GUEST POST: The Lost Shops of Oberlin
Eoin, one of our summer interns, has lived in Oberlin for seventeen years. Our resident expert, he reminisces on what Oberlin has been, and what it continues to mean to him.
Having lived in the town of Oberlin for nearly my whole life, I've seen the history of Oberlin business unfold right in front of my eyes. I've seen restaurants come and go, businesses rise and fall, and the promise of new local stores open and then shut their doors. Part of the beauty of coming to college here in my hometown is that I have a unique connection to the spaces where the shops stand today. It's always been a fascination of mine while walking down the streets of Oberlin with friends — going to the Apollo to catch a weekend matinee, or heading to Mandarin for dollar fried rice — to look at the current shops and admire them for the unique history stored away in each of these buildings.
It's a February afternoon and we make our way into The Local, descending the stairs into a subterranean coffee shop, reminiscent of a Brooklyn-esque cafe. The whirr of the espresso machine drowns the inaudible dialogue of college students and professors focused intently on their computers and the daily issue of the New York Times. As we wait, I glance at the wall underneath the extensive collection of coffee cups shown on display, admiring the photography of different street scenes of colonial Oberlin throughout its history. Not even five years earlier would I have been walking into a storage basement of the Campus Dry-Cleaners, full of out-of-commission machinery and For Lease signs ready to come upstairs to the main window space.
It was a place I actually got to frequent as a kid growing up. Whenever I spent the day with my dad after he had just returned from a week-long business trip, going to the dry cleaners became a frequent chore of ours. Behind the counter stood a fairly short man to whom my dad was no stranger. They briefly exchanged a few words, either about my dad's most recent trip or the state of the dry-cleaning business. After their brief exchange, the man flipped the switch on the machine, bringing my dad's clothes around to the front.
I remember being enthralled by the process of the machine spinning around to reveal my dad's clothes, as it provoked a number of mysteries in my young 4-year-old brain. What sorcery powered such a construct? Whose clothes were on the rack as well? Was the man behind the desk secretly a wizard? Could I ride the machine if I asked nicely enough? Before I could ask, my dad urged me out of the shop and back to our car, almost as if he saw the mischievous gleam in my eye.
At Campus Video, my brother and I would poke and prod my parents, begging them to rent just one more movie for the evening (perhaps this time it was Black Sheep, a crude-humored '90s comedy which may or may not have been a bit inappropriate for my young age). The store itself perhaps stayed alive longer than it should have after Netflix and other online video-providing websites began to achieve greater prominence in our culture. The basement housed Ade's Place, a small underground store selling art and clothing, but never seemed to get any major attention sharing a space with a video store. To our persistent pleading, my mother throws the hammer down and tells us no to Black Sheep, and instead issues a fair compromise: Tommy Boy.
It was to Java Zone that my Mom would take my brother and I out to get bagels and Italian sodas one Saturday of every month. We would walk in and immediately be greeted by our names by a college student named Alonzo. It was a place my parents never really cared for, but the prospect of scoring a bagel and cream cheese was always big for me. Plus, the shop itself had a busy, bustling vibe that excited both my brother and I. Whenever they called for our food, it was always yelled out behind the counter, and the workers would hustle back to work to tend to the next order.
The memories have a tendency to blur together, but I compile these memories in my mind to create a collective experience. The shop itself may not have yielded anything significant, but it was a microcosm of a greater experience of my upbringing in the town of Oberlin. Even with the dry cleaners' doors being closed for almost 5 years now, a part of me still exists within the faded remnants of a shop gone out of business.
My thoughts escape me as the man behind the counter asks for my order. He's a tall man with a thick, well-groomed beard, wearing an aged backwards hat with a pen resting on top of his pierced ear. The dissonant noise of the coffee shop continues to flood my ears as I look back at him and ask for a large coffee, cream and sugar. I sit down with my two friends as we begin talking about our classes for the day, and the eminent dread of school work that night. We finish our drinks, and eventually find the energy to get ourselves up and head to the library to embark on the long night ahead.
Leaving the Local, I can't help but look around at all the buildings, at all of the old shops that once stood, now replaced with new ones. The experiences all come together in one instant that enables me to see every business, every shop and every memory of these places once again. As one of the few Oberlin students who has doubled as an Oberlin resident, I feel a strong connection to all of these shops that have come and gone throughout my life in Oberlin. The different buildings around the town of Oberlin — the ones that housed the lost shops of Oberlin — symbolize my own growth as an individual. I depend on these buildings to tap into my youth, a past self, the wondrous free spirit perusing around the downtown area with 5 dollars in hand trying to find the best bargain in town. Now a college student spending another 4 years of my life in the town, I realize that although I have done a great deal of growing, my past self will always exist in the red-bricked skeletons lining the downtown area.