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Wednesday, June 20, 2007 06:06 pm

Uniquely Springfield

Downtown offers a respite from cookie-cutter world

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PHOTO BY AMY KARHLIKER
Untitled Document A couple of years ago I went to Washington, D.C., for a short vacation. Actually, I wasn’t in the District proper; I was in some burb less than five miles but more than 40 minutes from there. To be honest, I don’t even remember the name of the town I stayed in. As I was hanging up my clothes, I realized that I had packed everything I didn’t need and not much of what I did. I’d packed the important things: the dress I would need for the swanky formal affair we were to attend, my swimsuit and cover-up, a white slip — but no black slip and no black shoes. The thought of wearing my little black dress with a white slip peeking from under the hem nearly had me paralyzed with fear. Call me old-fashioned, but wearing a white slip under a black dress is like inviting Stacy and Clinton of What Not to Wear to publicly thrash me. The entire world would know that I am not the sophisticated city girl I’m trying to be. What to do? I didn’t know my way around town, and I had to have it in a hurry — my lack of black underthings was discovered, of course, about an hour before cocktails. Lo and behold, there was a Wal-Mart — within walking distance, even! I trekked to Wal-Mart, dodged the cart guy, and made my way to the lingerie. As expected, I found not only a black slip but also nylons, a new pair of black shoes, chocolate, and a Diet Pepsi.
It wasn’t until I was checking out that I was hit by a profound, at least for me, realization: I knew I wasn’t in Springfield, but how could I tell? All the evidence indicated that I was in the Parkway Pointe Wal-Mart. I was able to walk in the front doors and go directly to the item I needed, without pausing, without wondering, “Hmmm . . . where do you suppose they keep the     . . . ?”
I paid the cashier, walked back out the door, and had another frightening déjà vu — and not the Springfield kind, either: Right across from the Wal-Mart were my hotel and a Bakers Square. Down the road were McDonald’s and Walgreens. Around the corner from Walgreens was a Starbucks. What’s the problem? Well, nothing really — except, as I said, I don’t even remember the name of the town I was in. I might as well have been in Springfield, for all I discovered about the place. I had no experience there that I couldn’t have here. In fact, I could go anywhere in the country, anywhere in the world, where there’s a Wal-Mart, a Walgreens, a McDonald’s, a Starbucks, and have literally the same experience over and over again. What’s wrong with having the same experience every place? Unless you’re Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, maybe nothing is wrong with it — except, if that’s the case, why bother traveling or, for that matter, learning? Why bother going to Hawaii or Florida, Paris or London? Why bother learning about history or art or food or biology, even? What I learned was, had the Wal-Mart not saved me from my fashion-challenged self, I might have had to risk taking time to find a dress shop and getting there; I might have had to risk finding out about the place I was staying. I might have had to risk actually speaking with one of the natives. Eww. All right, you may be asking, where is she going with this? Actually, I am going to downtown Springfield — a great getaway from all of that sameness we seem so intent on creating. When I first moved to Springfield, late in the summer of 1991, I was deeply saddened by the lack of a downtown. Back then there was very little music, just a couple of interesting shops, and only the expensive or the mundane for food. Across from the Old State Capitol on Fifth Street was a dirty Hardee’s and a dirtier Osco drug store, a Fannie Mae candy shop, and many dark windows. As an outsider, my impressions of Springfield were not good. Now I find downtown a beacon of hope. We still face many of the problems today that existed then — prostitution, homelessness — but what I love about downtown Springfield is its eclecticness. We have a couple of unique coffee shops, an artists’ co-op (the Studio on 6th), two great used-book stores, a gourmet popcorn shop, and several great restaurants (Café Brio, Sebastian’s, Z Bistro — all offering interesting and delicious experiences). I am remiss if I don’t mention the Food Mart, the oldest and longest-owned family grocery in Springfield and a step back in time to when a deli was really a deli. Recently, a fabulous new shoe store with a beautiful storefront — ShoeTopia — has finally graced our downtown. It fits my idea of what a French boutique looks like. For the sake of proper worship, each shoe occupies its own grotto. In addition to shoes, ShoeTopia sells purses, glass jewelry made by a local artist, umbrellas, notecards and notepads, coffee mugs, sunglasses, and interesting underthings no woman should be without. Does ShoeTopia have everything under the sun, made by 7-year-olds who are paid 40 cents a day? No. The store carries a couple of lines as classics and a very fine collection of lesser-known but equally desirable designers. Everything ShoeTopia sells, including the classics, has a story behind it. The owners have purchased their merchandise from designers and suppliers whom they have personally met and liked. You won’t find a single one of these items or brands at Wal-Mart or Target or JCPenney. And shopping at ShoeTopia means that you will be pampered: The owners — Amy Hathaway, Cindy Fuener, Shanta Thoele, and Karen Everingham — work hard to make sure that you are happy. They even have chocolate — free.
Some of the downtown’s transformation may be in part a result of the increased number of visitors to the new museum, but the transformation was taking place long before the museum was built. Places such as Sebastian’s, Augie’s Front Burner, Porgy’s, and the Cardologist were really on the front lines of revitalizing Springfield’s downtown. Perhaps the museum further energized the transformation, but it was taking place nonetheless. Folks might think I’m one of those left-wing commie pinkos who hates capitalism. That’s OK, but, for the record, I don’t hate capitalism. I just think we’ve forgotten about value — and I think that we’re so accepting of the global economy that we don’t pay attention to the local economy. I’m not an economist, but I’m not sure how the global economy works if the local one doesn’t. The big guys do not have the corner; they have the entire block — and, frankly, it’s time we took it back. Too many blocks in Springfield have a Walgreens or a CVS. How many corporate pharmacies can this town support, anyway? What do Walgreens and CVS say about Springfield that they don’t also say about New York City — or Tokyo or Paris, for that matter? There’s all kinds of money to be spent and made at the places that make Springfield Springfield. So the next time you come to town for groceries or shoes or bread, go downtown. I know it takes longer, and, yes, you actually have to go to more than one store. But if you go on a Saturday morning you can hit the farmers’ market — yet another of the downtown’s unique and value-laden experiences — for all your fresh produce at reasonable prices. While you’re there, stop in at ShoeTopia and buy a new pair of sunglasses, a necklace, or some shoes that really make a statement about you: where you’re from, who you are, what you value. Then hit the Trout Lily Café for an awesome cup of iced coffee (with coffee ice cubes, thank you) and some quiche or head over to Café Brio for a cocktail and appetizers. Downtown Springfield tells the world who we are. We want people to come here and really find us out. We aren’t Wal-Mart or JCPenney or Macy’s. So go downtown — find out or remember for yourself who we are. If you don’t know what’s downtown, check out the Downtown Springfield Inc. Web site (www.downtownspringfield.org) for a current listing of all the businesses downtown, their addresses, and their phone numbers. You’ll find everything from a stamp-making business to art galleries to cool pubs.
The next time you’re traveling, think about getting to know somebody else: Visit his downtown; buy or do something that says, “I was here.”
I promise: Try it once; you’ll love the experience, and you’ll have a real and good memory — which is what life is really all about, right? 

Amy Karhliker wrote “Unkindest cut,” published in the Oct. 12 edition of Illinois Times.

Also from Amy Spies Karhliker

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