One of the things that I most looked forward to as a child when Christmas time approached was a night of shopping with my Aunt Ann. My aunt was a wonderful woman who did more nice things for me than I can possibly recall. This once a year outing was one of my favorites.
In the 50’s we didn’t start shopping for Christmas in November. There was no such thing as Black Friday. Santa Claus’ participation in the Thanksgiving Day parade was supposed to represent the start of the retail Christmas shopping season but even that was pushing it. Most people got their stuff a week or maybe two before Christmas. My Paterson outing was usually the night before the night before Christmas.
Why Paterson? Because there were no big malls and the city downtown area was the mecca for most shopping and entertainment, as well as some other things you couldn’t get in a small town like specialist medical care or a YMCA.
Downtown Paterson was built around the intersection of Main Street and Market. The centerpiece was City Hall, a three or four story structure originally built in 1891. The street outside of City Hall served as a transportation hub for buses so this was the point of departure for most of us coming into the city.
Three of Paterson’s four movie theaters were in the downtown section, the Fabian, which was the high-end choice, the U.S. and the Garden. There was also the Plaza in the Totowa section where I spent many a Saturday afternoon watching such classics as Ben-Hur, Godzilla, and Journey to the Center of the Earth. A lot of theaters for one town but in the 50’s it was one theater, one movie. No multiple screens.
What was great about shopping in downtown Paterson was that each store was unique and individually owned. You didn’t see the same stores in every shopping area you went to. There would be completely different options in downtown Hackensack or downtown Newark.
The store which was what we would now call an anchor was Meyer Brothers, a full block department store with revolving doors, dinging bells and a mild perfumy smell. Since it mostly sold clothes it wasn’t on my favorites list but was a staple for my Christmas excursion.
In back of City Hall was a ticket kiosk where you could buy tickets for any of the three area Major League Baseball teams, for Broadway shows or for concerts at Newark Symphony Hall. The nearby record store mainly sold 45’s of the top hits as played on AM radio.
When I was hanging out downtown with my friends I had two favorite eateries. One was Nedicks, which was possibly the only chain store in town. Nedicks was an urban staple at the time, selling grilled hot dogs on steamed buns and orange drink. The other was Grant’s, a 5 and 10 across the street from Meyer Brothers with two floors of random inexpensive stuff and a lunch counter where the prices usually fit a kid’s budget.
But for my special night of Christmas shopping with Aunt Ann, we went first class, walking down to the end of Main Street and up to the second floor Chinese restaurant, Port Arthur. There we would get a window table, eat Chow Mein because I didn’t realize there was any other type of Chinese entrée, and overlook the bustling holiday scene on Main Street.