Our Small Towns

What is a small town today? In our region, the tri-county area, I've been discovering the answer to that question. First, our townsfolk are earnest, caring people who want, rightly enough, to see their own small town flourish, as in previous years before huge shopping malls began to replace Main Streets. The actual, physical street still exists, but now it's mostly empty. There is only so much left—and then we find empty storefronts, ugly, wasted places where once there was light, and laughter, and the old aura of rural township. Here, a community's needs could all be met in the small family shops. Heritage weekends now occur in many small towns, Snow Hill, Princess Anne, Pocomoke, and even in the larger city of Salisbury.

But each has a depressed downtown area, empty main streets, baneful to the eye, reminders of what we've lost. Once there was a real market, not a 'convenience store.' It sold fresh cut meats, fresh vegetables—area-grown produce of all kinds—can goods, plus the occasional 'out of town' delight, such as candy. In the small department store, clothes and all kinds of household essentials could be found. And then there was the soda fountain in the local drug store, a real old-fashioned ice cream sundae or banana split or soda served in tall, frosted glasses or in wide-bodied 'boats.' And here, in the dime store, millions of delights for children, future Christmas presents such as dolls and their clothing, puzzles, games and toy trucks, besides perfume, lace handkerchiefs, stationery and other wares indispensable to 'civilized' life.

What is there now?

Banks, insurance companies, lawyers' offices; a laundromat, a video store with garish pictures in the windows, a cheap catch-all store, a chain drug store, where the least old-fashioned thing is the service. There is a gasoline station, an auto-body shop, a funeral home, maybe an antique shop, and that is all. Listen to the machine in the body shop screw the lug nuts back on. Whoosh!

Restaurants usually comprise only a few eateries of no note and little quality. Or, worse yet, a Mickie D's. There's a hardware store, remnant of a flourishing farm community, and maybe they'll put out a few bikes for the kids to look at in the summer or at Christmas.

And those other places on both sides of the street—empty storefronts. What did they used to be, with their high, vaulted ceilings made up of shiny tin tiles, giant old cash registers, glass-fronted display cabinets and creaky floors? An antique store will go in and in about three months, it'll be out again.

At Christmastime, the towns really try to shine. They put out lamppost decorations and even string a banner of merry garland from one side of the street to the other. Some store plays Christmas music.

Developing water fronts has already begun in Snow Hill and Pocomoke, but now is the time to incorporate a little of that development, gradually if we want it to last, in our empty main streets, before your town and mine become just an off the road relic overshadowed by the large shopping complexes, before all of the main street buildings tumble down, as some are doing even now. Will it be long, in their present state of disuse and decay, before these antique and characterful buildings are demolished, and the covered, concrete, cold malls replace them?

Fill the shops again, before it is too late to save our small town heritage, before an impersonal world totally replaces as rural earth.