Wednesday, July 14, 2010


What’s the opposite of being present at the creation? Present for the destruction? (Doesn’t have the same profundity, somehow.) Anyway, forty years ago I walked into Miller’s Drugstore, in the St. Paul neighborhood where I had just started seminary, and came upon a scene of mayhem: The soda fountain was literally being pulled out by a couple of earnest young carpenters, the red-topped counter stools were red-topped no longer, but empty poles waiting, also, to be ripped out. The owner, noticing my slack-jawed silence, said, “We can make more money with a greeting card display in the same space.”

I emphasize my “presence” because I certainly must have been witnessing the end of one of the last soda fountains in America – the passing of an actual era. I know there are soda fountains remaining, but the ones I’ve come across are cute artifacts and not full-service counters offering cheeseburgers, malts, and cherry cokes (mixed on the spot). Please, dear reader, if you know of a full-service soda fountain (especially one in continuous use in its original location) anywhere in the Midwest, let me know.

I thought of the demise of Miller’s Soda Fountain when I happened upon another entrepreneurial transition a few weeks ago: The restaurant at Byerly’s Grocery in Burnsville has been closed to make room for a wine shop. Now Burnsville does not have the charm of a St. Paul neighborhood, but it’s about halfway between my small town and the Twin Cities, and I discovered the restaurant at Byerly’s twenty years ago when I was looking for a place to stop for lunch on my way to Minneapolis to make a hospital call. It was the only non-franchise restaurant I could find there in suburbia, and, although it was attached to the Lund’s-Byerly’s grocery giant, it had the feel of a down home diner. Although I usually sat at a table with a book for companionship, I would sometimes sit at the counter (immediate seating!): a perfectly designed horseshoe shape with stools bolted at large enough intervals to allow men of a certain age to spread out their newspapers (and their girth) and read and eat in silence, or turn to their neighbor and discuss the Twins. (The problem with many restaurant counters is that the stools are free standing, or too close together, so that while Moe is reading his newspaper, you’re maneuvering around his elbow to get to your eggs.)  During one of my last stops it dawned on me that most of the Byerly’s waitresses had been there the entire twenty years of my patronage. They were friendly and skilled, and one of them even called me “Hon.” (I read recently that for a good number of women and men, waiting tables is a chosen profession and not just the stop-gap “day job” that many of us have assumed it to be.)  I’m grateful for their service and interested in their well-being, but – since Byerly’s is, in fact, a giant – I’m not sure how to express it.

Both of these changes are examples of the heartlessness of commerce. I don’t mean this as a rant on the dark side of capitalism (I’ve done that before and will, undoubtedly, again) -- I don’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body, and I respect those who do. The accountant who figures that the wine shop makes better business sense than the restaurant has skills that I don’t have. But it’s heartless. That is, the evaluation of the bottom line does not allow for the pleasure of lingering over a chocolate-banana malt (maybe with two straws) or the languid luxury of having a vigilant waitress interrupt my reading to ask me if I want one more cup.

Maybe I’ll do this: The next time I drive through Burnsville I’ll go into the new Wine Shoppe, buy a nice cabernet, and ask them if they can figure out a way to get it to Bev, the waitress who called me “Hon.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well done, you lover of old fashioned soda fountains and immediate seating lunch counters. I can vouch for your love of Byerly's eggs benedict and the occasional "hi hon" from the friendly waitress. We'll just have to scour the countryside along 35 and find you a new spot to hang out with the locals!