*Note: Richmond Memories was a series produced by Virginia Public Media that I saw on our local PBS station (WCVE) years ago. It covered reminiscences of life in the Richmond, VA area from the 1920s through the 1960s.
In my mind I revisit a handful of places more frequently than others.
Having grown up in the Tri-Cities area of Virginia, I think a lot about different places in Richmond, since going to Richmond was kind of how my family “went to town.”
For an HSP, imaginative kid, there was a strange, oversized promise encoded in the Richmond skyline. Riding north on I95, seeing the giant Phillip Morris cigarette, followed by the looming directives of billboards, then passing the clock tower of Main Street Station as the swarm of high-rises drew you in – the ritual manifested a sort of hyper-reality that appealed to the senses of a rural fledgling who spent a lot of time hemmed in by unpopulated acreage and woods (and maybe had a touch of mild megalophobia?).
We’d usually visit one of a handful of now-defunct malls (Chesterfield’s Cloverleaf Mall, Henrico’s Azalea Mall, Virginia Center Commons in Glen Allen where I once placed in a singing competition), and occasionally the Burlington Coat Factory. It’s funny to think back on, but these felt like event destinations simply because they were different than the old Colonial Heights Southpark I was used to.
Near Burlington was an Arby’s with the vintage cowboy hat signage where we’d eat after shopping, its frozen yogurt bar with myriad toppings a choice delight. We’d usually get our lunch to go and sit in the car listening to Lite 98.1; I’d hear Bread, Bee Gees, Elton, Chris de Burgh, Bobby McFerrin, Linda Ronstadt – and I learned to approach classic adult contemporary with the same curiosity I would later direct toward the alternative rock of 106.5 The Buzz.
Pre-Michaels there was MJ Designs with its Bead Alley that offered a swoon-worthy array of unique clay and glass beads in tiny drawers for jewelry making. I remember mom and I making a dash for it once in warm summer rain, while dad stayed in the car listening to sportsball on AM radio. I still have some of the earrings I made, and they suit me better now than when I was a kid.
“Ghost stiffies?” Riiight.
For a young teenager hitting up the Midlothian area, there was Picasso Moon, the densely packed hippie import haven that reeked of incense. It was hard choosing just one or two items from their treasure trove, and I’d spend lots of time intensely scanning display cases and going in and out of the dressing room, hellbent on avoiding buyer’s remorse. Enter what then was still a novel thing called Olive Garden in the same shopping center, and a pasta lover on her birthday who’d just scored polymer clay bead rings and a tie-dyed maxi dress could make a night of it.
On West Broad there was a Peaches Music paneled with the chain’s signature re-creations of classic album covers. I can still smell the curious artificial-grape-like scent that pervaded the rows of cassettes and vinyl, and envision certain cover art that intrigued and appalled me as I perused the aisles in the mid-nineties: Electriclarryland, Tales from the Punchbowl, I Care Because You Do.
Lately, what I’ve been thinking about most is the Borders Books and Music that stood on West Broad until 2011. They had an open mic night circa 1997 where I cut my teeth on reciting poetry and performing original music before a crowd. There was a motley crew of regulars. A cute redheaded wayward in what I remember as a sequined newsboy hat, though this may be inaccurate. An offbeat middle-aged dude who always wore a wife beater and shorts with tall black socks; one time he came with a bottle of cough syrup which he drank from during his performance. A salt-and-pepper lit prof type who compared a song of mine to Leonard Cohen, which drove me to go figure out who Leonard Cohen was. There were a host of other eccentrics I can’t recall at the moment. And there was the CD section with its listening stations that allowed you to preview new releases in their entirety. I’d always be either jittery in anticipation, or warm in the afterglow, of performing, as I investigated the likes of Life In Mono, k.d. Lang’s Drag, Emily Bezar’s Moon in Grenadine.
As I fact-checked this entry, I found it alarming how difficult it was to find online photos of these places that represented how they were during the eras I frequented them. All the more reason to preserve them in word pictures, I suppose.