Monday, April 13, 2009

Remembrance of Patty Melts Past

When I was a kid one of my biggest thrills was accompanying my father on his weekly trip to Two Guys. I'm not sure what exactly killed Two Guys - over-expansion? Wal-mart? changing consumer tastes? - but to a child it was a wonderland indeed. It was the source of all toys, a mecca filled with bikes and cap guns and board games and records and record players and pretty much anything a young heart could desire. Two Guys was so vast, so overflowing with manna, that it had its own restaurant and cocktail lounge right by the entrance, providing succor to tired pilgrims. In fact, the lost world I'm mourning this morning isn't Two Guys per se, but the world of stores so comprehensive, so important, that shoppers would linger so long that they would work up an appetite and need to stop for a meal.

When I think about it, nearly every large retailer I can recall had at least a lunch counter and at most a restaurant/bar. Woolworth's, Grant's, Hess's, Falk's, Macy's, Bloomingdale's. I vividly remember my local Woolworth's, where one could purchase a bird or a cat or candy or K-Tel records and then stop for a patty melt before moving on. I don't remember this, but apparently Falk's, a local chain, sold groceries as well as department store items, and one could purchase a steak from the butcher and then take it into the cocktail lounge, order a martini, and have the cook prepare it for you. Why did this all go away?

Unless I'm in a particular mood I don't tend to enjoy shopping. A couple of drinks might help things along. My local Wal-Mart features an Auntie Annie's pretzel stand, but a greasy soft pretzel doesn't come close sufficing in terms of making Wal-Mart tolerable. Several gimlets, on the other hand, might help me to see the beauty of Jacqueline Smith's fashion collection.

The truly cavernous department stores that remain, in large cities, still have restaurants within them, usually on an upper floor, so that even those who are only stopping in to meet someone for lunch are forced to walk though merchandise. I understand that the world now goes to work each day; ladies who lunch are harder and harder to find. The after-work shopping crowd might be hungry, though, and certainly would be in need of happy hour. Putting restaurants back into stores might entice people to linger, to stop rushing around before hurrying home.

People clearly still have an interest in dining in the middle of a shopping expedition. Every big-box shopping center includes fast food outlets, and often includes some mid-price bar/restaurant chain like Applebee's. Every mall has an awful "food court." The difference now is that one must leave the store in order to get to the food and drink. In fact, one probably leaves the store, gets into the car, and drives across the parking lot to get to it, wasting fossil fuel and contributing to obesity by discouraging the simple act of walking. Put the alcohol back into the stores, people, it's just healthier!

What's lost is the sense of wonder and excitement, the notion that a store is a place people want to be, a place people enjoy so much they want to make a day of it. What's lost is the sense that our cornucopia of consumerist plenty is something to be celebrated with steaks, martinis, and patty melts, that the act of purchasing can be, in and of itself, an event.

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