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FIELD NOTES: In praise of the corner store

I grew up in a small "company" town in Ohio. Gypsum had about 200 residents, most of whom worked at the wallboard plant a half-mile down the road from the center of town. That town center consisted of a post office, a... well let's call it a restaurant/bar, a railroad crossing, and a grocery. The exact size and layout of Hagel's Store are a little murky in my memory; I tend to think of it as a small grocery store when in reality, it was probably more of a large convenience store. I do remember clearly that there was a fairly extensive assortment of candy for sale up next to the register and a cooler with all varieties of soft drinks. 

Hagel's was just a block--300 yards at the most--from our house, and being small-town America in the '60s, I was pretty much allowed to go there as I pleased from the time I was old enough to ride a bike. While I am sure the candy selection included more mainstream choices like Snickers bars and Wrigley's gum, my taste tended toward the weird and obscure. Little cloth sacks of gum shaped like gold nuggets. Candy cigarettes the consistency of chalk. Tiny wax bottles of flavored syrup. And wafery things that you put in your mouth and when they dissolved there was something like a jelly bean inside.

My high school buddy, Jeff, lived in a similar small town on the other side of the county with a similar corner store, and when we would visit my Aunt Marge, who lived on Monroe Street in Port Clinton, we would sometimes walk down to the store a few blocks away.

The America of the '50s and '60s was like that, pedestrian-friendly and accessible. But then, a different aesthetic in community design took over, and it forbid the mixing of commercial and residential development for the better part of three decades. Restrictive rules which divided communities into single-use sectors—all the stores in one place and all the houses in another--were widely adopted. The concept was reasonable, if misguided. 

The primary objections to retail stores in residential neighborhoods were that they created traffic, drew an "undesirable element," and took away from the neighborhood's visual appeal. I'm sure those complaints were legitimate in some specific cases, but the corner stores I visited had parking for three or four cars (most people just walked), were only open during typical business hours, and had a clientele that generally reflected the makeup of the community. The fear that there would be trouble bussing in from out of state to an 800 square foot convenience store in a residential neighborhood was, to put it mildly, far-fetched.

Beginning in the 1980s, the idea of reintegrating retail, office, and residential development began to pick up steam. The Three Meadows subdivision in Perrysburg, Ohio, where I lived before moving to North Carolina, was one of the earlier iterations of that revival. Apartments, condominiums, assisted living, and single-family homes were built around a small park and retail plaza. Initially, a gift shop, hair salon, convenience store, daycare, and insurance agency filled the space. It was easy to walk across the street for a soda, candy bar, haircut, or greeting card. But, over the years, the tenant mix changed, and by the time we left for Charlotte, there were no actual retail stores left, just medical offices, insurance agencies, and real estate firms who could afford the higher rents. 

Mixed-use development has further evolved into places like Birkdale in Huntersville, Baxter in Rock Hill, and Lake Park in Monroe, where the developer attempts to recreate the charm and neighborliness of a small town, to varying degrees of success. But, let's recognize that the original "mixed-use" communities were just regular 'ol small towns—places like Gypsum, Lacarne, Mt. Gilead, and Lilesville. In that way, I guess we were way ahead of our time.      


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