Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Everything Must Go

When a landmark shuts down, I show up. A dreaded specter through the showroom glass, my lenslinging silhouette strikes fear in the heart of broken retailers far and wide. Okay that’s pouring it on a little thick, but when you’ve documented the death of the American Dream as many times as I have, you do start to feel like the Grim Reaper.

Technically, Blumenthal’s isn‘t closing. But they are moving, to an unremarkable location in outer Urban Sprawl, leaving behind the empty husk of a dying downtown landmark. It’s a shame, really. Since 1926, this high-ceiling hall of commerce has traded in great denominations of denim. In the process, this old school trading post has clothed generations of blue collar folk in the very latest in workaday dungaree. For twice as long as I’ve drawn breath, bargain shoppers from the immediate Piedmont have made countless sojourns to this dusty retail den. At least that’s what they tell me. Before today, I’d never stepped foot in the place.

Luckily for me, the proprietor at hand is a class act. Bob Blumenthal first got involved with his father’s business the year after I was born. While I was wrestling with adolescence in the bowels of Down East, he was moving units, under-pricing competitors and winning the loyalty of a legion of customers. Today our paths crossed in the most pleasant of ways, despite the circumstances. As his staff sorted through a mountain of blue jeans and liquidators hung last-chance signs, Bob Blumenthal took time to chat with me, my camera, lights and wireless mike. A most gracious host, he chuckled sadly through it all, as together we distilled 79 years of history in a six minute interview.

He told me of his father Abe Blumenthal, a plucky businessman who’d founded a no-nonsense business and built his life around it. He spoke of decade old relationships with cherished customers, people who meant a lot more than a drawer full of receipts. He talked about downtown revitalization and the parking spaces it took from him. Finally he related the facts of a January deal, a timely sale for a tidy sum that would foster his reluctant retirement. But concern for his workers, outrage from his customers and a nagging dread of inaction coerced the lifelong purveyor of pants and accessories to set up shop across town. The American Dream, deferred.

Blumenthal knows his new West Market Street location can’t rival the dusty environs of his downtown digs. But he’s taking his trademark neon signs, old wooden tables and careworn check out counter with him, hoping to infuse some old school charm into the Great American Strip Mall. I wish him luck, and will cross his threshold the next time in need of a pair of Carharts. I only wish I’d visited this historic store before, before one more Temple of American turns into just another prefab suite of new age boutiques.

I guess there's always Wal-Mart.


HockeyPat said...

"I only wish I’d visited this historic store before, before one more Temple of American turns into just another prefab suite of new age boutiques.

I guess there's always Wal-Mart."

Is it me? or is the irony getting thick in here?

Jamie said...

Isn't part of Bluementhal's aura the fact that it is downtown? I wonder how many of these types of stores have made a successful transition to another location?

Anonymous said...

glad you mentioned the part about how inconsiderate new downtown development has hurt the old established businesses that have weathered the bad weather of downtown and now are being pushed out by a new trendy crowd that probably will not stay long. i will miss blumenthal's. my family discovered it many years ago when we relocated to this area and have been faithful shoppers for a long time. even as downtown becomes better it could have been even better if blumenthal's had been treated better by the powers that control the city.

Sam W said...

It's too bad they have to go, Blumenthals has been a part of downtown Greensboro since I moved here. It'll be sad to see it turned into one of those "Standard Issue" stores that you see everywhere now.

melinama said...

Southern States in Hillsborough used to have a lovely old jumbled store a block from the heart of town. Then they decided to go "upscale" and relocated to one of those prefab aluminum buildings near the 86/85 intersection. Then they went out of business.

That horrible aluminum building next housed, I think, a restaurant, which also failed. Then it conveniently burned down. There is no lack of ugly buildings in that corner of heaven, however, and more to come.

My daughter is in Jackson MS right now, taking oral histories from old Jews who used to have establishments like the one you chronicle in many little towns in the south. Their tiny communities have been dying out over the last few decades. Wal-Mart, again?

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