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The Persistence of Memory

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Wedged at a corner table, R. David Ross sips a coffee drink, peers through his glasses and scans the printer's proof of his new book, "Memory Lane: Richmond, VA." The Starbucks near the corner of West Broad and Lombardy is especially busy this Friday afternoon. Around the corner and up the street at Kroger and Lowe's, parking lots are awash with shoppers. While national chain stores are relatively new to this vicinity near Virginia Commonwealth University, the area has taken on the commercial look of Anywhere, U.S.A.

In contrast, Ross' book, out this month, celebrates 25 distinctively local businesses, places and personalities from the not-so-foggy past. "Memory Lane" unabashedly pines for things that defined this community in the mid- to late 20th century, institutions that locals set their clocks by and that once made Richmond, well, Richmond.

"After school we'd go to Safety Town or walk over toward Parker Field, where we'd climb up on the trains near the Richmond Visitor's Center on the Boulevard," says Ross, 43, who attended elementary school at Luther Memorial in the North Side. "Then we'd go to Willey's Drugstore for a limeade."

In case you don't know, Safety Town was a miniature town designed to instill youngsters with a pedestrian responsibility, Parker Field was the predecessor to The Diamond, and Willey's was not just a Bellevue Avenue drugstore but an institution owned by a powerful state senator.

Among the other institutions Ross features in "Memory Lane" are Montaldo's, Top of the Tower and the Clover Room. If you have to ask what any of these things were, it probably doesn't matter. Who were Eddie Weaver, Sailor Bob and the Bowman Body? Don't even ask.

Ross says the idea for the paperback (published by Kleos International Inc., a publishing company Ross heads) stemmed from a off-hand remark his mother made a few months ago. When he asked her for directions to a funeral home, she responded: "Go west on Broad Street and turn left at Tantilla."

Tantilla? Ross called his mother on it -- her reference to an entertainment venue that was demolished a generation ago — but he knew exactly what she meant. "We both laughed," he says.

For many decades, until its demolition in the late 1960s, Tantilla was a landmark near the intersection of West Broad Street and Malvern Avenue. Its blocky, white-stuccoed Art Deco meets Venice exterior housed a bowling alley, a dance hall and a concert venue. After attending a dance there in 1961, Ross says, his parents drove to Fountain Lake in Byrd Park and became engaged.

Ross is a Richmond native. His family lived in then-rural Mechanicsville, where he graduated from Lee Davis High School. "It was a suburb," he says, "so we dined in the city, subscribed to the Richmond News Leader [the afternoon newspaper], and always came in for the Tobacco Festival Parade."

Since Ross' grandmother and a number of his aunts lived in the Bellevue and Ginter Park area, it's not surprising that his "Memories" includes a number of North Side institutions. In addition to Willey's Drugstore, he examines Wright's Townhouse restaurant and Azalea Mall, an enclosed shopping center that included such almost-forgotten retailers as Food Fair, Gary's card shop and a Hofheimer's shoe store.

"Who can forget the monkey in the glass cage in the back of Hofheimer's or being dragged through the Mediterranean-style LaVogue for upscale clothing with our mothers?" Ross writes.

Each of the entries in the smallish, 5-by-7-inch book is a double page spread with a large illustration on the left and short copy block on the right.

What gave Richmond its distinctive character 40 years ago? Ross, who attended graduate school at the University of Delaware, says he noticed a number of things up North that put Richmond into focus. "Delaware was so close to New York and Philadelphia, it got lost in the middle," he says. "Its own local color didn't reveal itself easily."

But another thing that struck Ross was that with the wealthy DuPonts and affluent, transient CEOs of so many corporations based in Delaware, there was a tremendous gap between the wealthy and the working class. "There was no middle class," he says. "Richmond had a strong middle ground."

Ross suggests that no place personified that middle ground better than the Clover Room, a restaurant and ice cream parlor that was located on West Broad near Westwood. "From the tables for two, where couples on dates sat, to seating for 25, where a group would congregate from one of the evening's festivities, we all knew where we would go, what we would have and with whom we would sit," writes Ross.

The title, "Memory Lane: Richmond, VA., Vol. 1," suggests future editions. "That's a possibility," says Ross, who lists another dozen or so institutions that didn't make the first cut.

"I'm not going to change anything or educate anybody. I'm not going to get wealthy on the book," he says. "And I'm all about progress. Saks and Macy's are awesome, but I sure do miss Thalhimers. JetBlue is great, but Piedmont and Eastern — that was flying.

"I have two seats from the old Parker Field and wouldn't take a million bucks for them," he adds. Longtime Richmonders would understand. S



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