Hobbyists are telling the stories of places historians dismiss.
Over the years, I’ve written quite a bit about popular or commercial architecture. Most of it, ultimately, probably doesn’t deserve formal preservation, not least because much of it is both aging and located on what are now prime real-estate parcels in places that are denser than they once were. (On the other hand, many structures in struggling towns or along bypassed highways are de facto “preserved” by poverty or a weak real-estate market.)
I do a weekly series here called “What Do You Think You’re Looking At?”, featuring fairly ordinary buildings that have gone through a number of different uses, belying to some extent the notion of suburban commercial structures as disposable junk. I’ve also found that such ordinary buildings can embody a lot of cultural and commercial history that can be difficult to pin down. For example, did you know that a fair number of modern-day pharmacies/drug stores are located in buildings that were originally built as supermarkets? That’s because between the 1950s and today, the average size of supermarkets has tripled or quadrupled.
Where did I learn that little tidbit? From Flickr contributor Josh Austin, who has photographed and documented the history of hundreds of seemingly boring, ordinary suburban stores across the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. This firehouse was originally built as an ACME supermarket, a caption might read. Or something like, this now-vacant department store was the first building to house the experimental Super K-Mart concept.
Taken alone, these little vignettes can appear sort of random and oddly specific. Taken together, they’re a fine compendium of information that can be very difficult to pin down and piece together: the changing and evolving popularity of retail concepts; the sizes of store types over the decades; the geographic reach of a particular chain; a picture of a particular place throughout its development.
Austin, and lots of other people who do this, whether at retail blogs like Labelscar and Pleasant Family Shopping, or on Twitter, or on Flickr, are mostly hobbyists rather than professionals. Their nostalgia for an old store from their youth or their layman’s interest in popular architecture has led them to document, in fine detail, the physical history of buildings and places that have mostly failed to catch the interest of historians.
So I got in touch with Josh Austin, and asked him some questions about his retail-photography hobby.
His interest in the architectural design of retail establishments began, specifically, with supermarkets. He throws out supermarket names, and has a familiarity with their brands, with the casual ease a kid raised in golden-age Detroit might chat about automakers. “I started working in retail when I was 16 in the mid ’90s, right around when many of the older Acme stores were closing and becoming CVS’s or other uses,” Austin says. “I started noticing their unique design and looking at other supermarkets, such as old A&P, Penn Fruit, and Food Fair stores. The earliest pictures on my account were just supermarkets; first in the Lehigh Valley where I live, then eventually the greater Philadelphia area.”
Unique designs? While supermarkets have pretty much always been box stores, many earlier models sported massive clear-glass fronts, barrel-vault roofs, and other distinguishing features that are rarely employed today.
“I enjoy driving to different areas, and by my mid-20s I had a car in good enough shape to go on long-distance trips. Eventually I incorporated department stores, especially older downtown ones, since they often have the longest history, then finally drugstores.” Austin covers all of New Jersey, the northern half of Delaware, and northeast and central Pennsylvania, which, if you know this part of the country, is a heck of a lot of stores.
I asked him if he saw his work as “doing history,” or simply as satisfying a personal interest.
“While driving around and taking pictures is a hobby for me, it’s important history to other people. If you look at some of my oldest pictures from 10 years ago, many of them have changed, or in some cases the buildings are gone altogether; what was the present then is history now. I try to get pics of something I know might be changing soon.” He notes that he began photographing Rite-Aid stores more heavily following a deal in which many were converted to Walgreens. Which was a good segue into my next question, going back to that bit of trivia about drug stores and supermarket sizes.
“That was one of the first things I noticed,” he says. “Drugstores move into old supermarkets, and supermarkets will move into old department stores. For example the K-Mart in Burlington, New Jersey—it’s now a Shoprite. Even chains that were intended to be smaller than the usual grocery store, like Whole Foods, are still moving into larger locations by their standards.”
For me anyway, these disparate, particular examples of supersizing track the gradual supersizing of American consumerism, and the increasing scale of retail in general. This fine-grained work makes those larger trends easier to discern. (Is there any real reason for this gradual supersizing? beyond “Because we can”? What, by the way, will vacant Costcos, Walmart Supercenters, and Wegmans supermarkets become? Miniature Amazon warehouses? Giant expo centers?)
I asked Austin if he thought any of this stuff deserved historic preservation.
He notes that the suburbs, often passed over in preservation discussions, contain some distinctive styles which may deserve to be considered historical. “I think it depends on the design of the building,” he explains. “In Philadelphia they're trying to have the former Penn Fruit building on Frankford Ave. zoned as historical because of its arched design.” Whatever the aesthetics of such a building—many would welcome the bulldozers—it is certainly not going to be built again.
Of course, the nature of “history” is shifting, and the future may wish we had saved those arched-roof supermarkets. Austin adds, “It seems like the cutoff right now is the early ’50s; anything built after that is considered disposable, but that time frame will most likely change over time: by the 2030s we might consider the ’60s and ’70s historical.”
Follow Josh Austin on Flickr here.