My parents seldom used the word “shopping.” My father talked about the stores where his family did their “trading” during the Depression years. Mother “went to town” to buy groceries, check out library books, or pick up tractor parts. Actual “shopping” likely referred to buying 4-H material in Penney’s basement in downtown Springfield.
I recently found an internet message board where posters were reminiscing about Urbana businesses; I printed out four pages of stores that were once or are still part of Urbana’s commercial scene. Perusing the names on that list evoked a patchwork of mercantile memories.
G.C. Murphy, the quintessential variety store where Mother bought chocolate drops, dishtowels, and pink fabric for my drawstring apron, was simply the dime store to us. It also served as the backdrop for Saturday night socializing: we would park there on North Main Street, with us in the backseat, Mother in the front, and Daddy outside leaning against the hood of the car. Although stores were closed, people crowded the sidewalks. Friends and relatives strolling by would stop and talk with my parents, the 1950’s version of hanging out at “the lot,” I suppose.
A beauty parlor played a role in my preparation for entering the first grade. I vaguely recall my visit to a salon on East Court Street – perhaps near the Champaign National Bank – but I clearly remember that Mr. Charles cut my hair for the very first time in my six-year-old life.
Farther down the street was the Quality Creamery, where we occasionally ate hand-packed ice cream from small cartons. Our River Road neighbor, Gilbert Boehm, was the owner of the business that pasteurized the milk delivered in ten gallon milk cans and produced dairy products including cottage cheese and that luscious ice cream.
On Monument Square in the corner next to Uhlmans was Todd’s Bookstore, where we choose sparkly brooches as Christmas gifts for our elementary teachers. On the corner stood Revco as a downtown store; I have only wispy recollections of its predecessor, Gallagher’s Drugstore complete with lunch counter. My aunt worked for years at Ewings Cafeteria and later diagonally across the Square at Peoples.
A short distance north was the Young World Dashery, where a friend’s mother bought her favorite pink, fuzzy coat. And I was always amazed that cars could be parked inside the Trenor showroom, where Mumford’s now stands.
I experienced my first – and most painful – adolescent social event at the roller rink out by the former Farm Bureau site. An uncoordinated skating novice, I fell early and often, while my classmates whizzed by athletically. My bruises did not hurt nearly as much as my fragile teen ego when I had to be rolled off the floor in preparation for the couples’ moonlight skate.
As a student and later a young teacher, I patronized Miller Office Supply and Business Equipment for my stationery needs as well as Main News and the Ole Book Nook for reading material of various kinds. I bought a few shoes at Shield’s Bootery but spent many more hours in that building plotting itineraries and booking flights to Germany after the AAA office relocated there from Scioto Street.
Mother bought a few clothes at Goldsmiths, but ironically I ended up working across the street at the Diana Shoppe. One of my duties at that clothing store was searching among dusty mannequin body parts upstairs for just the right display stand. By then, Hatton and Enright had replaced Goldsmiths; I spent my lunch breaks from the Diana Shoppe in the ice cream parlor at the back of the relocated drugstore.
Our county seat offers numerous other examples of commercial transformation. UDF now stands on the spot once occupied by the Pure Oil gas station owned by my mother’s cousin, Ivan Maurice. I bought a used car from Bus Mabry on Miami Street long before I picked up burgers from Crabill’s at the same location. Vernon Funeral Home occupies the former site of the Empire Restaurant, from which my sisters cruised to the parking lots on the east end of town. At least four grocery stores preceded the modernized county library, and the Extension Office moved from upstairs at the post office out to Bodey Circle and on to its current location with other local government offices in the former Ames department store. Years before the UDC moved to its present site near Kroger, I observed its typesetting process on a tour of the South Main office and the camera-ready system used at its East Court location.
A Rip Van Winklesque character waking from his multi-decade nap thirsting for a Frostop root beer would have to settle for Burger Chef fries or, more currently, clean clothes at the Soap N Sudz – all on the same Scioto Street property. And Rip would have to trace Michael’s Pizza hopscotching across town from Miami Street to the north side of Scioto Street, where it will shortly spill to the other side.
I have barely scratched the surface of city businesses from my memory and that four-page list. I would love to rewind the tape of Urbana to the 1950’s and then watch a fast forward version of all those stores – past, present, relocated, transplanted. I am betting that a digital archive of the next 65 years will offer up a similar display of the retail tales of Urbana.