Last week when we went to Charleston for the Coal River Mountain rally, I suddenly realized – it was Christmastime and I was in Charleston, for the first time in more than 30 years.  I had trouble finding the Southside Bridge, so we ended up driving down a bit of Quarrier Street. Christmastime in the city isn’t what it used to be. Last time I was there, the grand department stores had not yet died, replaced by malls. Capitol and Quarrier were still the heart of the business district,  the streets filled with shoppers and businesspeople. There really were bright lights and silver bells.

We generally made at least two trips to Charleston in the fall; sometime in November and then in early December, after the lights were up.  After Thanksgiving, my father’s store was busy and open late every night, so he could only go on the early trip.  Before the interstates were built, the 50 miles to Charleston were slow, down 119 to Clendenin and then on down the Elk.  So Mother always had a long list, and an itinerary planned through downtown, to get the most out of the trip.  We had to dress up, too – not quite Sunday best, but nicer than school clothes.  We had to live up to the glamor of the department stores – the Diamond, Stone &Thomas, Coyle & Richardson’s.  I could sketch the first-floor layout of each one.  I can see the millinery section just inside the Quarrier Street entrance of Stone & Thomas, at the foot of the escalator – a counter of multicolored gloves, laid out in rows and rows of trays.  A back wall with dozens of hats, multicolored felt in winter.  A small Christmas tree on the counter, and around the bend, more rows of trays, of many-patterned silk scarves.

Each store had certain departments we thought “best.” Books and housewares at the Diamond; coats and sweaters and what were then known as “foundation garments” at Stone & Thomas; shoes and a wonderful piece goods department at Coyle’s. We always went to the Piecegoods Shop; some Christmases I got lengths of fabric under the tree, to be made up later.  We  parked at a tiny lot behind the YMCA and the Rose City Cafeteria.  Sometimes we would have dinner at the cafeteria; often we would meet (after splitting into various pairs for secret shopping) at the drugstore on the corner in the Daniel Boone Hotel. I was fascinated by the catty-corner crosswalk at that busy intersection, with its own walk light.

I suppose it was not so different and not more magical than the mall department stores today.  But now I am much older and have seen more of the world. “Glamor” was originally a Scots corruption of “grammar,” which once upon a time meant not just the rules of a language, but the principles or rules of any art or science, including magic and alchemy.  So the romance, charm, and excitement of glamor ultimately comes from the sophistication of the glamorous – the esoteric knowledge of the city people.

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