They're gone

Look around. They're gone. If you are old enough, you may remember a few. If you are young enough, you never knew they were there. They disappeared one by one. Perhaps they left quickly. Perhaps they left with a series of sales: ''Going out of Business, Everything 25 percent off'' then 35 percent and then perhaps as much as 75 percent off. Some may have even sold the shelves, display cases. Perhaps you went to their sales, thinking ''Gee it's a shame its going out of business, it has been around for years, I remember coming here with Mom.'' Perhaps you didn't go to the last sales, because you knew the owner, use to be a customer, but abandoned him for the cheaper prices at the new chain store across town. In your heart, you know that your desertion and those of your neighbors, contributed to the demise of the shop. Perhaps you didn't realize that this corner store was the canary in your mine. It's death was a warning to you.

Look at downtown Galesburg. Look around the older neighborhoods. The locally-owned retail stores are gone. Galesburg's Main Street now has antique stores where it used to have thriving businesses. Look at the old photos of Galesburg on a Friday night. Business was booming, streets were full of shoppers, windows were full of goods. Mothers took their kids downtown to buy clothes, shoes, crayons, pencils, paper, a ruler, all the essentials for back to school.

Of course now it is to the mall. The stores are parts of chains. Go to any mall in America and you will seem mostly the same stores, the same concept. Anchor stores, what a name. Were the malls at risk of floating away? Perhaps they should. But they won't until a more effective competitor comes along- perhaps Internet shopping.

I remember buying my first charcoal-colored suit at the ''Continental'' on Main Street probably about 1962. The Continental held on for years on Main Street, and only recently has given it up for a smaller location, but still near downtown. It is the notable exception. My high school suit was good quality. It held me through a number of High School dances, hung idly in the closet during most of the informal college years, and was still suitable to get me through a wedding ceremony. Of course, ''dress clothes'' trends were more stable then. Or perhaps I was just too country to know any better.

Galesburg had really neat stores. I recall when one store used a pneumatic tube system to ship your money upstairs and your change was returned the same way. If I remember correctly, it also had a wire basket system, suspended from a small cable system that would ship goods down to the sales floor. It was all pretty fascinating stuff for a young lad from Lake Bracken.

Galesburg had a pharmacy on the north side of Main, just a little east of the Square. It had a real soda fountain. It made good malts. My oldest brother use to work there for awhile. The Square used to have useful stores then. My other brother used to work part-time at a small grocery located on the north side of the Square. He often told me that Superman's Mom lived above the store. That was a shocker to me. As I recalled, Superman's parents were from another world. Why would she want to live in Galesburg, on the Square? I was only a kid, but I figured Superman's mom could do better.

These little, locally owned and operated stores are gone. Galesburg merely followed the same trend that ran through other cities and towns throughout America. When we weren't looking, somebody franchised America. Mass purchasing, mass marketing resulted in cheaper prices. We turned our backs on the locally owned stores and store owners to save a penny here, a dime there. We ultimately turned our back on our neighbor and ourselves.

By the time I was a teenager, my Dad was a wholesale salesman, traveling around from town to town. His market was the small, locally-owned grocery store, gas station, tavern, and similar operations that would sell watches, candy, stuff animals, novelty toys and the like to supplement their income. As time past, it became more difficult. Many of his customers were going out of business. Those that remained, e.g. taverns, quit buying most of his items. His prices were no longer competitive. I remember him remarking to me that he could buy an identical Timex watch for less money at a ''chain'' discount drug store, than what his wholesale price was for his customers. The drug store chain bought in mass volumes and got a big discount. The company my father was working for was owned and operated in Galesburg, and couldn't demand the supper cheap prices. It ultimately went the way of the retailers on Main Street.

