I love shopping. Online, that is. No crowds at the malls and certainly no jostling for a parking space. Why would anyone want to traverse crowded New Jersey streets only to go to an equally crowded mall staffed by rude sales staff?
Okay, I’m exaggerating. There are plenty of nice people working at the malls and the internet doesn’t give you the “touchy-feely” you can get at a store by examining a product up close and personal, but with so many nice downtown shopping areas in New Jersey why not visit one of these instead?
I grew up in Ridgewood and at that time it was a town with a real downtown. No slight against the village now, but there are a disproportionate amount of restaurants and not enough stores to choose from. At least give us guys a hardware store to browse in for crying out loud!
My Ridgewood memories bring me back to the time when Woolworth’s and The Big Store dominated East Ridgewood Avenue. Woolworth’s, as you know, was the nation’s chief “5 and 10” store for many years in many American towns. By the time I was a kid growing up in the 1960s and 1970s there were precious few things selling for a nickel or even a dime. Except for goldfish, I think. What kid didn’t at some point have a fifty cent glass fishbowl lined with green rocks on the bottom and one or two goldfish floating around? I know that I did. Woolworth’s is gone, now just a memory.
Right next door to Woolworth’s was The Big Store. All I know about it was that the store was as large as Woolworth’s, it had wooden floors with fresh sawdust on it, and it seemed to sell mostly small appliances, tools, notions, linens, etc. Their stock seemed almost like what Woolworth’s carried, but different. In the eyes of an eight year old, the stock didn’t matter, what mattered was the sawdust on the floor. What mall today has sawdust on the floor? None that I have visited!
Without harping on Ridgewood or covering sketchy history, I still like certain downtowns. Montclair is my picture of an ideal shopping district. Maybe I should say, “districts” as the middle part of the township centered around Bloomfield Avenue isn’t the only place to shop. Other notable shopping areas in Montclair can be found in the Watchung Plaza area as well as along Valley Road in Upper Montclair. All three areas have plenty of stores to choose from and two have a feature that I like best: in-town movie theatres! Yes, there is something about attending a movie in a building that was built years before you were born, where the walls are fairly thick and you don’t hear the movie from the theatre next door while watching your movie. I particularly appreciate that once the movie is over I can visit art galleries nearby or go over to the coffee shop for something hot. Montclair offers all that and more.
Glen Rock’s downtown is special. Where else can you find a shopping district hemmed in by two railroad lines? In Glen Rock you can! The downtown area is a great place to walk around and they have some nice stores to boot, including hardware stores. While you are there, check out the rock in the glen just south of the business district located on Doremus Avenue at Rock Road. Cool, very cool.
Bloomfield’s downtown lacks parking, but it doesn’t lack potential. The townspeople are in the process of working on long term plans to build a parking garage and attract new businesses. My best guess is if they are successful in their efforts, Bloomfield will be a nice alternative to Montclair.
Over in Clifton is the Botany Village shopping district, near Passaic. Lots of nice little shops to visit and certainly a place that will remind old timers of shopping districts that have gone bye-bye!
I’m sure that I’ll catch “heck” for not naming other towns, but that isn’t the point of my short narrative. Rather, check out the shopping areas in nearby towns and see what they have to offer. It certainly beats being jammed in at the Willow-brook Mall or waiting in traffic on Route 4 in Paramus. Online shopping is a good alternative, but you still have to make your own coffee and, usually, what you can find downtown is a lot tastier.
This article originally appeared on Townstead.com, a defunct site managed by Matt Keegan. It was part of his “Life in New Jersey” series of articles.
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* Michael Pollan presented his lecture as the 2002-2003 Avenali Chair in the Humanities at the Townsend Center for the Humanities, UC Berkeley. Pollan is the author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, winner of the James Beard Award, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was named one of the ten best books of the year by both The New York Times and The Washington Post, and The Botany of Desire, among others.
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