I pulled up to O’Neil Opticians, an independently-owned optometry shop, to have my eyeglasses adjusted, a free service that was always cheerfully provided.
The store was dark. I squinted into the blackness, my brain trying to fathom what my eyes were witnessing. Empty. Everything gone, without warning. No request to come pick up thirty-five-plus years of my records. All my eyewear for decades and that of my children through their growing-up years had been carefully selected, fitted, and purchased in that shop. I’d had a relationship, built over years, with Ed O’Neil, until his death in 2015. He cared about my children and their interests, like making sure my soccer-playing son had shatterproof eyeglasses. When Cathy became the manager, we shared stories of nightmare commutes whenever I came in.
The store had struggled before the pandemic like other brick-and-mortar shops that were competing against online merchandising. But staying closed during the early days of the pandemic was the nail in the coffin for the establishment that had long occupied its Wisconsin Avenue location. I turned back toward my car, saddened that customer loyalty means little when the rent can’t be paid.
That awakening came on the heels of Lord & Taylor’s announcement that it is going out of business, after having started as a dry goods store in New York City in 1824. When I was a child and pre-teen living in New York City, my mother and I would pass through the majestic gold doorways and spend most of a day shopping there. After selecting items for me to try on, and hauling them to the dressing room, my mother would begin unbuttoning and unzipping. Chosen items were piled onto my mother’s lap, while I rehung those that would stay behind for another shopper. After hours spent trying on and making selections, we would have lunch in their Bird Cage Restaurant or enjoy afternoon tea in the Tea Room. I still remember, more than fifty years later, the little cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches on silver trays with little white doilies.
After moving from New York City to Long Island, my mother and I frequented the Lord & Taylor in Garden City. On the way there, one of the roads had a steep hill and I would shout, “Go faster, faster,” as my mother approached it. I enjoyed the thrill of a roller coaster ride as she sped up and then down that hill. And again, we shopped and shopped until my mother was too exhausted to continue, then sat chatting about our purchases while enjoying a light lunch or afternoon tea—a post-shopping tradition I have long missed.
My hot-tempered mother had more patience for shopping than any other activity. The difficulties in our mother/daughter relationship evaporated when we crossed the threshold of Lord & Taylor. And with her eye for fashion, I was always well dressed.
After moving to Maryland in 1971, I shopped at the Lord & Taylor at White Flint Mall. I was thrilled that the store won a protracted legal battle and remained the last standing vestige of the once-gorgeous, upscale mall that closed in 2015. But now a huge “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” sign shouts to passersby.
Two years ago, before my mother’s untimely death, she saw an advertisement for a tiny gold owl on a small gold chain. At Lord & Taylor. Being an avid owl collector, she was excited.
“Sarah, you’ve got to take me to Lord & Taylor. There’s a piece of jewelry I have to see.” Her urgency was unmistakable.
We went immediately to the store’s jewelry counter where she fell in love-at-first-sight with the tiny gold hooter. As the saleswoman helped her try it on, my mother regaled her with stories of the hundreds of other owls in her collection and I delighted at their mutual enjoyment. Once it was around her neck, my mother never removed it. Yet after she died, the owl was nowhere to be found.
Recalling my mother standing at that counter two years ago, I visited Lord & Taylor during their “going-out-of-business” sale. Since her favorite word was “sale,” I knew she’d be smiling down at me. I stood at the same jewelry counter and bought myself a pair of gold filigree earrings—tiny hoops that hug my earlobes—at 40% off to honor her memory. But the dearth of sales people, the plethora of wandering guards, and the closed-off dressing rooms, gave an eerie feeling of emptiness and loss.
After buying some socks on my way out, and before exiting the store for what was to be my last visit, I gazed nostalgically at the display of shoes and the racks of clothing yet to be sold. As I whispered, “Good bye. I’ll miss you,” I remembered another favorite that had existed at White Flint Mall—another place filled with happy memories of shared good times with a loved one, another place I’d had to say “good bye” to.
Bertucci’s was known for their Italian cuisine, and especially their brick oven pizzas, but I loved their roasted Tuscan vegetables – a mixture of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, artichokes, broccoli, and tomatoes with olive oil, garlic and rosemary, roasted and hot from their brick oven.
Most of all, I loved taking my then 9-year-old granddaughter, Dahlia, there. For her, the manager put together a bowl of mussels in a light wine sauce, always incredulous that a youngster enjoyed mussels. He beamed with pride when she smacked her lips. I would order a side of spinach and Dahlia would wrap a spinach leaf around each mussel and devour it as if it was a delicacy. Her happiness lit the entire restaurant.
