By Brandon Martin
A local author has written two new books focusing on the evolution of retail and highways throughout the country.
In his books “The Great American Shopping Experience” and “Highways of the South,” Martinsville-based author Stephen Provost highlights the deep roots Martinsville-Henry County has in shaping popular culture.
The Great American Shopping Experience
“I’ve written a lot about nostalgia and 20th century Americana. I was born in 1963 so I grew up in the time where shopping malls were a big deal,” Provost said. “I went to shopping malls with my parents and grandparents and I later hung out in malls when I was a teenager. I really just missed it, so I decided I was going to look back and see the history of department stores and malls.”
Provost said his book begins with a reflection on common themes between department stores in his hometown of Fresno, California and his current home in Martinsville.
One store Provost mentioned is Globman’s, a former retail establishment on East Main Street.
“One of the things I found out in researching this is that Globman’s used to be on the courthouse square,” he said. “It started out there in 1915 and closed in the early 1990s. It was one of two or three major stores in the downtown area. It was the one that I think was the longest lasting.”
Like Gottschalks in his hometown, Provost said Globman’s was started by a Jewish family that immigrated to the country.
“There were a lot of Jewish merchants who started out different stores in different parts of the country from Philadelphia to Martinsville to Richmond. All these different places. Some of them knew each other and some of them were related,” he said. “There was this commonality. I decided to go from that commonality to looking at department stores and shopping malls. It expanded more into retail and big box stores. That’s the scope of the book. It’s largely 20th century retail that doesn’t really exist very much outside of Macys and Walmart.”
Provost said that Globman’s was once the peak shopping experience.
“I think Globman’s was one of those dry goods stores where they sold general store type stuff and they also sold clothing,” Provost said. “Clothing became more of their emphasis as time went on. Then they expanded into furniture and other things that you would find at a department store.”
At the time, the retail stores offered a lot of luxury, according to Provost.
“You’d have a person at the door and someone to take your coat. You’d have someone to measure your feet for your shoe and measure you for a coat or dress,” Provost said. “Inside these department stores, you’d have a place to eat, like a cafe. You had a lot of these services. They would be really glamorous. They’d have a crystal chandelier, nice looking escalators, and wood carvings and so forth.”
Provost said things changed once bargain shopping and the shopping cart became more mainstream.
“Over the years, you had bargain basements where you’d give people an opportunity to go in the basement and look through discontinued stuff and get good bargains for them,” Provost said. “You also had supermarkets coming in. You’d take a basket around and you did your own shopping rather than asking the person for your items. The invention of the shopping cart around 1940, then in the 1950s, these discount stores came into fashion. They would save you a lot of money because you didn’t need a door person or a hat check to pay, so they saved on all these salaries and could offer lower prices.”
The changing times came at a crescendo in the 1990s when Globman’s closed its doors for good.
“Globman’s was one of the few that went out of business because they could see the writing on the wall,” Provost said. “They weren’t in the red, but they were heading in that direction. They decided they were going to quit while they were ahead and get out of the business.”
As department stores were on the decline, malls became the next iteration of the American shopping experience.
“A lot of stores had migrated to the stores from the downtowns. There was this adaptation,” Provost said. “Originally, most department stores were downtown. As downtowns began to die out because of interstates that transported people to the suburbs, suburban malls became their way of doing business.”
Like its department store predecessors, malls eventually died out as well, Provost said.
“Then the malls started to peter out around 2000,” he said. “As the internet and Amazon came along, that was kind of the death nail for them. Everyone just started buying everything online.”
This phenomenon also ties back to some of Martinsville’s shopping relics.
“You had the Patrick Henry Mall, which was the first outdoor mall in town. Then it was replaced by the Liberty Fair Mall, and now it’s an outdoor big box type mall,” Provost said of the present day The Village of Martinsville. “It used to be an indoor mall that was founded on the site of this old swimming pool.”
With the onset of age of the internet, Provost said the former buildings could be used for other purposes as localities determine how to revitalize downtown districts.
“In my hometown of Fresno, we had one of those big box type malls. It’s now operating as a California Department of Transportation office,” he said. “In terms of downtowns, if you attract specialty stores, small boutique type stores, restaurants and bars will definitely bring people downtown. You have to have something to draw people downtown. Department stores frankly, do not draw people downtown.”
Provost said this doesn’t mean bustling streets in Martinsville has to be a thing of the past.
“We don’t have that here, but I don’t think that means that we can’t,” Provost said. “We have a pretty sweet looking downtown to be honest. It’s got a lot of character.”
“The Great American Shopping Experience” can be purchased on Amazon for $19.95.
Highways of the South
In his second book, Provost discusses the impact of Prohibition on road development in the south.
“There were these folks that would run rum and they’d have to get away from the cops so they would sup up their cars and they’d put liquor in the back,” Provost said. “They found out the liquor would slosh around so the cops would know who is carrying liquor. The Ford V8s were generally the cars that allowed them to have enough horsepower to get away. They learned how to take the curves and eventually started doing these races between each other.”
Provost said the activity didn’t stop after the end of Prohibition.
“They were still doing moonshining after Prohibition,” he said. “They didn’t have to pay taxes on it, so why not.”
Instead, Provost said the rum racers would gather informally in fairgrounds across the south.
“They’d go to places like Atlanta,” he said. “There was this Labor Day race every year there. One year, there were 15 people scheduled to race, and five of them were told by the cops they weren’t allowed to race because of outstanding warrants for their arrest. There were a lot of people there, and the cops were scared they were going to riot, so they let them race.”
With the amount of fanfare, the sport eventually became what is known today as NASCAR.
“In 1947, this one fellow came up with this idea of putting everything together and that’s the same year the first race was held in Martinsville,” Provost said. “That was actually a year before NASCAR was formed.”
“Highways of the South” is the third installment of Provost’s “America’s Historic Highways” series. The book can be purchased on Amazon for $19.95.