This piece was inspired by a recent drive that took me on an unexpected trip down memory lane. Maybe this was your town, too?
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I never really understood the nostalgia with which my parents looked back on the towns and downtowns of their childhoods until I got old enough to have enough memories of my own to look back on.
My parents grew up in a different era, the 50s through the 70s, when downtown was the place to go for all your shopping needs, before franchised conglomerates subsumed the mom and pop stores. Stories about those days circulated around our dinner table when I was growing up, stories of soda fountains and fresh-roasted peanuts, of visiting the local deli after church on Sunday and strolling the festive downtown streets each Christmas season. Tinged with fondness, those stories reflected a time remembered as simpler, better, and happier.
Perhaps we all begin to feel this way as our presents become our pasts. We cross a line from living a mundane daily life to gazing with longing through rose-colored glasses at the very things we once took for granted.
I must have crossed that line sometime in my 30s without realizing it because I found myself peering through nostalgia's haze on a recent drive through the town where I grew up.
It's really three towns: Sand Lake, West Sand Lake, and Averill Park, located in upstate NY about 20 minutes outside of Albany. You can drive through all three in quick succession if you take the main road, Route 43, or wander along their sprawling edges on a series of interconnected back streets that wind past houses and lakes and the occasional horse farm.
Living just outside of Sand Lake, I traveled Route 43—and its slightly less populated sister, Route 66—the most in my younger days. The center of Sand Lake was always first to emerge as I coasted around and down the final curve that separated the town from the rural area where I grew up. A tiny center for a tiny town: just the post office, a gas station, the town hall, and a few houses and shops.
My drive last week took me back to that post office, which for a moment I didn't recognize. It used to have its own distinctive look before the neighboring gas station—a Cumberland Farms—got a makeover that transformed the entire building into a modernized white-and-green abomination. The original post office sign looks strange there now, old-fashioned and battered against the shiny cream-colored siding with its vivid piping and stylized franchise logo.
Driving further down 43, I noticed a "for sale" sign on the restaurant where my Dad used to take me for soft-serve ice cream after school in the warmer months. It was called Engwer's in those days. It had tables outside where Dad and I would sit with our cones, racing to finish before the giant swirls of chocolate melted down our hands and onto our arms. (I liked my swirl encrusted with sprinkles or coated with a hard candy shell because hey, chocolate on chocolate, right?)
Engwer's became Uncle Marty's Adirondack Grill, an iconic bar and grill restaurant complete with a giant Adirondack chair out front, perfect for touristy pictures in a town where no one came to be a tourist. Now the building sits vacant, empty windows staring out of rustic brown siding, waiting to become something else.
To the right sits the sturdy brick school building where I attended second through fifth grades. But instead of the classrooms and gymnasium and cafeteria I remember, it now houses people who pay exorbitant rent to live in luxury cubbyholes that overlook the hardware store across the street. Classes and students migrated to a second building behind it and up the hill, another sprawling brick structure that used to play host only to kindergarteners and first graders before its expansion sometime in the mid-90s.
Down the street and over a hill, past another post office and an aging white Baptist church, a mechanic shop sits inside the point of the inverted "V" where Route 43 splits with Eastern Union Turnpike, a sort of side street that connects with Route 66. The shop has been there forever, probably longer than I've been alive, always run by the same man. Everyone in the area seems to know and trust him, so he's never hurting for work. My parents brought their cars to him before I could drive, and I came to rely on him once I got cars of my own.
Every time I pick my car up from an inspection or seasonal maintenance, I drive past an empty lot just off the tip of the V in the road. My memory populates it with the bright yellow building that used to stand there, bedecked with blue trim and sporting a giant sign declaring its status as Slow Jed's Mud House, the coffeehouse where I spent much of my free time during my early 20s.
Jed's, as it was affectionately called, was the place to be for open mic nights, acoustic music performances, and coffee with the local knitting group. I used to sit at a tall table under the velvet Elvis that hung in the upstairs library, chatting with friends on the internet chat apps of the day or reading a book while sipping a mocha latte and eating a giant chocolate peanut butter oatmeal bar. And, since it was on the way to everywhere, it wasn't uncommon for me to stop in several times a week to caffeinate myself and hang around talking with the owner or the baristas.
Like so many small-town spaces, that building led many lives. My earliest memories are of its days as a liquor store with white siding and green trim before it became a bakery run by a young man who made world's greasiest (and tastiest) donuts. It was a bakery again after Slow Jed's, and then...it burned down. All that remains is an empty lot and memories of its vibrant colors and eclectic décor.
The corner store on the other side of the V is still there, though, sporting the same bay window and weather-beaten green siding that I remember from childhood. I used to go in when it was called Averill Park Market and buy Pogs with my allowance money, saving up for special ones to collect in a red plastic tube or trade with friends at school. (I still have that collection somewhere). Now it's a pharmacy and general store with a deli in back and a bakery case in front. It's been years since I last stopped by to catch up with a friend who used to work there. I remember the inside had a cozy, hometown feel, right down to the smell of the dark wood flooring that reminded me, in a strange way, of the general stores at campgrounds that sell everything from ice cream to citronella candles.
The Jiff-E-Mart with its iconic sub sandwiches hasn't gone anywhere, either. It sits inside a second fork in the road up a little hill from the pharmacy, a hub of activity that became so popular it now has two other locations, each with a full deli menu. But what I remember most are the foot-long sandwiches I used to pick up for my Dad and me after doing the grocery shopping on Wednesday mornings: soft white bread rolls stuffed with deli meats and cheese for him and veggies, cheese, and sliced hot peppers for me. The smell was unique, a combination of processed wheat, tangy dairy, and spicy pepper brine. We'd sit at the kitchen table in the house where I grew up, eating and talking until it was time for both of us to go back to work.
