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I was born in a small town

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This mosaic on the west end of the Olean Municipal Building depicts the history of this area. The blue ribbon running through it is the Allegheny River. The mosaic also highlights the local importance of the area's timber industry, manufacturing, oil industry, American Indians, St. Bonaventure University, and other local features. The mosaic is made of tile made by the Olean Tile Co., which shut down last month, costing 174 workers their jobs.

I grew up and still live in a small city in one of New York state's poorer counties. The city is like countless others across America: communities that once had vibrant manufacturers and industries that paid wages that provided decent, middle-class livings. Their workers fueled a strong local retail economy. Neighborhood elementary schools—seven public, three Catholic—dotted the city. We had two hospitals.

Most of that is gone now. Only three elementary schools—two public, one Catholic—remain. Many of the family owned stores on our main street are closed. Empty storefronts line the street like missing teeth in a smile. One of the hospitals closed and was razed; newcomers have no idea of what once stood on the lot.

Two former industrial sites required federal and state funds to clean up pollution. They have sat empty for decades. The number of good-paying jobs has ebbed as the remaining industries have downsized and moved operations to other states or countries—the local cutlery plant being an exception. The ceramic tile plant, which had been in business since the early 1900s, closed last month, putting 174 people out of work in a city of less than 20,000. It was just the latest body blow.

Given all that, I've stayed.

My wife (now retired) was a teacher and an elementary school principal, and she always made much more money than her husband the journalist, so it wasn't fair to ask her to uproot so I could take editors' jobs in communities just like this one. And besides, this area has a lot going for it: clean and abundant water, clear air, hills, trees, four seasons, New York's largest state park a half-hour away and all kinds of outdoor recreation: hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, skiing, snowmobiling, motorcycling, and many more. Tourism is an economic engine in this region for those reasons. I like living here. (But I should note that my mother, two of my sisters and my brother have moved far away, leaving just my oldest sister and me here.)

Another appeal is the personal nature of business as it's conducted here. When I stop by the dry cleaner, the five people who work out front know me, and I know them. The mechanic who works on my pickup truck lives across the street. The folks at the credit union know my account numbers without my having to tell them. When I walk into the sub shop, the person at the checkout counter simply tells me how much the bill is; she doesn't have to ask my name.

I recently started eating at a corner bar in my old neighborhood, and the guy who runs it called me by name the first time I was in there, even though I've only seen him once since I graduated from high school in 1972. The guy who runs the local men's clothing store doesn't just sell me shirts; he calls himself my "personal haberdasher," he knows what I like, and he knows what the word "sprezzatura" means in terms of how it relates to the way I dress.

One time several years ago, my wife's family was visiting, and we went to a nice restaurant where the owners and some of the bartenders call me by name. As were shown to our table, I kept running into people I knew. When I finally arrived at the table, my brother-in-law said to me, "You ought to be mayor."

I imagine the same kind of personal touches occur in larger areas, but I don't think they do to the broad extent that they do here. People remember you. You remember them. For the most part, they value your business. I get square deals from my auto mechanic. He referred me to a local shop for some repairs to my snowblower, and the owner found some secondhand parts that wouldn't affect the machine's performance. He didn't charge me for them. Sure, it was only a matter of a few bucks, but still, this guy's shop is his business. He didn't have to cut me a break. Then again, those parts will bring him word-of-mouth advertising worth more than the value of the parts, and I can't count the number of people I've referred to my auto mechanic.

When I first went to college, the cool kids from downstate used to call me "the hick from the sticks." My city certainly doesn't have the entertainment and cultural activities of larger cities, but I can find those things within drives of two or three hours. Unlike the kids from downstate, I can walk through any neighborhood in my city at any time of the day or night and not have to worry about my safety. All things considered, "the sticks" are all right with me.


( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 12th, 2013 01:44 am (UTC)
You've really captured the advantages of small-town living here. I will say, our suburb has some of the same feel to it in certain places. One clerk at the dry cleaner's recognizes my car when I pull up out front and engages the foot pedal on the rotating rack to retrieve hubby's shirts before I'm in the door.

