Oral History: Marianne
Interviewed by Courtney McGee
Ms. Cochran is designated by M,
while the interviewer is designated by C.
How long have you lived in Oberlin?
Pretty much all my life. I left for college and a few years
afterwards. So probably lived here fifty years.
What businesses are you involved with currently?
The most recent was the Ben Franklin store.
Could you be more specific about your involvement?
I managed the Ben Franklin for about 40 years.
ThatÕs you job description currently?
We sold the business this summerÉso now IÕm retired.
You family had a lot of experience with retail here in
My father actually came to Oberlin in 1935, and he was that
actually started the Ben Franklin. Then my brother had a
clothing store, called Powers and Gauley (?)
The main focus of my project is the Victor Gruen Plan. Do you
know much about that, or does that name ring a bell?
Yeah, I recollect it. At the time when that plan was put in
effect, I was in school. So, what I remember about it was what I
heard at the dinner table.
So, what did you hear around the dinner table?
I think what that wasÉthat was about the time that malls were
becoming places where people wanted to shop. That was, I think,
downtown OberlinÕs quote ÔanswerÕ to the mall. They
thought that if they could close the street and make it more
mall-like they would continue to attract customers. Before the
malls started, Oberlin was a primary destination for a lot of
people. Of course, when the malls came along, they become the
primary destination for shopping. I imagine that a lot of towns
tried different ways to recapture that dominance. This was an
attempt to do that.
How do you feel about shopping malls today, and their affect on
Oberlin as a shopping district?
As a merchant, I think that we finally realized, after trying as
lot of different things, that we were never to be a primary
shopping destination again. We had a secondary position. There
was a niche, particularly with the variety storeÉif you
didnÕt have time to go to the mall, you stayed in Oberlin to
shop. ThatÕs not everybody. Over there years, there have been
a lot of citizens of Oberlin who have been very loyal customers.
They have done their primary shopping here. But, on the whole,
most people will go to the mall. For instance, if youÕre
trying to find a dress in Oberlin, youÕll probably only
findÉmaybeÉa couple dozen in your size. If you go to the
mall, itÕs endless. You can look at 100 or 200Éyou always
feel that thereÕs something you havenÕt seen, even after you
make your purchase. Some people like that, other people donÕt
like the crowds, the congestion, the lack of service. TheyÕd
just as soon go somewhere else where someone will say, for
instance, ÒHi Carol. We just got this dress in, and we think
youÕd really like it.Ó
So what can the downtown retailers provide instead of variety?
The thing that the retailers have pushed for quite a long time
is customer service. A lot of people like it if you call them by
name. Sometimes thereÕs general chitchatÉlike ÒI hear Mary
is giving a recital this weekend.Ó In general, in a small
town, you can treat the people as people and not just as
(Shows the third plate of the Oberlin Central District Study, by
Victor Gruen Associates, 1957/1975 map) What do you think about
Since hindsight has a lot to do with this, we all know that it
turned out not to be a good thing. IÕm not sure how long this
plan went into effect.
IÕm not sureÉ
Well, IÕm not sure either. But, there was an awful lot of
criticism. It was inconvenient, people didnÕt like the one way
idea, and the citizens just plain didnÕt like it. It was a
drastic change, and now that we look back, it wouldnÕt have
made a difference anyway. The trend had already started. I can
understand why they tried it. There was great concernÉwhat
were we going to do with the small downtowns?
think now, for instance, whenever a discussion among the
merchants of West College is brought up, when someone would like
to have a festival or something on West College and close it,
the merchants are reluctant because it cuts off traffic to their
stores, and people canÕt come down easily and shop.
Is that one of the disadvantages of the current/traditional
retail set-up? That the two-street layout makes it difficult to
hold events like festivals?
I donÕt think so. Someone might say, ÒWeÕd like to have a
bake sale. LetÕs close West College.Ó The merchants would
say no, people want to park in front of the stores and do their
shopping. They donÕt want to be routed around and then figure
out how to get to the stores.
kind of kiddingly mention the Gruen plan now, realizing that it
would have been a disaster.
not sure if youÕre aware, but there was another plan that
never got off the ground. I think it came after this one. This
one was to go ahead and try to make downtown into a mall. I even
think there were one or two contacts made with ALCOA, of course,
because of the Chares Martin Hall connection. The idea was to
tear down the buildings on West College Street, and build and
aluminum building. It was to be a tribute to Charles Martin Hall
in a way. We would
be a shopping center. We
would have the buildings in the back, and the parking lot in the
front. And ALCOA
was approached, but I donÕt think they got many return phone
calls. You can see what was happening at the time if you put
yourself in the merchantÕs time slot.
Back in the 50s they were seeing that business was not
going to ever be what it was before unless they did something
drastically to look like a shopping mall.
We laugh at those things now, but I think they were
serious attempts to keep downtown the way they thought of
shopping in the early 50s. A lot of things were tried.
You hinted earlier that, even with the plan, this would be a
secondary shopping area.
ItÕs easy to see, looking back 45 years, that things
were changing rapidly and would never be the same again.
Would there be anything that could?
