May 25 2015
I’m writing this column from Williamsburg, Virginia, where we have been spending a relaxing and enjoyable week. We started coming down to Williamsburg shortly after we moved to Virginia, way back in 1987. We usually visit at least once a year and more often if we can.
We no longer visit the amusement parks, historical sites and putt-putt golf courses. Those things are fun, and we have done most of them, but now we come down here to just relax.
For one thing, it is more of a challenge for me to pursue putt-putt golf from a wheelchair than I am ready to undertake — at least, not on vacation. I am too lazy for that. Ever since I have been wheelchair-bound, Fluffy always wins at miniature golf! I do not understand this. I always used to win at least half the time.
We do try to get out of the room at least once a day for shopping or to eat, but often we like to just stay in the room and catch up on reading, movies, email, and sometimes even napping. I am unable to nap when we are home because the bed is upstairs and I am downstairs. Napping is a rare luxury for me, so I nap whenever I can. I have already napped twice this week.
When we first starting coming here, we discovered an interesting store that soon became a “must visit” destination when in Williamsburg. For the sake of this column, we will call this store the Ceramic Company, because they specialized in ceramics and pottery items.
But perhaps before we were born, they branched out to sell as many products as consumers would buy. If there was a bizarre item to be had, the Ceramic Company had it. Usually it came in an assortment of colors.
Not only did the Ceramic Company have a wide variety of unusual items, but the prices were amazingly cheap. In the days before Walmart became a household word, the Ceramic Company was the equivalent of finding a Walmart in a tiny town in southern Virginia. The only difference was that it was bigger. Much bigger. Building after building sprawled out over acre after acre.
By the time we discovered the Ceramic Company, the buildings were half a century old. It did not matter. The parking lot was so full that it was not uncommon to drive around for twenty minutes, looking for a parking space. Then you walked around for another ten or fifteen minutes, looking for a ramshackle shopping cart. When you finally scored one of those, you were ready to rock.
There were whole buildings dedicated to different passions. Some of them included:
- Pottery — any kind of pottery you could imagine. It was made on site, and it was dirt cheap.
- International foods — a whole building dedicated to boxes and cans of foods from all over the world. This was long before international food markets, and it was more fun because the international food markets I’ve seen today cater to Oriental and Hispanic tastes. This food was just as likely to come from Denmark, New Zealand, or Nepal.
I can only imagine how well a store like this would do in Salt Lake City today, where returned missionaries are homesick from the foods of their missions. The food shop at the Ceramic Company even had cheeses and other perishables that were designed to tempt the palates of people who were far from home.
- A kitchen shop where shoppers could buy every kitchen gadget imaginable. This was a huge store — not Walmart-sized, but close to it. There were big things, such as bowls and dishes and glassware, although they were a lot cheaper than the ones at regular stores.
But the things that were real attention-grabbers were the tiny gadgets that Grandma used in her kitchen and that were no longer available anywhere anymore. If you couldn’t find it at the Ceramics Company, you were out of luck.
- A garden shop that had everything you can think of that was garden-related. Not only did it have fountains that would make your jaw drop, but it also had plastic lawn flamingos that Fluffy and I bought in bulk to use — well, let’s just say we found multiple uses for plastic lawn flamingos.
- A greenhouse where people could buy gorgeous plants of all varieties for pennies on the dollar.
- A whole building just for candles.
- A whole building just for Christmas ornaments. When you have a whole building just for Christmas ornaments, you can imagine that they run the gamut from gorgeous to gloriously tacky.
- A whole building just for art prints and framing.
- A whole building just for artificial flowers and greenery. There were also people on hand to arrange your silk flowers into arrangements for you. You could get arrangements made to your exact specifications, for very little money. Tour buses were full of people carrying elaborate flower arrangements on their laps back to their home states.
- Other factory outlet buildings for companies such as Black and Decker, Pfaltzgraff, and other things. They were too far away for me to have enough interest to walk to, but I saw them off in the distance so unless they were prop store fronts I know they were there.
We always visited the print shop area of the store, where you could have items custom-framed. There was a great variety of frames and mats, and professionals would help you measure your items and choose the correct materials for a custom framing job.
We used to save up our prints all year, and would then get them framed during our week in Williamsburg. They did a great job, and the prices were at least 50% lower than what we would pay at home. We would always come home from Williamsburg with several newly framed pictures in the trunk.
And if you’re wondering, the answer is yes. We do have more pictures than wall in our home. It has been a long-time problem. We have artwork we haven’t seen in years.
