I had some errands to run at lunchtime today, one of which took me to the lovely old store, Birches, here in town. It’s a proper old department store. It has a men’s section, suits, ties, cufflinks, suspenders, also sports gear! A ladies clothing section and tucked away in the corner, the lingerie. A haberdashery, some material, a school clothes department. It also happens to be where you get your grad gear from for Rhodes, but that’s not relevent to this story. What struck me today as I pushed open the door and stepped inside was the smell. For some reason, today, I was transported back to shopping with my Mom and little sister at Barbours in Harare.
Barbours was six or seven stories high (enormous to my mind…but not as tall as Dad’s office) and it was ‘In Town’. To me that meant a lot of walking along crowed sidewalks. I could never work out how my Mom always knew exactly where she was going. It was a blur of shop fronts, pavements and other people’s waists. We’d turn corners seemingly at random and suddenly, we were exactly where we were supposed to be!
A trip to Barbours meant a trip into Town. This was in the days before there were shopping malls and Borrowdale Village out in the suburbs. A trip into Town was a whole morning affair. We’d pile into my Mom’s old yellow Datsun Pulsar and drive into Town. We’d park in the Parkade, easily spotted by it’s funny vertical signage. The Parkade itself was an adventure. Spiralling up and around and up and around looking for a parking spot. Finally nabbing one. Locking up and walking down the slope to the lifts. They were green inside if I recall right. Outside the Parkade were all these little shops, squashed into the awkward space made by an essentially round building on a square block. Robroy which sold foam blocks and mattresses. A men’s clothing shop which always looked so mysterious because the windows where painted entirely black (now that I think about it, that was weird). There were a bunch of food shops in an arcade.
It seemed to me, once we were outside, that we never walked in the same direction twice. And we never returned the same way either. It was like magical bending geography. Depending on what errands my Mom had to run, we’d head off in one or another direction. My Mom does not really amble when she shops. She *walks*. I guess it’s years of her short legs having to keep up with my taller Dad! Wed make the rounds and the last stop was almost always Barbours.
I can remember it quite clearly. The shop signs were all a deep maroon with ‘Barbours Department Store’ inlaid in gold coloured text. The ground floor was one of my favourites. It was full of all sorts of touristy kitsch. Those beaten-copper clocks with the Big 5 painted on them. African masks. Zebra skins. And, right in the middle of it all. The Pick’n'Mix counter. Row upon row of jewel coloured, foil-wrapped chocolates. The green ones with minty filling. Caramels and yuk! chocolate covered nuts. Mom never let us get any, but occasionally my Great Aunt Ruth would let us pick out one or two. Oh the agony of having to choose just one or two!
I don’t remember what was on all the different floors, but I do remember that one floor had all the official school clothing. We’d be hauled in at the beginning of each year for new dresses and jerseys. New school shoes too. I remember begging y Mom when I was in Grade 7 (age 12) to let me have a pair of Bad Boy’s because ‘everyone has them and they’re so cool and pleeeeeeeeeeeease!’. She relented. I loved those shoes. Wore them till they fell apart. But of course, they weren’t cool anymore.
Another floor had women’s clothing. My Mom would try on blouses and bras while my sister and I would amuse ourselves in the mirror-lined doorway between the underwear section and the rest of the floor. You know the effect you get when two mirrors face each other? Well my sister and I would spend ages pulling faces, dancing and spontaneously breaking out in the freakiest displays of wriggling to see if we could catch just one of the millions of ‘others’ out. Of course we never did.
When Mum was finished with her shopping, and she deemed that we had been good enough (cavorting in the Doorway of Mirrors notwithstanding); it was time for the highlight of the trip. Tea on the balcony. The tea room was called Seasons I think. It had an indoor area with tables and upholstered chairs. Think 70′s browns, oranges and greens. There was a semi-closed outdoor area of concrete tables and burnt orange fiberglass chairs interspersed with potted palms, impatients, and fern. You would take a tray, and line up to make your choices for tea. Without fail my sister and I would get this hugely sweet chocolatey confection. I guess it was a type of petits four? It was smallish cube of chocolate cake, covered in buttercream icing, and rolled in vermicelli sprinkles. Like I said. Sweet, sugary. Such a treat*! My sister and I would eat them in a very specific manner. Carefully, with the dainty cake fork, we’d spear the confection from top to bottom. Carefully cutting only the minimum amount necessary to ensure the maximum buttercream-and-sprinkles to cake ratio. Once we’d eaten all the icing, leaving behind a sad square of chocolate cake, we’d announce we were full and sneak up on the pigeons that perched on the edge of the balcony; trying to get them to fly up into the air. Have you ever tried to scare a city pigeon? Can’t be done. I can remember that it was the first place I was ever allowed to have an iced coffee and feeling so grown up.
I haven’t been to Barbours in years. As with all cities, once shopping malls opened up in the suburbs, the schlep of driving downtown was just not worth it. I know Barbours is still there. I saw it when running errands that took me into town. It looks sad and unloved full of cheap knockoffs and junk. I wonder if it’ll ever be the same. I didn’t go in. I didn’t want to ruin my memories.
*Also probably the reason we weren’t allow sweets from downstairs!