As is the case with many older folks, the walks I so enjoy with my Lady Jane take place inside at our town’s largest public place, the Lima Mall. After parking on the west side of Macy’s, the corporate resurrected retail son of Lazarus, which was added to the then-6-year-old mall as an anchor store in 1971, and entering, I am almost immediately transported back in time by the strongest sensory memory trigger we possess, smell.
The mall has a scent to me that is as unique and unmistakable as so many others, such as the smell of a locker room during August two-a-days, the smell of an April day’s fresh-cut grass and the smolder of charcoal in a grill on a Fourth of July.
The aroma, a commingling of leather goods and fabrics that predominate amongst a plethora of other products’ aromas, always transports me back to 1968 when I took a job at Butler’s Shoes, which used to overlook a fountain inside a curved bench that once was a primo people-watching roost for so many pretty close to the age I am now. When the store wasn’t busy, I stood in the main entryway and listened to the splashing sound of the water and assessed that day’s foot traffic in the mall from what was then its hub.
While my first job, thinning corn at a Northrup-King experimental farm outside of Wapak, came illegally at 14, two years before I could get my work permit, the Butler’s job was my first shirt-and-tie job.
Of course, the space where I worked then is now a Rogers Jewelers, and there is no more fountain, but with each winter walk, I remember both.
At 17 years old, I first was introduced to the concept of competition in the workplace. While I did draw a minimum hourly wage, one indelibly etched in my mind at $1.60, I also worked against a 7 percent commission of my total sales. If I sold enough ladies’ and children’s shoes that began at $4.99 a pair and topped out at $12.99 and enough bottles of shoe polish and heel plates at 50 cents commission per, and that amount was greater than my minimum wage for the week, I got the larger commission-enhanced paycheck.
Unfortunately, the job did spawn some urges to prevaricate a bit to make a sale. The shoe stretcher I said we used in the back room if that 7 was too tight and we were currently out of the next half size, I can now admit, was actually the end of a broom handle that I inserted into the toe of the shoe before pushing down.
Shamefully, I remember once telling a lady that the soles on a pair of shoes I was trying to sell actually were Teflon coated, so if she stepped in gum, it would scrape off easily. While I wasn’t the first to use some sleight of hand in sales, I certainly didn’t combat the problem very energetically for a period of time.
At any rate, fortunately, guilt quickly took over, and I stopped such practices and learned, amazingly, I could sell just as much by playing it on the level, such was one of the lessons learned along the teenage way
I think about such things each time I walk in a mall that seems so very familiar yet so very different given the changes it has undergone over a half-century. I also think about the relationships I developed with older workers, either at Butler’s or at nearby stores and shops now long gone such as Richmond Brothers, Woolworth, Thrift Drugs and Chess King. Despite their age and experience in retail and the service industry, in jobs they worked to support families, they always made a high school kid feel as if he knew what he was doing when I joined them to have lunch at the MCL or at one of the many other lunch counters that were available then and certainly gone now.
I always smile when we make our circuit when I get to the end of the wing that once led into one of the anchor stores of the late 1960s, The Leader, and remember the smaller fountain that once was there, a fountain that may have become so much of an afterthought for some that it ceases to exist.
These are the snapshots of my past, an album I open each and every time I walk with Jane surrounded by others my age or older whose gaits are a bit more uneven and a bit slower than they used to be. They come, like me, on winter days approaching the winters of their lives, and if they’ve been in Lima for a long while, they have their own thoughts, perhaps, of the sound of tumbling fountain water and the unmistakable aroma of the mall.
Simply put, they may, like me, come not just for exercise … but to remember.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News and Our Generation’s Magazine, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.