Galesburg's economy is like a food chain in the ecosystem. With the loss of the local retailers, comes the loss of the local wholesalers. With the loss of both, jobs are eliminated, discretionary income decreases, and the economy sours. Competition increases for the remaining few dollars and more stores close. Service, personal attention, quality of goods, and quality of jobs, are replaced by lower cost, lower quality, less personal service. That is, a few, large chain stores that offer bulk sales of many products at low prices, and reduced service prevail. Sales jobs that use to pay well enough to support a family, are now minimum wage, generally filled by teenagers to gain a little spending money, or unfortunate parents who work two or more such jobs to try to pay the bills.

The character of America is becoming uniformly bland. A McDonald's in Cincinnati produces the same size and tasting hamburger as one in Galesburg. It's establishment, menu, and sales staff will look the same too. To save a little money, we eliminated our own jobs, our own local culture, our own neighborhoods. How many of us can walk to the local grocery store where the owner, or a member of his family, waits on us, knows our name and family? Your parents or grandparents probably could if they lived in town. Bankers knew their patrons; knew the farmers who would borrow to buy land or equipment. Not now. Chances are, your bank not only isn't locally owned, it probably isn't even owned in the state. Remember when banks offered service, for free, as a part of the benefit of having your business? Not now. Why? They don't need to. There is no local competition. They don't want to know your name, only your account number.

Look around. They're gone. Gone are the locally owned and operated. Replace by the national or international chains. Pick an area: clothes, restaurants, grocery stores, banks, dry cleaners, newspapers, telephone, electricity. If you want to buy a part for your electrical appliance and try to fix it yourself, where do you call? Not to the store that sold it to you, but probably an 800 phone number that gets you a minimal wage employee in Utah that has a computer in front of her and a phone headset on. Service? Please?

I made the comparison earlier that Galesburg's economy was like a food chain. You start removing a level and the system begins to collapse. It is a biological concept that diversity promotes competition and maintains system stability. Biological diversity can be disrupted by the introduction of non-native species. Examples: carp, starlings, English sparrows, zebra mussels, Asiatic clam are a few non-native species that have successfully competed with and have eliminated natural, locally native species. The result is less biological diversity, and less stability of the system. To say it another way, with the loss of diversity, the system is less able to adapt to change.

Is your life better today, with its reliance of gigantic chain stores, on the fringe of the town? Was the siren call of saving a few cents or a few dollars worth the loss of decent paying wages in the ''service industry''? It is vogue to be critical of the ''middleman.'' But that middleman may be you, a family member, your neighbor, or your customer. The middleman may also be the person added to the cost of your product, but is also the one that is a member of the local service department that can come out and repair your television, stove, or refrigerator, and have the right part with him.

So what is the purpose of this article. To merely make the claim that things were better then? No, better or worse is a value judgement. You can be the judge. Rather, the purpose of this article is to point out that the lifestyle and the economic fabric of Galesburg has fundamentally changed. It has done so in leaps and bounds, and by a snail's pace. But that change has irrevocably changed the fabric of our lives, and our culture. Much has been lost in fact, and may be lost in memory, unless those who have lived through it, record it for those who are yet to come.

Of course the loss of one culture creates a void to be filled by another. Certainly the mall has created its own culture for the young who ''hang out'' there. When, in decades to come, the malls are gone, except for a few carefully preserved in historic districts, the elderly will try to interest the young in the way it use to be. However, the young will be more interested in making its own history. That is what youth is about. Some things are constant, while always changing.

In genealogy, we often become so fixated on finding great, great, great whomever, that we forget that we are in that line. Our observations, on day to day events of our lives, may in the long term be of greater interest at some point to our children or grandchildren than the ''finds'' we make on ancestors. Take the time to contemplate how your life and times have changed. Keep it local and familiar. History will record the big events. It may overlook you and me. For many of us, the broad sweep of history make dry reading, but the diary of the life of one person, living in that period can be fascinating.

Take a little time and write it down. The fabric of your life has changed and will continue to change. Many of the people, places, and things you knew are now only memories. We are inherently lonely creatures. We know only through our own senses, but we can find comfort in reading of the experience's of others. Your memories are unique to you. When you are gone, they're gone.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online December 1, 1999

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