There was something alluring about the candy-cane canopy and fire-engine red store that jutted out from a residential structure on Harvard Street in the town of Brookline, Mass.
It was at Irving’s where we bought Tootsie Rolls, baseball cards, jacks and other inexpensive knickknacks that entertained us on a slow summer day or after school.
Opened just a few years after the Great Depression, Irving’s was no more than the size of an early era mini-mart, yet its shelves and boxes, teeming with disposable toys, candies, ice pops, greeting cards and a trove of treasure-hunt finds, conveyed a landscape that far exceeded its physical limits.
Irving’s closed early last fall, less than a year after Ethel Weiss passed away at the graceful age of 101. She opened the store in January 1939, and the days were few when Ethel wasn’t in her chair greeting passersby and patrons along the bustling street.
The 20th century writer Mignon McLaughlin drew fame for her quote about our desire to cling to the fond experiences of our youth: “Nostalgia for what we have lost is more bearable than nostalgia for what we have never had.”
Born and raised less than 2 miles from Fenway Park, I have recently had a rendezvous with my nostalgia. In Brookline and Cambridge, toy stores and mom-and-pop bookstores are closing or facing upheaval from escalating rents. High-end tacos and tapas are replacing Tolstoy and trinkets.
One landmark of Boston lore is not fading just yet. As kids, we would watch in nighttime wonderment as a baseball scaling the wall would soar into the night with a glistening neon red triangle flashing in the background.
The new owner of the building that hosts the iconic CITGO sign, which stands as a friendly beacon beyond the Green Monstah of Fenway Park, faced a potential death knell: The company wanted more rent from CITGO.
From a purely financial view, it makes little sense for a midtier fuel brand to spend what is likely more than $1 million for a billboard, regardless of how iconic it may be. Yet the sign remains. But then there is that familiar word playing again in our minds: nostalgia.
It is one of those words not easily defined but universally understood. It is the comforter of our cold nights and the warmth of summer’s eve.
And so my question to you is: How will your stores be your customers’ nostalgia? How will visits to your store transcend utilitarian convenience and find permanent residence in your customers’ memories?
When I travel to markets lacking a Dunkin’ Donuts, I pine for the store. I like the coffee, but even more, it reminds me of my childhood, and the quality of its offerings reinforces my nostalgia with a contemporary relevance.
There is a danger that comes with nostalgia. It is often more sentimental and lacks foundation. I remember one holiday when my parents bought my older brother, Howie, and me Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots. Remember the blue and red plastic pugilists in the blinding yellow “square ring”?
We were barely into round one when Howie knocked my robot’s head off with a stiff uppercut. My fighter’s head didn’t just dislodge from his shoulders—his head literally fell off.
A memory? For sure. Nostalgia? For some reason, yes. So when our older son, Ari—remarkably now 18—was 6 or 7, I was at a nearby outlet and, lo and behold, saw an endcap with the familiar robots gazing at me.
Nostalgia won, and I bought the cheap item. And, to my dismay, the game lasted only a little longer than it did during my original encounter as a kid. Junk! My nostalgia for Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots has dissipated. It is not Irving’s nor the CITGO sign. It is now a memory, like many, lacking a passion for its return.
So when Hollywood and hucksters play off our nostalgic tendencies to usher back an old movie or a trinket from decades ago, is it “Jaws”—the legendary film that reappears every summer at a shore near you—or something you are apt to give a polite nod to but not worthy of resurrecting? (The unfortunate “Jaws 2” comes to mind.)
Are you someone’s future nostalgia, or just a passing whim?
Mitch Morrison is vice president and director of Winsight’s Retail Executive Platform. Reach him at email@example.com.
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