While we have the choice of two Lowes and a couple of Home Depots, I do as much shopping as I can at the family owned Ed Young's True Value hardware store. They know everything about everything in there and the prices are reasonable. They'll noodle around with something and find the thingamajig necessary to fix it, no charge for time, just for the thingamajig.

Ironically, people call hubby "The Mayor," too...peas in a similar pod.

Nice post.
Jan. 12th, 2013 02:09 am (UTC)
I like the story about the dry cleaner.
Jan. 12th, 2013 01:50 am (UTC)
Lovely post
Amen. I was born in Hornell, my Mom's family is from Salamanca. Hornell was like your small town - once a manufacturing town. My Grandfather/Uncles all worked on the railroad. My mom grew up at 50 Jane Street.

In the summers we visited my grandmother - everyone knew us. We would get cookies from the bakery on the way home from Mass on Sunday. Time was marked by the tolling of the church bells.

My grandmother's house smelled of cedar and had linoleum floors. When I got a certain age it was an honor to get to accompany her to bingo once a week. (Might have been more important than church... but no one would say that out loud.) Hornell had the Irish and the Italians. They split on economic lines. Mom's family were the poor working Irish.
Jan. 12th, 2013 02:09 am (UTC)
Re: Lovely post
I didn't know you were a native Western New Yorker! Both of my parents were born and raised in Salamanca. One of my mom's brothers lived in Hornell, where he worked—you guessed it—on the Erie Railroad. Salamanca and Hornell used to be hot towns when the railroads ruled.
Jan. 12th, 2013 02:33 am (UTC)
Re: Lovely post
Small world... I have some lovely memories of those summers in Hornell. The hot days and the freezing cold community pool, getting ice cream in Canisteo, visiting family markers in a cemetery in Arkport. At night I would listen to skips on my transistor radio - the house was warm and we slept with the windows open. Hornell was the first place I ever ate rhubarb pie (which I like), the neighbors gave us tomatoes from their garden - and the best adventures were launched from the alley behind the house.

Sorry for the random flow of memories...
Jan. 12th, 2013 02:42 am (UTC)
Re: Lovely post
Anyone who's never eaten a piece of rhubarb pie hasn't lived life to the fullest.
Jan. 12th, 2013 03:05 am (UTC)
Re: Lovely post
Wait, what? What?! You're from our neck of the woods? Did I ever know this? I was born in Salamanca, but never lived there; I grew up in Allegany. Hubby was born in Salamanca, his parents' families were there; some still are - he lived there early on then moved to Olean.

Jan. 12th, 2013 11:13 am (UTC)
Re: Lovely post
I still have family in Salamanca too, and I had no idea you were born there. So I am guessing this never came up before. Like you, I did not grow up in Hornell. In fact after I was born my parents returned to Toronto where I lived for two years before we came to the States. Wow indeed.
Jan. 12th, 2013 05:01 pm (UTC)
Can you remember where some of these were?

Ten cent popcorn at Grants Department Store…Warner’s Pizza…Saturday movies at the Palace, one full feature and 50 cartoons , 50 cents…Questa’s… Melody Corner, record single 8 9 cents…all day swim at city pool, 15 cents…Par 3 golf at the Castle Motel…Miss New York State Pageant & Parade…OTH on Times Square…SBU Brown Indians…Lanier, Satalin, Kalbaugh…12th Street Via Duct…Farm City Days…Display windows at Bradner Department Stores…Der Hut…
The steer in front of Paul’s Steakhouse…Tasta Pizza on the corner of 15th & West State, cut nite 15 cents a slice…Acme Markets…Loblaws…Leo’s Market…two train stations…Dinty Moore’s…Brown Bear..Western Auto…D & K Stores…Friday nite fish fry…Hastas…Olean House Hotel…Castle Restaurant, Lou Russo, Al Cecchi Band…Gil Stinger…Abdo & Davies…Rosemary Daley…Hydrox …Central Hotel…L’Alcove Restauranr…A& P Market…Dixon’s Meatball subs…The Broaster…Lincoln Diner…Bea’s Lunch…Campbell’s Truck Stop…Mickey’s Saveway…Haven Theater…State Theater…Century Catalog Warehouse…Midtown Liquors…original On The Side Sub Shop…Hallman Chevrolet…original Mastel Ford…Mr Donut…Zip’s Ice Cream…Rocket Gas Station…etc
Jan. 12th, 2013 08:56 pm (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
You've stumped me with the locations of Questa's, Western Auto, Bea's, Zip's and Rocket.

