Don't Go Changing
a handful of local businesses are totally acing the test of time
I apologize for bragging, and many of you probably know this already, but I was on the champion Parks and Rec 11-13 year old baseball team in 1992. It might have been 1991, or 1993, but either way it was a major event in my life and in the history of the city. Local baseball fans undoubtedly still discuss the skills and achievements of the 1992 (or ’91 or ’93) squad. We were that good.
Where’s the association of consumers and business leaders fighting for the strip mall businesses that discovered some crazy formula that allows them to open their doors every day for decades and never worry about reinventing their facades or their offerings?
Curiously, though, I don’t remember much of the actual baseball. Instead, my memories from that legendary season are of the after-party at Pizza Del Re. We lit that place up. I had my favorite salad, which was shredded cheese instead of lettuce, topped with bacon bits and French dressing. The cooks served up endless pizzas as we ravaged the buffet, and the waitresses brought out pitcher after pitcher of Mellow Yellow. We made it rain quarters into the Super Off-Road video game machine. We had so much fun, I don’t remember how I got home. I mean, I assume my parents drove, but that was 23 (or 22 or 24) years ago, so no specific memories of that car ride remain.
The greatest part of all this is that I can relive that exact memory because Pizza Del Re has not changed. At all. They have the same wooden salad bowls, the same ’90s mauve-and-teal fabric wreaths for decoration, and the same dish overflowing with Dum-Dum suckers (which are fresh) for your departure treat. I take my own kids there now and sit across from the Super Off-Road machine and listen to them bug me for quarters, just like I used to bug my parents. Even the prices haven’t changed. The buffet is shockingly cheap, unless they’re giving me some sort of secret discount, because, you know, I am a local baseball celebrity.
Eau Claire loves new businesses, loves “checking out” fresh offerings in our special Midwestern way. “We should go check out that new so-and-so,” or “I just checked out the new blankety-blank, and, my goodness it is just …” Even a simple remodel attracts us like 12-year-old boys to a steaming, pepperoni pie. We also love old businesses and buildings. The older the better. Tearing town a building that has some history is like amputating a limb. And if an entrepreneur fits a shiny new enterprise in a stodgy old building? Look out, entrepreneur’s bank account, we will stuff you so full you couldn’t cram in one more spoonful of pudding. But what about all our local establishments that are somewhere in between?
Take Bush’s Furniture on London Road, for example. The current owner’s father started the business in one of London Road’s strip malls somewhere before statehood, and it has since expanded into three wood-paneled sections. The walls feature a few decades’ worth of trendy paint colors. The soda machine is original, as is the receipt machine, which is operated by hand crank. Maybe it’s because they own the building, or maybe because they’ve been in business for so long, but their prices are great and their service is stellar, even if it looks like the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s got into a major argument over their decorating style.
Or there’s V&S Variety-slash-Thompson’s True Value on Clairemont. Once again, customers are soothed by the wood panel whispers of the forest, and well-worn shelves and fixtures speak of decades’ worth of assorted products. The place is like a magician’s hat. It’s small, but it has everything, even the things you’re pretty sure you’re going to have drive all the way out to Menards to get. Plumber’s putty? Of course. Obscure halogen light bulbs? Obviously. And fish. And then, in the back corner is the clearance section, where literally everything that has not sold in decades waits with orange sale stickers. Twenty-year old weed eaters and dust busters, novelty cake pans, and charmingly out-of-date shelving kits all rest in faded boxes like a retail museum. The store smells exactly like it did when I was a kid.
We’re supposed to vote for the type of city we want with our dollars, which makes me feel like I’m supposed to choose. I either value new and fresh and chrome and shiny plastic, or I prefer old and stately and downtown and historical. I can’t decide. Where’s the association of consumers and business leaders fighting for the strip mall businesses that discovered some crazy formula that allows them to open their doors every day for decades and never worry about reinventing their facades or their offerings?
You know, never mind. Pizza Del Re has some barbecue pizza on a thicker crust that definitely wasn’t there when I was kid. I hardly recognize the place.