, scavenge the garbage in the two buildings where their mother is janitress and sell their collected finds to the ragman on Saturday morning. Francie collects her five pennies and heads for the retail district. Her first stop is always the Five and Dime. When the floor clerk gives her the eye, she holds out her palm with the coins and says defiantly, “I’m only looking; I have a right.” Five and Dimes were some of the first retailers to move merchandise out from behind the counter and allow customers to handle and select without the assistance of sales clerks. It was a social equalizer in the retail sphere; one didn’t have to buy anything or even have money to feel privileged.
I was probably in Shanks’ at some point but don’t remember it—we moved from Virginia to Tennessee when I was six. My strongest memory of downtown Gate City is of the legless man whose stump body balanced on a small square of nailed boards on rollers. He pushed himself along the sidewalk with his hands and arms and on Saturdays parked himself in front of Nickels’ Department Store to sell pencils. I didn’t see it then because I was young and afraid of anything remotely grotesque, but in those days there was a dignity even to homelessness. I never knew how he came to lose his legs, whether he was born that way or lost them tragically in a farm accident or World War II.
In Tennessee I had my own childhood Five and Dime and occasional quarters to spend there on useless things—rhinestone rings that turned my finger green, paper dolls and, horrid thought, candy cigarettes. I also had what may have been a life-changing moment there, although not the kind of epiphany that Joyce made famous. One day in the early sixties, when I was thirteen or fourteen, I walked through the store and was suddenly mesmerized by the music. At that time, the Five & Dime had bargain bins of $1.99 LPs—Columbia or Reprise or Decca labels—and always had one playing on a demo turntable as promotion. These were albums that hadn’t sold well in record shops but were one of the main draws of price-point stores. The music playing was like nothing I had ever heard before—symphonic, sweeping and melodic and infectious. It was possibly my first real experience of art as transportive.
I found a clerk and asked what the music was. He handed me the empty album sleeve. It was “The Blue Danube” and other Viennese waltzes by Johann Strauss. The picture on the front was of ballroom dancers in a great palace. I bought it and played it over and over at home on my three-speed record player, dancing through the house as if I were somebody. My parents, children of dirt farmers whose early exposure to the arts was limited to cowboy movies and country music smiled at this latest oddity but didn’t see what was so great about it. They didn’t have an experience to hang it on. Not that I had a lot, but we had owned a television for a year or two, and I had probably seen an old Busby Berkley musical or two. I had read Little Women and been on the stairs with Amy and Beth watching the twirling dancers through the banisters.
I could say that two dollar LP offered an enlarged view of the world and my potential in it, that it made me realize there was more beauty out there to be experienced, even if the only means was through music. I could say that to this day, whenever I hear “The Blue Danube,” I feel that same euphoric happiness that enveloped me then, lifting me above the scent of grilled cheese and chili dogs, the bins of cheap bric-a-brac, the aisles of bolted fabric and plastic flowers, paint-by-number kits and caged parakeets. I could say that…if I weren’t, like the narrator in Araby, now eons removed from that time and place and acutely aware of how the mind sentimentalizes the past.
Shanks’ Variety Store went out of business in the Fifties. Ironically, both it and my old Five and Dime now house antique malls selling used and ragged remnants of things sold originally—empty Blue Waltz perfume bottles, plastic hair combs, rusted razors—only for much higher prices. Araby, in reality, was a one-time charitable fundraiser in 1894 to aid the Catholic Jervis Street Hospital in Dublin. Even more ironically, the site of the old hospital is now the Jervis Shopping Centre, a large, glitzy, multi-level mall.
When I think of those old main streets, it’s like viewing time-lapsed photography—the cars speed back and forth, their rounded lines giving way to boxy angles, colors getting ever bolder. Shoppers clip up and down the sidewalks, faces, clothing and hair styles modifying in milliseconds; bodies grow larger, crowds thin, then multiply. Wheelchairs appear, trees disappear, extra lanes appear, surrounding green spaces are asphalted over. Buildings disappear, are replaced, grow taller, facades and signs become more modern, more sterile. Five and Dimes morph into mega-marts (or junk shops), fueled by vanity, the impossible promise of Araby.