But you forget Chiavetta's, Matson's, the Chit-Chat, the original Tito's, Olean Sub Shop, the Cabin, Lindsay's grocery, Meadowbrook Dairy, Oakleaf's, Kresge's, Montgomery Ward, the original J.C. Penney, Slot-O-Rama, the Red Barn, Pickup's, Army-Navy Surplus, the Balkan Bakery, Pancio's grocery—that's all I've got right now.
Jan. 12th, 2013 11:58 pm (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
Ohmygosh, so many memories...

The ones that jump up and down at me, hands waving madly in the air for my attention are:
Grants, Loblaws, Dixon's Subs, Mickey's, Century Catalog Warehouse, The Chit-Chat, Meadowbrook Dairy, the lunch counter at Kresge's...how about Nick's across from Grants updown? They had the best on-the-wall jukeboxes.
Jan. 13th, 2013 12:19 am (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
You've stumped me on Nick's.

Allen's Shoes. Downtown Deli (original location). Frank's Pharmacy.
Jan. 13th, 2013 12:31 am (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
Really? It was a Nick's Red Hots, long and narrow, a lot like Pickup's, but uptown more. Older Greek dude (Nick) with a younger, pretty blonde wife. (or so she seemed at the time) counter on the right, booths on the left.
Jan. 13th, 2013 03:11 am (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
Complete blank on this end. I'll have to ask my personal haberdasher. He'll remember.
Jan. 13th, 2013 04:24 am (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
Was Frank's Pharmacy the one up near the corner of Union and State, near the bank where I worked, which was Manufacturer's Hanover at the time...I'd love to see a photo of all the shops along both sides of the street back in the 70s. I used to walk from Allegany to "uptown" Olean all the time, only occasionally taking the lone bus that ran the two on a continuous loop, dropping us off in front of Grants. Man, I haven't thought about that in ages.
Jan. 13th, 2013 04:48 am (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
Frank's was on West State between First and Second, same side of the street as the bank. I used to go in there on Sunday mornings to skip out of going to Mass.

My favorite Grant's story involves the time that Duke Miller and I decided to ride our 10-speed bicycles through Grant's from the front door on Union Street to the back door on First Street. We got to the back door, where the manager was waiting for us. He made us turn around (who knows what he was thinking). So we did. Duke made it a point to detour through the ladies' apparel section, and I distinctly heard one shopper say, "Now I've seen everything."

We always used to break the chops of the woman at the candy counter by asking her for "Cream Jabbars."

Jan. 13th, 2013 05:30 pm (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
I can only imagine what that must've looked like!
Jan. 13th, 2013 01:54 pm (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
Questas,corner of First and West State, where 5 Star is now, Bea's,..between the 6th Street Sub Shop and the Car dealer on the corner...Western Auto between Brown Bear and Dinty Moores...Zip's, where Shultz Auto on West State...Rocket, East State where taxi company is today. I worked at Pancio's Grocery, but there was another one owned by a cousin right in Homer Hill. This has stirred some great memories of a great childhood growing up in Olean. The Chit Chat had great pizza...Kresge lunch counter with the balloons you pop to see what you paid for the banana split...The Broaster was where Nick's Red Hots was and was around the area of Southern Tier Realty today...It is sad that only one men's shop exists after a rich history of great retailers...Gavin McCarthy, The Printz Co., Carnahan's, Henzel's, Richard's, Steinhart's Liberty Co., Housey's, & Kneisers. You mention Allen's Shoes, Do you remember Stone's Shoes? One last one, Keopples Hobby Shop
Jan. 13th, 2013 04:00 pm (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
Western Auto and the Broaster are the only ones that sounds familiar; the other ones just aren't in my memory bank. And you raise a good point about all the men's shops ("If you don't owe Steinhart's money, you're not well dressed!"). Stone's Shoes I remember; I bought a really hip pair of shoes in there circa 1968. Koeppel's I remember—but there was also Trostle's Hobby Haven, directly adjacent to the Palace, one door north.