I donÕt think so, the reason being the sheer square footage of
the retail space in a mall compared to the retail space in
Oberlin. PeopleÕs lifestyles changed. People got cars.
My father said that in the early 40s, the stores would be
open on Saturday night and this was the entertainment.
All residents came in, and the streets were crowded. More
people got cars and became more mobile. Then, pretty soon that
didnÕt happen anymore, so merchants figured Saturday night was
the wrong night, so weÕll try Friday night. This was probably
evolving since the 30Õs, but I think shopping centers were the
real wake up call. I
think that the variety of merchandise changed. Pretty soon you
noticed there were no childrenÕs shops anymore, no shoe
stores, and as the competition moved in, the stores couldnÕt
support themselves, and that is still happening today.
How well, in general, do you think Oberlin survived that
change from an Oberlin perspective as well as considering the
situation of other down towns?
Well, Oberlin did very well. ItÕs not because they were
smarter merchants, its because Oberlin College is here. IÕve
known merchant in other small towns that were excellent
merchants, but there was no reason anymore why people should
shop down town. Although Wellington is better with their main
street program but if you ask anyone on the street whether they
would prefer to shop in Wellington or Oberlin, they would more
likely come here. Because the College is here we have a pretty
nice variety of merchandise.
In Wellington you wonÕt see as much. If the weather
turns cold and people donÕt have any mittens, people will not
drive out to the mall to buy mittens. ItÕs convenient.
You can eat, pick up greeting cards, or find whatever you
need. ThatÕs whatÕs really keeping Oberlin alive.
What are your feelings about this plan in terms of its
affect on the character of down town?
I think that it was doing a lot of the things the malls
were doing (and still do).
I think that the Gruen plan disrupted the citizensÕ
normal route and I think thatÕs probably the reason why it
didnÕt succeed. As I recall, this was set up on a temporary
basis where they brought planners in an attempt to see if it
would work. The criticism from the citizens made them realize that it was
not going to work. The logistics of it make it seem unlikely for
the routes to get re-routed.
ThatÕs a very difficult thing to do.WeÕve even had
trouble trying to run parades down Main Street. Rerouting a
highway ties into a lot of things. The fire department, for
example, is located on 58. If it was rerouted it would probably
effect their response time to fires, which would alter the
insurance rates of the businesses. Many, many things would have
needed to be considered.
was a very imaginative idea. I have to commend the merchants for
trying it. We have to be one of very few towns that tried
something so entrepreneurial and imaginative.
Well, especially considering the size of Oberlin. The towns
IÕve noticed that have tried to enact plans such as this were
suburban, with large cities nearby, or urban. They could
capitalize on the large populations there.
You really cannot say that they sat back and let this phenomenon
happen. They really tried to keep Oberlin the way it was back in
the late 30s.
The most noticeable thing about the Gruen Plan is the addition
of a lot more parking. Do you think parking is really that much
of a problem?
Aside from the fact that the college is here, the other thing
that kept Oberlin viable was off-street parking. Granted, there
is probably not enough. Yet, our situation is a lot better
compared to so many other towns.
know, a lot of things were kicked around at that time, one of
which was parking meters. But when you consider a mall, where
the parking is free, why would you want to put a meter up? A
group of merchants got together and purchased the property
behind West College, and the area next to the Apollo, and set up
a private parking corporation. They wanted to maintain free
parking for the customers. The merchants pay to maintain it, so
that the free parking is there.
good example of a town that has no parking is Amherst, Ohio.
They only have parking on the street. There are not many towns
in this region that have the amount of free parking that we do.
the merchants of the 50s and 60s looked for ways to combat the
shopping malls, the most effective thing was the addition of
more free off street parking.
My final question is, as Oberlin stands today, are there any
changes or additions that need to be made?
We all think of stores that would be nice to have. You notice
that in the summer, or on a weekend afternoon, that Oberlin has
become kind of tourist destination for people from the
surrounding area. The way we could tell at BenÕs was the
comments like ÒI havenÕt seen an old variety store since I
was a kid.Ó Ultimately, there will only be a few small towns
that will be able to keep that small town atmosphere. Oberlin
has a pretty good shot at that. We have a nice selection here.
We have enough that people will drive here. Not only will they
enjoy the small town atmosphere, but the college has a lot to
kind of compare it to, years ago when you had the old-fashioned
general store. ThereÕs one left in Westin, Connecticut. If you
can be one of the last survivors, youÕre going to be a tourist
destination. If people go through Vermont, theyÕre likely to
go to Westin. So, if you can hang on long enough, you do can do
shops help, too. Bead Paradise is a great example. And Ben
Franklin now, with MindFairÉthatÕs a very unique and unusual
combination of goods. These are places you donÕt see in a
ItÕs interestingÉthe stores youÕve chosen to highlight.
You talked earlier about how the sale of impulse items keeps
Oberlin viable. But here, itÕs about providing an atmosphere,
or goods, that you wonÕt find in a mall. Is it about a
striking a balance between those two things?
I think that, certainly, a small downtown has both. You need
stores that generate traffic, like GibsonÕs and BenÕs. If
you can get enough constant traffic, this creates a nice base
for the unusual store. As a merchant, I always felt that the
more stores that could bring traffic to town, the better it was