28 January 2009

Grand City

In my college days, when I wanted a dose of real life--separate from the enclosure of Bowdoin's quad and the sometimes stifling atmosphere therein--I headed downtown. I was an inveterate shopper anyway, having grown up in a Queens neighborhood that was hemmed in by shopping thoroughfares on all four sides. And in my grandparents' hometown of Millinocket, Maine, I loved nothing more than an idle stroll through the J.J. Newberry's on Penobscot Avenue, clutching my allowance and deliberating on that week's toy purchase.

Downtown Brunswick, in the 1980s, had two stores that were instantly familiar to me upon my freshman arrival: a J.J. Newberry's, and Grand City. Back then, Grand City was perched at the periphery of a Shop 'n Save parking lot. Years before, it had been a W.T. Grant's--and when that national chain went under, employees preserved the store and renamed it Grand City. I believe they selected this name because it allowed them to continue using the existing store signage--all they did was eliminate the "T'S" from GRANT'S, replacing it with a "D" and then a circle that held the word "City".

Grand City was close enough to my campus home that I could easily walk it, even on a dark subzero February evening. I made that trek innumerable times. Upon arrival, one's nose would be greeted with a smell that I cannot describe. Roasted nuts mingled with merchandise and candy? Hard to say. It was a smell that triggered instantaneous shopping behavior in me, I know that.

Everything I could possibly want was in that department store. A lamp, underwear, earrings, candy, jeans, bean-bag chairs, board games, picture frames, yarn and needles, silverware, stationery, shampoo, mittens. And socks. I love buying socks, and I'm fussy about them. In Maine's climate, you need warm socks, and Grand City never disappointed--they had some kind of arrangement with a factory which meant they had piles of seconds in lots of styles. So my college-student budget could buy socks and socks. Awaiting me at the registers were memeres....French-Canadian nanas. Back then, I had no idea a) how French I really am, and b) that I had numerous distant cousins in Brunswick. No matter--I always felt like I belonged among the ladies who worked the registers, and genealogy ultimately showed me why.

After I graduated from Bowdoin, Grand City remained a go-to for setting up my first apartment in Brunswick. Some years later, the J.J. Newberry's went under, and Grand City pounced on this opportunity to get a more intown slice of real estate. (Then the Shop 'n Save overspread their original footprint.) I'd left town by then, but I return to Brunswick often enough that I was relieved to know I could still rely on Grand City's presence...for, well, socks. And whatever other bargains I might come upon. So I've remained a patron. As did a lot of Brunswick residents, especially the retirees (can't speak for College students, because by the 1990s, Brunswick's ratio of big box stores had started to soar, and Bowdoin had greatly expanded its on-campus store as well).

You know where this is going, don't you? Grand City's lease came up for renewal last fall. The owner decided that between the economic forecast and his own sense of burnout, he would have to close. Thus, yet another store that triggers deep memories for me was fated to disappear. I lament the lack of photographic evidence of places I loved to shop (Freese's and Sears in Bangor, Newberry's in Millinocket and Ellsworth, among many.) So this time I was determined to capture Grand City before its demise.

During an October 2008 visit (Parents Weekend for my daughter, talk about rites of passage!), I ranged all over Grand City and took pictures without anyone even noticing. I wondered if maybe I was not the first. Whatever the case, the longer I snapped away, the more tearful I became. It's not the store, my friends. It's the ghostly presence of my mom and my nana and so many others of a generation that is sliding away. The objects they would be drawn to in a place like this...so many things. The community that existed because this mercantile is what it is.

The photos haunt me. They comfort me with what they captured, but they also sadden me. I won't caption them because geezum, I have blathered enough, and you can go ahead and get whatever you would like out of them. I already have.





As I stood here for the last picture I took, I could almost hear the word: Goodbye.

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