The smell of fresh baked rolls, served right out of their oven, wafted through the dining room. Butter seeped into the warm crevasses, melting in my mouth. And if the rolls weren’t ready precisely when we arrived, the manager would give Dahlia a piece of raw bread dough to play with, replicating Hasbro’s Play Doh.
We quickly became regulars; the staff recognized us, knew our favorite table, and would bring our beverages and warm bread basket to the table as soon as we entered. The manager knew our names, and our favorite server, Tony, always greeted us with an enormous smile.
But in July 2013, Bertucci’s closed its doors and blackened its windows. The menu disappeared from the menu board outside the restaurant. Not long after, Lord & Taylor was the lone building standing, preventing the demolition of the once vibrant mall.
Crossing the parking lot to my car, I took a long look back at Lord & Taylor, grieving for the loss of businesses large and small where shared times of joy and leisure could exist in a world that became faster paced every year. Until 2020.
Before the pandemic, I frequented my new favorite eatery—Le Pain Quotidien, meaning “the daily bread”— in the Wildwood Shopping Center. I loved their heavy Austrian pine tables and rustic atmosphere. I went there with my journal in the mornings after my gym workout, nestled myself into my favorite corner table in the back of the restaurant and ordered their salmon omelet, which came with a baguette, yogurt, and side salad—the perfect high-protein meal to follow a strenuous workout. I would slather their thick peach preserves onto the baguette and wash the meal down with a tall glass of water, served in a carafe. In colder weather, I enjoyed a hot cup of their apple cider, topped with a touch of cinnamon.
My two favorite servers, Santosh and Basu, were brothers. They always knew my order, put it in as soon as I arrived, and never rushed me. After I fled from the restaurant one day upon getting a call that my mother had fallen and was being rushed to the hospital, they always asked about her and about how I was doing as her caretaker. Kindherted people. Today the restaurant is open only for take-out, Santosh has found another job in Prince George’s County after a long stretch of unemployment, and Basu is working there only part time. No longer can I spend time there with my journal or a good book. Because of the pandemic, there are currently no places in Montgomery County to linger over a cup of tea or cider, enjoying the company of others, or sit unhurried while reading or journaling.
As the pandemic raged on, losses continued.
Bagel City was my go-to place for bagels. The store was an institution for 40 years and had the best tuna melt in all of Montgomery County. I frequented Bagel City for years—ate in, carried out, and ordered platters when I catered large gatherings. But the owner, George Kavadoy, scared of contracting the coronavirus and transmitting it to his beloved wife who suffers from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), closed the establishment. Overnight it was gone. No fanfare. No going-out-of-business sales. Just brown paper covering the windows, backdrops against the cartoon paintings of little children that ran along the bottom of the glass, which have now also been washed away.
As if the loss of my favorite eateries wasn’t enough, other favorites no longer exist.
For years I patronized Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door salons, known for their fire-engine red doors. Originally in the Wildwood Shopping Center, Elizabeth Arden was the place I sought for self-indulgent, rejuvenating facials and massages. I would be escorted to their dressing area, put my clothes in a locker and snuggle into one of their cozy white bathrobes. Then I would wait for my masseuse to call me for one hour of glorious decadent pampering.
On the day of my daughter’s 2005 wedding, and for my own wedding the following year, I had a complete makeover by their well-trained cosmetologists and make-up artists who transformed my face to one of radiant beauty, making me feel like a princess. In 2018, the salon relocated to the new Pike and Rose complex at Old Georgetown Road and Route 355. Then, in 2019, the organization had an overhaul and became known as Mynd Spa. I recently drove to the salon to replenish my skin care products. To my dismay, the no-longer-red doors were locked and the “CLOSED” sign glared at me like too-bright sunlight. While my skin products are available online, the personalized service and the feeling of tight, sore muscles being massaged by gifted hands are no more.
Due to lease issues unrelated to the pandemic, my favorite children’s toy store, Child’s Play, has closed their Rockville store. I admired the store for its “balanced toy diet” approach to children’s toys. The staff believed that the “right” toy(s) could help children develop their brains, muscles, and unique strengths. They believed in the uniqueness of every child and in nurturing a child’s curiosity. I could always get help selecting the ideal toys for my grandchildren that would help them develop fine and gross motor skills. The store had narrow aisles packed with toys and books and crowds of people who had to shimmy past one another to get to the register . . . definitely not socially distant! I adored watching children examining toys, sitting on the floor reading books, or playing with some of the plastic brown and green dinosaurs that lived on a shelf at kid height. We adults had to guard our steps to make sure we stepped over, and not on, a child on the floor.
