Retail: moe has brought less

By Tony Ahern
   Madras didn't have 2,000 people yet. I think the population sign out by Miller Ford said 1,800 and change, but I'm not sure. That was back in the early 1970s. I was 10, more interested in baseball cards, jumping my pedal bike on the dirt trails east of town, and impressing my friends by learning all the words to songs on the radio.
   My buddies and I spent countless hours walking or biking through our little town. Like most rural kids, we wished ours was larger. If we could be as big as Bend, say, we could have our own McDonald's! Sure, we had lots of businesses in town, but we couldn't help imagining what we could have if our town would just grow a little.
   How ironic that our town would indeed grow, quadruple in size in 30 years, but that growth would accompany fewer storefronts, with many of those struggling to survive.
   The growth came, but something vicious happened to smalltown economies on the way.
   As the 1970s were winding down, the largest little towns in every region of the nation started sprouting malls. The malls and a slow economy of the early 1980s put a sledge hammer dent in smalltown retail everywhere. Then Wal-Marts started opening on the outskirts of every town, to try and catch some of those people heading down the highway to the mall, drawing still more people out of downtown America. Then giant box stores, Costcos and Home Depots, opened, where you could spend hours and wads of cash making great deals, basically going broke saving money.
   The 1990s brought home shopping networks, 10 catalogs in every mailbox every day, and the Internet: shopping via point and click.
   The story is familiar ... sad, but familiar.
   The Madras of my youth -- the 1970s, when the oldies station was Top 40 -- was full of bustling retail. A walk through downtown featured Hatfield's and Sunshine Corner, great department stores. We had dress shops, men's clothing stores, several variety shops and a cool music store -- most owned and operated by your friends' parents. We had regionally famous shops like Olsen's Western Wear and Oscar's Sporting Goods. We had a theater.
   They're all gone now.
   Throughout these changes for the worse, retail did, and still does, what it can to survive: rent videos, sell espresso, offer Internet hookups, etc. Few just rolled over and died. But perish they did.
   Hatfield's closing this week closes a chapter in Madras history. In many ways this ending was long overdue; the Hatfields battled to stay afloat when others in similar situations had long boarded the windows. Hatfield's was a tether to the earlier time, a tie no one wanted to see unbounded.
   Certainly one shouldn't base their retail plans on the visions of kids, but how off base we were thinking that more people would mean more of everything for our little Madras. Madras has quadrupled in size, and the county tripled in those 30 years. We did get our McDonald's, and a Taco Time, Subway and a Burger King to boot. We have a Bi-Mart at the edge of town to catch people before they can drive to a regional shopping center.
   But we've lost so much. There may be plenty more places to grab some fast food, and we may finally have our big store at the edge of town, but our locally owned and operated core community retail is disappearing fast.
   Sure, shopping trends, the Internet, it has all contributed. But behind all these trends are you and I, with our wallets, making choices, every day.
   But I let my mom throw out my baseball cards when I went to college (I must have needed higher education to pull a stunt like that). Now inside the city limits, there's a manufactured home atop the jumps that would throw me and my bike into the sky. Now I can't even understand the words of the latest hit records.
   Things changed.
   A lot of us would love to have some of the old Madras back; that's a common feeling among small townsfolk everywhere. When I was 10 and thought more people would solve all the economic and business problems in Madras, I was wrong. But now I'm an old man, and Top 40 refers to my age. I'll say this: Madras retail will continue to evolve. Population changes will impact it, but not as much as shopping trends and other things we haven't yet even considered.
   But it won't stop any of us from missing the old days.