You know how you think you know a place? Then you discover that the place you thought you had a handle on is full of surprises, unexpected turns that cover never-before-seen territory. This happened to me as I wandered through the town of Urbana, Ohio, a place 6 miles up the road from the house where I grew up. I went to school in Urbana, to church there, to Kmart before it was squashed by the behemoth that is Walmart. And when Walmart came to town, I (reluctantly) went to Walmart in Urbana. We went downtown regularly and witnessed, along with every other small town American, its demise, store by store — except for the hearty few which managed to hang on. So I thought I knew the town by heart.
When I visited my family in Ohio in August, my mom said “We have to go to Urbana”. Sure, I thought. I could always use a trip to Walmart. But my mom didn’t intend to head into that particular den of iniquity; she actually wanted to go to downtown Urbana. Urbana has many of the ingredients that make up the ideal of small town middle class life, one of which is a cinema downtown still plugging away (which feels like a minor miracle). Still, it has struggled to find an identity, a way to set itself apart from every other place in rural America that suffers from the malaise of the car. Meaning: to the rural American with an automobile, there is always a better place to go, just a little further up the road. Every small town that used to be an entire, humming, economic engine is now just a place you drive through on the way to the mall.
But downtown Urbana is finding its way, and maybe its identity (besides being a generally great place to live), its new economic engine, will be driven by visitors coming in droves to check out all the stores selling antiques and vintage pieces. Where once there were two, now there are…I don’t know, I lost count. There were several great shops. The store I would personally spend the most cash in is called Fruit Salad Antiques, and it was just my kind of happy jumble, full of all sorts of fascinating odds & ends. One could go there three times a week and come away with something unexpected each time.
The most compelling store in terms of the setup was called The Boston (a nod to the name of the old department store which originally inhabited the space). While the downstairs was conventional, if quite nice, in its antique mall layout, the upstairs of of the store was the real treat, carved out of the upper floors of two old buildings. And by carved I mean that the space wasn’t really remodeled, rather, the old rooms, which look as though they were part of an rooming house, were kept intact — shredded wallpaper, pocked floors, lathes showing through cracked plaster and all. A series of naked lightbulbs lead you down a hallway which is decked out to look like a reimagined 19th century sidewalk, every room off the hallway has a different theme and every room was over the top. The whole place was imaginative, bizarre, and decidedly un-Midwestern. On the other end of the spectrum in the sense of refinement (though still decidedly un-Midwestern) was a discovery so surprising that I actually felt embarrassed when I walked into the store, so obvious my reaction of blatant amazement. I went into a shop called ben and me only to find a store that would be perfectly comfortable existing in say, New York. I mean New York, New York. It’s as though I was seeing the flattening effects (to make an un-intellectual use of the Thomas Friedman phrase) of globalism in Urbana, Ohio. A store like this one, so design-y, wouldn’t have been imaginable here just a few years ago. I suppose we should thank the Internet, which has made it possible to set up a life anywhere you want, as long as you have a secondary, successful life online (which the owner of ben and me does, as she’s an Interior Designer, with projects beyond Urbana). It was an invigorating, cheerful trip to a beautiful small town that has updated its charm for the 21st century by speaking to the timelessness of antiques and good design.
Apologies in advance for the photos: my camera has moisture in it, which I failed to realize until I took these terrible pictures. Be sure to check out The Boston and ben and me online for a better sense of both shops.