New entries: Rexall Pharmacy. Whelan's Pharmacy. Siegal's clothing. The Mayflower. Carroll's hamburgers. The Volkswagen dealership. Meier's Hardware. The Market Basket. The original HQ of the American Red Cross.

Jan. 13th, 2013 05:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
We had a Market Basket in Allegany - they used to let us bring in clipped coupons and gave us face-value money for them. And at Leo's (in Allegany again) you'd turn in pop bottles and get a little square of cardboard with a cents amount written on it that you could turn in as payment towards - candy, of course. Jaw breakers (but we called them fire balls) dots, neco wafers, bazooka joe bubble gum, bit o'honey...

We used to get the annual Christmas album at Goodyear, which was down by Montgomery Wards - songs by all the crooners of the day: http://yulelights.com/goodyear/goodyear.htm
Jan. 13th, 2013 05:54 pm (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
Bazooka Joe. I would have lived the rest of my life forgetting Bazooka Joe if you hadn't mentioned him. What a sad life that would have been.
Jan. 13th, 2013 05:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
I DO remember the balloons at the Kresge counter! Wow.

My mom always took me to Brown's Boot Shop for shoes, because they carried narrow widths and apparently I had quite the slender foot as a kidlet. I think it was up near Grants, on that side, in that stretch...I remember exactly what the female clerk looked like, too. Unfortunately my choices were almost always saddle shoes or some ugly, practical, brown thing except one time. One time, I had a third choice, red leather Mary Janes. Oh, you betcha I got 'em. Wore 'em until my toes practically sprouted out of the ends.
Jan. 14th, 2013 12:44 am (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
Super Duper...Gomez's Drive In...Martino's Shoe...Family Bargain Center...Fanny Farmer Candy Shop...S & H Green Stamp Store...Jeri-Cove Restaurant...Dunshee's Barber Shop...Kinter Co...Heritage Inn...Berk's Fabrics...Harvey's Pharmacy ...P.S.#3...Foss Bros...Cloud Nine...Antonio's Villa...Lucia's...Ralph's Grocery...Mini-Bar
Jan. 14th, 2013 01:45 am (UTC)
Re: Can you remember where some of these were?
You've got me on Martino's, Jeri-Cove, Dushee's, Kinter, Berk's, Harvey's, PS 3, Foss Brothers, and Ralph's.

So, I've got to counter with S.K. Tate, Carly Heater Co., Lockwood Cleaners, McKean Machine Sales, the Mobil gas station, Olean Household, Green's, Welch's, Dairyland, the place you could go bowling that *wasn't* the Bowlean or Coral Lanes, Wirthmore Feeds, Bob Davis Appliances, Sturdy's, the Capitol Hill, the Stadium Tavern, the coffeehouse, the original Olean Medical Group, and Icky's Cookies.
Jan. 14th, 2013 11:36 am (UTC)
I'll see your Icky's Cookies and raise you ...Sinclair Gas Station...Danielsons...Dow Equipment...Vivians...Lucies Jewelers...Ash's Hotel...The Roxy...The Jiminy Cricket Lounge...The Fruit Market...Swatt's Bakery...Balkan Bakery...and go all in with Guy Ross Barbershop
Jan. 15th, 2013 01:12 am (UTC)

All in on Guy Ross, eh? OK: Where was his shop located before he died? AND: Where was it located before that?

( 26 comments — Leave a comment )

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