There is no fairness, no equity in the rampage of this virus. And now no Justice. The girls’ clothing store was to me and my granddaughters as Lord & Taylor was to me and my mother—shopping excursions every time the seasons changed, helping them in the dressing rooms (until they became older and more modest and no longer wanted me observing them), running back and forth to the clothing racks to exchange sizes and colors as the girls tried on clothes. I had assumed my mother’s province and reveled in every moment of it. Seeing my granddaughters’ excitement as they selected items, then watching their eyes light up and their smiles widen as favorites fit and looked well, was priceless. In our last outing to Justice, my two youngest granddaughters’ favorite purchase was matching unicorn pajamas, complete with little pink horns on the hoodies. Shopping with my granddaughters created as many beautiful memories as shopping with my mother had. But no more. Now they buy online, restricted by stay-at-home orders.
Sweet Frog, with its green and pink décor, became my granddaughters’ favorite yogurt spot due to the wide selection of flavors, the tasting cups that were given generously, and the toppings bar that extended beyond the reach of their arms. We often visited after school or for special treats after a movie or get-together. My granddaughters would try hugs and sweet talk to coax me into letting them fill the green cup—the medium size—rather than the pink, smaller cup. On the few occasions that they won me over, their delight was contagious.
My oldest granddaughter, Dahlia, loved to pour 3 or 4 flavors into the cup and mix them up to create an imaginative concoction. Some were delicious. Others, not so much. Her younger sister, Gianna, liked the gummy frogs in assorted colors, with the pink and purple frogs her favorite. My middle granddaughter, Samara, spent long minutes deliberating over the abundance of chocolate delights, as if making the most momentous decision. All three girls labored over the vast array of goodies and toppings before making their choices. And I exercised the same patience that my mother had so many years earlier.
But now the Sweet Frog sign is gone and like O’Neil Opticians, this once-colorful, sparkling store is a dark, empty shell, mirroring the emptiness felt by hundreds of thousands of people who have lost loved ones during this pandemic.
These losses were not my first.
Houston’s, located in the Towne Plaza shopping center on Rockville Pike, was my favorite restaurant . . . once. Artichokes are my absolute favorite food, and Houston’s served the best artichokes; the chef steamed them first and then grilled them to perfection. My love affair with artichokes led me to Houston’s so frequently that I learned the best times to go, when there weren’t the long lines that reflected Houston’s popularity.
I savored the tactile pleasure of gently pulling each outer leaf off the stem, making sure not to pull from the heart, putting the leaf in my mouth, and running it through my teeth to scrape off the meat. After the grazed outer leaves were piled high in the bowl, I would lift the smaller inner leaves (sometimes called the “choke”) all together for one last dip in their delectable classic Caesar dressing and then eat the heart out. A most sensual experience that was never rushed.
Everything about Houston’s delighted me—the gently lit atmosphere, the team approach used by the servers to provide outstanding service, the moderate prices, consistently good quality food, their casual attire dress code. My heart broke when the restaurant closed in mid-December 2009 after the landlord and restaurant owners couldn’t agree to terms on a new lease. Hundreds of people suffered my same disappointment. Many lost their jobs.
But unlike the past, when Houston’s closure was a singular event, the pace of current closures is staggering.
Our global pandemic has made in-person shopping a thing of the past, leaving empty storefronts in its wake. Buying by clicking on an internet link has replaced compassionate servers and salesmen and women who offered help and advice, pampering, and feel-good customer service. Instead of losing a favorite every few years or so, cherished establishments are closing almost weekly.
On the global scale, each of these and similar closures has meant lost jobs, increased unemployment, food shortages and hunger, and emotional stress. On the personal level, we have lost the places, routines, and rituals that are important to relationships and that brought joy to our lives. Continuity is broken. I miss shared experiences with loved ones, unhurried meals served by caring people, the ability to linger leisurely over a meal, and seeing delight in the faces of those around me. The pace of change has accelerated at a rate unequaled in my seven decades. And though I try bend like a willow to survive in this increasingly impersonal world, I continue to grieve times and places lost to a virus.