Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 02, 2002
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Doughnuts and Quirky Shopping Districts
Why does North Carolina's commemorative quarter make the same embarrassing mistake
as our license plates?
I refer to the picture of the Wright brothers' plane and the empty boast "First in Flight."
Yes, the first controlled heavier-than-air flight took place at Kitty Hawk, and Kitty Hawk
is in North Carolina.
But the Wright brothers did all their work in their hometown of Dayton, Ohio. They only
came here because the conditions in Kitty Hawk -- sea breeze, lots of sand, steep hill, no
obstructions -- were right for the potentially disastrous thing they were attempting.
It's not as if North Carolina sponsored a contest and the Wright brothers won it. North
Carolina, as a state, did nothing, nada, zilch -- except ignore those wacky inventive boys and
stay out of their way.
So for us to claim flight as our accomplishment makes it look like our state is so lame the
only thing we can brag about is that we had the right configuration of sand for a couple of really
smart guys from another state to change the world.
Here's what I think we ought to claim: Best in Doughnuts.
That's right. The whole country is finally learning what we've known for nigh on sixty
years -- you can actually make doughnuts that don't leave an aftertaste like detergent in your
mouth for the rest of the day! (No offense to Dunkin' Doughnuts, of course. They can't help it.
They weren't invented in North Carolina.)
In fact, while people in L.A. and Philadelphia are asking each other in hushed voices,
"Have you had a Krispy Kreme yet?" we here in North Carolina are so good at doughnuts that
Krispy Kreme isn't even the best we've had.
I speak of the brilliant doughnuts that were made at Glazer's on Lawndale. The owner
closed the store for personal reasons, but that doesn't mean somebody can't offer him a good
deal, learn how to make doughnuts his way, and then franchise them six ways from Tuesday.
But only within the state. There are some things so fine that outsiders just aren't ready to
In the past couple of weeks I've been zipping around the country from bookstore to
bookstore, and some of them have been located in really cool shopping districts.
For instance, there's Pacific Avenue in Santa Cruz, California. A mile or two from the
cheezy but fun Boardwalk district, Pacific is one of those quirky streets that combine unusual
shops with old-fashioned architecture built before the Ugly Period brutalized American cities.
It's a delight to walk down a lovely street where every building pleases the eye and every
shop invites you to explore because it has stuff you haven't seen everywhere else.
The only chain store I noticed was a Jamba Juice, which is never a drawback. But there
was a coffee shop where you could pick your own madeleines -- a delicious cakey French cooky
-- out of a jar, a great little toys-and-games store, and Bookshop Santa Cruz, which is eccentric
in all the best ways.
There's plenty of parking in a garage just behind one row of shops, so you know the city
government is aware of what a treasure they've got. Is it possible that besides providing parking,
they're also protecting the street by keeping The Gap and The Limited and Banana Republic
from buying up the buildings?
Because that's what seems to happen, inevitably, to all the great shopping streets in
America. People start going there because the stores are so unusual and interesting; the big
chains notice that people are going to these wonderful shopping districts; they move in (or are
invited in by landlords who smell a buck), replacing five or six shops with each of their massive
installations; and pretty soon there isn't much reason to go to that shopping street, because it
doesn't have a darn thing you don't have in your mall at home.
This has happened to M Street in Georgetown, DC. Why go? I don't, any more. The
galleries and shops I used to delight in visiting are gone, and so am I. And Old Pasadena in
California still has the lovely architecture -- but that's all. You've seen every store before, so
why bother unless you live right there?
It's happening to the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. The wonderful little
stores can't afford the rents. The only thing that keeps me coming back is that there's still a
pleasant ambience, with a wild array of street musicians, a few good restaurants, and some quirky
stores that have survived by moving from Third Street itself into the nearby side streets, so
they're still within reach.
I just don't understand why the government of Santa Monica, having built all those
parking garages to make shopping on Third Street practical, did not do anything to prevent the
street from turning into nothing more than Four Seasons Mall with topiary.
Better off is the Plaza district in Kansas City. Right now it's hovering between being
malled up and failing entirely. The attraction is some wonderful old churches and some not-bad
new buildings surrounding a lovely plaza and bordering on some funky old streets with cheap
rents and weird stores. The biggest drawback is that it's just too spread out. You have to walk a
lo-o-o-ong way to get from one place to another, because they've allowed a few key stores and
office buildings to fill whole blocks without any interesting store fronts at all.
And yet there are several good restaurants, some furniture-and-art galleries that have
things I haven't seen everywhere else, lots of free parking, and plenty of local color.
They also have great public art: teddy bear statues, of all things, titled with truly awful
puns. But we walked blocks out of our way just to read look closely at the statues and read the
plaques and laugh with delight that a city could have such a sense of humor and be proud of it.
On Euclid in St. Louis, on the other hand, you can see a cool shopping district being
born. The only adequate parking is near the library at one end of the street -- and it's too far
from the really cool stretches to be useful. Instead, you have to compete with the residents of the
surrounding neighborhood for on-street parking, which is not cool. But when you get to the
restaurant district, anchored by Left Bank Books, you'll find some of the finest food in the
We only had time to sample one, the Bistro Balaban, which truly captured the ambience
of a French bistro -- along with good live music in the bar. The food was innovative and
delicious, the service was cheerful even though we arrived just before closing. Best of all, as we
left, some of the establishments seemed to be just getting started -- night life! In a midwestern
city! Who knew!
What about Greensboro? The closest we come is State Street, and there the look is
almost too planned. The charm was all designed by a single architect, and so there are really no
surprises. Yet ... there are unusual shops and at least one of our favorite restaurants -- Café
Pasta -- and the parking is decent enough. It just feels ... ersatz.
The sad thing, though, is that Greensboro used to have the real thing. Our downtown
once had wonderful old buildings and unusual stores. An interesting new bookstore had just
opened, there were signs of life. Sadly, Greensboro's is not a downtown that simply died, like all
the WalMart-slain downtowns in America. No, downtown Greensboro was murdered before it
had any chance to evolve into something wonderful.
And next week I'll tell you just who killed it.
Here's a hint: Our taxes pay their salaries.
And, like quack surgeons, they killed it by the very steps they took to "save" it.