We live in a bubble.
Don't feel sorry for us. We're cool with it. It's a pretty big bubble, and it's got a lot of great stuff in it. Our bubble extends to Fairfield Commons to the east, Willow Lawn to the west, Southside Plaza to the south and the Vacant Lot Formerly Known as Azalea Mall to the north. I figure if there's something we need that's not in our bubble, well, that's what the Internet is for.
We come by it naturally. Growing up in the heated days of "white flight," living in the city wasn't just a geographic choice, it was a political statement. When Cloverleaf Mall opened its doors in Chesterfield in 1972, it may have been the hot new shopping spot for
a lot of Richmonders, but we stayed faithful to Thalhimers and Sears downtown. "We're keeping our money in the city," I would tell my friends, parroting my mother's words without really knowing what they meant but feeling a little smug about it nonetheless. Now my borders have extended a little. I've been known to venture out to Chesterfield Towne Center on occasion and even to Regency when I needed a Sears since the downtown one closed decades ago. But beyond that? There be dragons. Or Chili's, or something.
And it doesn't help that every time we venture out that way, The Boy gets a tantalizing taste of the World Outside the Bubble and wants more. The last time we went to Regency, he pointed across the parking lot at the giant Toys R Us logo and breathed, "What's yat?" As God is my witness, I told him it was a store where only giraffes were allowed to shop. That worked great until we saw a Toys R Us commercial that night. The indignant howls! The betrayal! I am the meanest, most deceitful mother ever.
Maybe I've got the tiniest chip on my shoulder about western Henrico. I grew up a couple of blocks west of the Boulevard. I had West End pride. And now if I tell someone I grew up in the West End, they think I'm from somewhere like Wyndham or Twin Hickory, neither of which were yet gleams in some real-estate developer's eye when I was a kid. West End! As in the end of something, that something being the city. And the city? Ends at the Krispy Kreme. E'body knows that. It's like the Prime Meridian, only tastier.
Ironically, as a city kid I spent a lot of time in Short Pump. That was because we belonged to Saint Anthony's. Most folks in Richmond know it as the home of the Lebanese Food Festival, but for us it was the place to go for church, catechism class, swimming, tennis, summer camp, Arabic lessons and debke practice, so we logged a lot of miles in the station wagon going from Byrd Park to Short Pump. From the time we got off 64 at the Short Pump exit to the church door, we passed one Texaco station. We always took a cooler full of sandwiches. Going to Short Pump was a day trip.
Now it's a teeming hive of SUVs, retail and office buildings. You can't stop progress. Only here's the part I can't understand: It's just as far away as it ever was. And yet city-dwellers, my own parents included, are zipping out there and back like they're going to the corner for a Slurpee. And one of my greenie-green friends blithely told me that she hopped in the ol' Prius and made a Short Pump run for takeout — from Church Hill — because she was craving the Pad Woon Sen at a new Thai place out there. OK, granted, it's not excess on the level of hopping on the Concorde for brunch on the Champs-Élysées, but at 30-odd miles for the round trip, one of the umpteen million Thai places in Carytown is sounding awfully environmentally conscious and probably every bit as delicious.
Here's my question: What struggling shops (or even malls) are you overlooking in your own neighborhood every time you jump in the car and head for the closest on-ramp? Several weeks ago, we took
a family trip to Willow Lawn to pick up some paints at Ben Franklin. At seven o'clock on a Saturday night, you could have heard an echo in the main corridor. As a faithful Willow Lawn shopper since the days of Fannie Farmer and S&W Cafeteria,
I was positively mournful. Yes, there are a lot of empty spaces and dark windows at Willow Lawn, but Cocoanut Jewelry is still there, and Old Navy, and even Gold's Gym — you can work off some of the angst you'll develop in the fitting room at Victoria's Secret. And not to guilt-trip you or anything, but if you'd shopped there a little more often instead of just zipping past on your way to somewhere else, there might not be so many gaps in the landscape now, you dig? We have met the enemy, and he is us.
Don't get me wrong — I think the far-flung shopping centers are great for folks who live close to them. And God knows there are enough folks out there to keep business booming for years to come. At least until some developer pops up with a gleaming, three-story, glass-enclosed shopping mecca in … Oilville. And don't come crying to me when it happens. I'm keeping it in the neighborhood.