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Main Street in Orange, painted by Todd Brown, used to be a place where everyone knew one another.
FOUR DECADES of change
I suppose, if we wanted to lay blame, we could start with the "disappearing Main Street" phenomenon. Downtown Orange during the mid-1960s sounds like something from another world. In my youth, Main Street boasted two department stores, three drugstores with lunch counters, a men's clothing shop, two furniture stores, a stationer, a grocer that made home deliveries, a butcher shop, a jeweler, an optometrist, two hardware stores, a Five and Dime, a movie theater, two banks, two pool halls, a service station, a train depot and a liquor store.
These businesses were all owned or operated by local folks. The people who sat next to you in church were the same people who doctored your kids, sold you your washing machine, filled your gas tank and offered your teenage children summer jobs. When you shopped, you weren't just getting the stuff you needed; you also were visiting neighbors.
When I was a kid, the great Saturday pastime was collecting bottles. We'd spend the morning rummaging around the neighborhood looking for glass soda bottles to cash in for 2 cents apiece. It took a full morning's work and a wagonload of bottles to yield enough cash to buy a decent amount of penny candy.
Around noon, we'd roll the wagon through the doors of the Safeway, right up to the manager's window. We'd unload the bottles, collect the cash and then hightail it to the Frozen Custard store on Madison Road, where we'd spend every cent on Pixie Stix, Peanut Butter Logs and Mary Janes.
Remarkable as it sounds now, we weren't a bother to anyone. The Safeway manager knew us, and he knew our parents. He valued and rewarded our resourcefulness. Can you imagine such a scenario in today's supermarket?
Then there was the Hostess man. I never knew his name, but once a week he'd drive a postal- type, open-door delivery truck through our neighborhood taking orders for bread, cakes, pies and other snacks. If I managed to catch him at the stop sign, he'd let me hop in and ride the rest of the way down the block. As he pulled up to our house to take the weekly order, he'd sneak me a package of cupcakes with orange icing. Time was when a child's life was full of contact with such adults, people who weren't really family but who treated you like family anyway.
I recently spotted a signboard in front of a local business exhorting us all to "Shop Orange First." That's a tough sell. Long ago Wal-Mart, Target, Lowe's, the Home Depot and a thousand other suburban mega-stores beckoned; and we all heeded their siren song. Of course, what we gained in selection we sacrificed in community. And what we saved in dollars we lost in personal connection. To my mind, it wasn't an even trade.
The personal touch wasn't just confined to retail businesses. Take Dr. Warren, for instance. When I came down with pneumonia one Halloween night (I was maybe 6 years old), my mother hustled me off to his house on Blue Ridge drive. It didn't matter that she had interrupted his weekly poker game (at least not much). She called, and then she took me to his house, where he examined me, prescribed penicillin and then returned to his card game. I'm sure medical care today is far better, but the system isn't nearly so humane.
To me, the small-town personal touch was best embodied in someone like Henry Wilson. An employee of the town maintenance crew, Henry's job for much of the '70s and '80s was sweeping the street. All day long he'd push his cart up and down Main Street, sweeping the gutters and jawing with local passers-by. Hard to believe we were once a town willing to pay an elderly gentleman a salary just for keeping the curb clean.
A friend recently wrote me a note saying, "Many of us remember a town and a countryside lost to questionable progress." I know exactly what she means.
JOHN B. AMOS is a lifelong resident of the town of Orange. He teaches English at St. Anne's-Belfield School in Charlottesville. He can be contacted at