I grew up in a small, small town. It is a picturesque little place...if you have never been to a place that looks like small town storybook America come to life, then Decorah would be an excellent place to start. It has a downtown of cute turn of the century (19th-20th toc) architecture, with independently owned shops in every storefront. It looks exactly like a quaint little town should. But it was in the middle of nowhere and catered to a local audience, and when I was a kid they simply didn't have the wide selection available in the larger cities.
We would therefore make shopping trips to malls in the tri-state area to get access to more choice. There were back to school shopping trips, and trips in the spring for lighter-weight wardrobe items, but the best ones were at Christmas time.
My dad's family lives in Cedar Rapids, so we'd head there to visit and take in some shopping at the same time. The first day was always about Armstrongs in downtown. It was one of those classic old department stores...a city block big, with levels of clothing and housewares and toys and electronics - everything you could want in one place. When we were little, we'd go off with one of our parents while the other did the sneaky stuff, and then we'd meet for lunch and there'd be a swap and we'd head off with the other. When we were older, we were given a larger Christmas allowance for shopping and we were allowed to venture out on our own, which was sometimes about buying gifts, and sometimes about following Mom and Dad to see where they were going and what they were buying. Armstrongs had those cool anamatronic window displays, so at some point we'd have to go outside to marvel at the magical little vignettes inside. (Armstrongs also gave out some of the strongest cardboard gift boxes known to man, and though the store has been out of business for 20 years it is still possible that you'll receive a gift in an Armstrongs box at our house...we recycle, my friends.) It was a full day, and we were exhausted by the end of it.
On day two, we'd go to Lyndale Mall. It was not a fancy indoors kind of mall, but it did have a Younkers and a lot of other cool shops, so it was good enough for us. And when Westdale opened, we added that, too. And then you'd think we'd be done, right?
A few weeks later, we'd go to Tripoli to pick up my Grandma B for the holidays and continue the extra half hour to Waterloo and Cedar Falls for MORE shopping. Mom had a system (or perhaps Dad dictated this...who's to know? Mom seemed to run the shopping activities, so I've always assumed.) These were day trips, and you had to be efficient. There were two malls to choose from, but we'd start at the mall in Cedar Falls because it was: a) closer and b) had a Bishop's buffet.
Bishop's was the highlight of any shopping trip. It was a classic cafeteria style restaurant, kind of an Old Country Buffet before OCB was cool. Let me tell you, Bishops was pure heaven to a kid. You could have macaroni and cheese, ham, hot dogs, french fries, mashed potatoes and gravy, jello, fruit cocktail - you name it, they had it, and you got to point and order and then the nice server would hand it to you and you could put it on a tray and carry it to the table all by yourself. The power was dizzying. While my parents were generally of the eat-your-vegetables variety, exceptions were possible, especially with the siren song of fried chicken and roast beef beckoning from the strange orange warming lights. (I still feel a little thrill when I see a slab of something basking preternaturally amber in their glow.) Every meal at Bishops ended with their french silk pie, a sickeningly sweet combination of rich milk chocolate and whipped cream, with a graham cracker crust and chocolate curls on top. Mmmm MMMMMM. I have no idea how we didn't bounce straight out of the car with the sugar rush. Even we understood it was evil, which made it all the more fun.
My Grandma B came with us, but she did not enjoy shopping in the slightest. When we'd get to the mall, we'd find her a bench and she'd sit there for hours watching people and eavesdropping. (Two of my favourite hobbies...I think I learned them from her.) This was also quite handy when you didn't feel like carrying your packages anymore, as we could drop them with her and she'd watch them until you were ready to go.
And then you'd think we'd be done, right? Nope.
When we were older and more malls had opened, we'd go to LaCrosse for a quick stop at Shopko and Daytons. Or maybe Rochester for Daytons and Carsons. Or maybe Burnsville for Daytons and Target. The possibilities were endless. And therefore, so was the shopping.
Christmas gave us the perfect excuse to get out of town, to explore the world - something you just won't understand if you grew up in a larger metropolitan area. I loved these excursions as much as Christmas itself. They gave me a chance to breathe the "city" air and to imagine a life where I didn't have to buy things at the dingy JC Penney's on Water Street that smelled like musty rubber gripper steps and old linoleum.
The possibilities were endless.