I haven't thought about those afternoons in years.
Driving up the street out of Sand Lake and into Averill Park takes me past the new coffee shop on the left—cleverly called "Averill Perk"—and Brad's, a local takeout joint that used to be AJ's Pizzeria before AJ sold it. AJ's was my family's go-to for pizza and wings on nights when we were too busy to cook or summer evenings when it was too hot to run the oven. I can still smell the yeasty crust and greasy cheese, can still feel the sting of hot wings and remember how strange it seemed that they always came with celery and blue cheese dip that none of us ever ate.
Ice cream, pizza, hot wings, subs. The foods of childhood and teenage summers.
And then, of course, there was Chinese food from the plaza just a bit further down Route 43. Aptly named the 43 Mall, that little strip of two buildings with its bumpy, broken parking lot has housed a rotating litany of shops and restaurants. Two fixtures stand steadfast amidst the changes: Doby's Subs and the Lee Sun Chinese restaurant. Almost nothing else that I remember has survived.
Take the video store where my friends and I used to rent movies to watch at sleepovers or on lazy afternoons. Tucked down at the far end of the plaza, its shelves held the new and the old, the good and the bad and the downright terrible. It had video games, too, a small and incongruous selection that included Riven: The Sequel to Myst, which I spied one afternoon and grabbed to goof around with on the PS1 I inherited from my best friend. I had tried to play the first game in elementary school but never got the hang of it. This time, the better part of a decade later, I found myself exploring the islands of Riven for hours, clicking back and forth, trying to figure out what all the little symbols I kept finding were supposed to mean. (Needless to say, I was hooked and spent countless additional hours making my way through the other six games in the series in the years that followed.)
Now those shelves of digital amusements are no more, replaced by a locally owned new-age tea and herb shop that used to be in a neighboring town before it moved to a nearby city and finally came to rest in Averill Park.
The plaza has a gym now, too, and two restaurants, one of which is trying desperately to be upscale with an outdoor patio and umbrellaed tables. The other makes no such pretense, content instead to be a local diner of the most typical sort, a place to stop in for meat-laden omelets, homemade pie, or crepes stuffed with cheese.
Just up the road is the town square, if you can call it that, where Route 43 meets Route 150 at a stoplight that orchestrates the area's most impressive traffic bottlenecks each day at rush hour. Frustrated drivers sit surrounded by the franchises that have overtaken three of the four corners: Subway, Dunkin' Donuts, and Walgreens. A local pizzeria—which used to be Jeff's but, like AJ's, changed hands at some point when I wasn't paying attention—remains the sole independent holdout.
A Hannaford, itself a regional franchise, dominates the left side of the street before the intersection. I remember when it was Miller's, a local grocery store that held onto its name and iconic sign even after its freestanding home got a makeover that connected it to the Rite Aid that was next door at the time. Every spring, I made a game of trying to spy the birds' nests that filled the crevices between letters.
I remember going to Rite Aid for candy after Halloween and Valentine's Day when everything was on deep discount. And wandering down the seasonal aisle in the summer, looking at yard toys and bubbles, breathing in the scent of colored plastic while sunshine streamed through the windows, promising a long afternoon of outdoor fun. And tent sales in the parking lot, which were the perfect excuse to pick up entertaining but relatively useless baubles simply because they were cheap and I liked going home with something new whenever I went shopping with Mom.
Rite Aid eventually relocated to the far side of the intersection, and a beverage mart took its place. The Dunkin' Donuts used to be a Mobil station, and I don't remember what used to sit where Walgreens (which bought out the Rite Aid) sits now.
That was the most surprising thing for me, the not remembering. I dig into my past and see all these snippets and snapshots, but some spaces remain blank, too far back or too unimportant to recall. And I have to wonder: How much of what I do remember is actual memory, and how much is pieced together from disparate impressions? How much of it will really matter in five more years, ten more years, twenty more years, when I drive through these towns again and see more changes and today's sights become tomorrow's memories?
But those memories mean something to me. They conjure up a time when weekends were for shopping or sleeping over at friends' houses and the definition of a night on the town was drinking a cup of coffee and watching a local music show. When summer meant shopping tent sales and renting movies and eating pizza dinners. When I could ride or drive through town and feel a connection to the places and people who were fixtures there: the postmistress, the mechanic, the baristas, the deli workers. Even as places come and go and the area changes, the memories remain. I can still drive by vacant lots and empty buildings and see the community that once was.
And maybe I record these memories because I'm afraid of forgetting, afraid that one day I'll reach for those moments of my younger life and find them just beyond my grasp. Maybe I share them because I feel a connection with others when I read their recollections, even though we've never met and I've never seen their towns. Maybe we all desire to relive the good parts, the iconic moments we can't truly get back, to dive in through those rosy lenses and look back, just for a moment, on a time we want to preserve as simpler, better, and happier.
A time when, to the best of our recollection, everything was as it should be.
What location or business from your town do you remember most that’s not there anymore? What’s your most vivid memory of that place?
Thanks to fellow Foster members, , and for their input on this piece. 🙂
Great job, Sam, what a wonderful memoir. As usual, your writing has stirred up memories of my own hometown (which is only 20 minutes away from where I currently live, but much has changed). Thanks for inspiring me to press life's pause button and record some of those memories, as you've done here. :)
This reminds me of one of my favorite movie lines from the film, "An Affair to Remember." Debra Carr tells Cary Grant in one scene while discussing their own childhoods, "Winter must be so cold for those with no warm memories." This piece sings with incredibly charming and sweet warm memories that I'll bet will last a lifetime for you and your friends. This is so heartfelt and touching. :) Thank you so much for sharing!