All parties must end. And sometime this afternoon, the annual reunion of former employees of Charleston's grand old Diamond Department Store will be breaking up for the last time, 30 years after the retailer closed its doors downtown.
Organizer Nancy Fletcher of Parkersburg said the number of attendees was dwindling as age and migration thinned its ranks. As last year's gathering drew only 38, Fletcher said she couldn't see a reason to continue another year.
By the time the store went out of business, I'd only been driving for three years. Trips up the turnpike from Beckley were still kind of a big deal for a kid without a lot of experience behind the wheel, so I never got to set foot in the place.
But accounts of it sound magical, like Macy's in "Miracle on 34th Street" — six floors of space where you could find linens, fine china, portrait photography and lawn mowers.
And the descriptions by longtime city residents of the store's Christmas window displays sound like the stuff of Norman Rockwell Americana.
(I was particularly taken by the notion of the in-store luncheonette and its giant cinnamon rolls with icing. Big enough to split three ways, these treats were described by Fletcher as "out of this world." That's an orbit I could get into.)
Baked goods aside, what I like about these recollections is that they serve to restore some of the original sheen to the old buildings I encounter downtown that have long since been repurposed or vacated.
Some, like The Diamond, have new tenants and, thus, a second act, as office or retail space. Others, like Stone and Thomas' tattered flagship store just around the corner, stand vacant — sad, empty shells that once housed glittery, bustling commerce and proffered stylish household goods as well as fancy tokens of affection.
To me, the commercial properties of the city serve as bookmarks in the architectural history of a town that came of age in the years surrounding two world wars.
I'm fascinated by the purposeful neon signage of the Firestone service center on Washington Street. The smart, art deco look of the now defunct Blossom Dairy and Quarrier Diner makes me long to hear to their Jazz Age echoes. I see a battered nobility in the sculpted columns of the shuttered Staats Hospital — which began life as a Knights of Pythias Lodge — on the West Side.
That they're still standing is a testament to an ethos that strived for permanence and identity.