Locals may have rallied for a Trader Joe’s a few years back, but we never asked for this. Urban Outfitters opened in May in what used to be the Hardware Store, which to be sure was a little hokey, but was joyfully, thoroughly, undeniably local. It was a family-run business where you could get anything from an egg salad sandwich to a piece of art to a box of candies, and the servers were young kids in yellow polo shirts, and the ambience was defined by the words pickle bar.
Under layers of faux-authentic patina, behind a phalanx of skinny employees, the Hardware Store is still in there somewhere.
The Hardware Store was one of the pioneering businesses of the Downtown Mall, one of the establishments that hung on through the Mall’s loneliest years and made it to the restaurant and retail explosion that helped land our town on all those “Best Cities” lists. In imagining the restaurant and attached shops, owners Stan and Marilyn Epstein took their cue from the building’s previous use, an actual hardware store, which harkened to the days when cars could drive all the way down Main Street and American downtowns did not yet need “revitalization.”
It seems very different, the way Urban Outfitters—a chain with 153 locations worldwide—has now taken its cue from the Epsteins’ landmark business. Surely you’ve gazed at the layered signage on both the Main Street and Water Street facades: “The Hardware Store” becomes a kitschy background, a reference point, for “Urban Outfitters.”
Is the reference a meaningless one? Not for those of us who knew and liked the Hardware Store. For the nameless out-of-towners who conceive and develop the national chain, it seems unlikely that it carries much depth. Kitsch can swallow anything. If the Downtown Mall is to become a medium in the hands of non-local corporations, rather than an organically grown, ground-up expression of Charlottesville’s particulars, we better enjoy these Last Days while we can.