The Ceramic Company was uber-popular with tourists, and there were always tour buses there when we visited, especially on Saturdays. In fact, we would try to avoid weekend visits to miss the crowds. But weekdays were bad enough. There was never a good day to go to the Ceramic Company, if you were trying to avoid herds of people. They came from the entire Eastern Seaboard. I firmly believe, although I do not have the actual facts to support this, that the Ceramic Company may have been the inspiration behind today’s factory outlet malls.
In addition to the great prices and the variety of unusual items, we really enjoyed visiting the store because it was so unique. In fact, calling it a store would be misleading, because it was more of a compound. As the store grew over the years, it had expanded to fill probably a dozen buildings over several acres. Fluffy and I never even visited all of the buildings.
Despite its size, the store was still run like a Mom-and-Pop general store. Purchased items were wrapped in old newspapers and clear plastic bags. Their shopping carts were old carts that had been purchased from grocery stores, so they were mismatched, rusty, and had wobbly wheels.
Most of the signs in the store were written by hand and held in place with duct tape. It was a quirky place, but that was part of the charm.
Over the years, more and more discount outlets moved into Williamsburg. These malls were never very exciting because they contained the same stores we could find in the factory outlet malls at home. But the tourists seemed to love them, and the buses that used to go to the Ceramic Company started going to the shiny new outlet malls instead.
We would still make our annual visits to get prints framed, but it started getting easier to find a parking place at the Ceramic Company. At first we were happy about it. Then we started to get worried as we realized that as the size of the crowds diminished, the quality and quantity of the merchandise in the rest of the compound seemed to diminish each year.
About five years ago we read with excitement that the Ceramic Company was planning a major remodeling. They were building four new buildings just across the railroad track from their current compound. Along one side of the buildings they would create 15-25 store fronts, so that it would look like an entire mall of little specialty shops instead of a compound of large buildings.
We were excited to go to the new store, but that soon turned to disappointment. We noticed it as soon as we pulled into the parking lot and saw that it was so empty we were just about the only car there. This was not a good sign. We thought the place might not be open, but when Fluffy pulled on the door, it opened right up. Bummer.
The new store didn’t seem to have the same type of merchandise, and the prices were much higher. The mismatched shopping carts, handwritten signs and duct tape were all gone, replaced with a nice pretty store than was sterile and boring.
We did have some prints framed, but the prices were higher and the options were fewer. The cranky old professionals who had done such a great job for us in the past had been replaced by Millennials who just wanted to get rid of us so they could get back to looking pretty. (On a subsequent trip, at least the Millennials had been replaced by older people who knew their job.)
As we walked around the new store, we saw few customers. We heard some of them complaining that they were also disappointed with the new design and that some of their favorite items to buy were no longer available or were too expensive. People had driven long distances — often from several states away — just to visit this store. Now there was no reason to come back, and strangers stopped to tell us so.
How often has a stranger stopped to converse with you in a store? It doesn’t happen often. Every time we have gone to the new Ceramic Company building, we have been pulled aside by strangers from distant states have told us what a miserable place the new store is, compared to the old and ugly store it replaced.
The new store was attractive on the outside, but there was no longer anything on the inside to distinguish it from the other malls that dot Williamsburg. It had lost everything that made it what it was.
This was sad. That the owners of the business had spent a lot of time and money to develop something that they thought would be wonderful. But in doing so, they lost the vision of what made the original store so unique and fun. There is now a beautiful facility that has no soul, and almost no customers.
Every time we return to Williamsburg, we check to see if the Ceramic Company has closed its doors. It is only a matter of time.
One miracle of life is that we are each born with a unique personality and set of talents. This variety seems to be celebrated in early childhood. But as children get older, there seems to be more pressure to conform so that we all fit into the same mold.
In some cases this is good, because everyone should be encouraged to follow certain norms of society (such as being polite and obeying the law). But in other cases, this pressure to conform sometimes extinguishes those quirky little sparks that make us who we are.
We had a Mormon bishop once who gave us some interesting advice. He told us to look for unconventional friends.
He said that when he was in school, everyone tried to be the same. They all tried to dress alike, to look alike, and even to think alike. As he got older, he discovered that all of these homogenized friends were boring, because they were cookie-cutter people.
At that point he determined that he should acquire quirky friends, because they made life much more interesting. He even used the word “weird.” We thought that was good advice, and we have tried to follow it.
So if you are one of our eccentric friends, thank you. We have sought you out. You make the world much more interesting for all of us. You are diamonds in rare and exotic colors. Do not ever forget your worth.