In March (2016), I was walking around Charleston, WV — for the first time in more than 20 years. I took a good look at the building in the first photo, which housed the Diamond Department Store.
The Diamond was the KdW or Lord & Taylor of West Virginia, an elegant place that, as someone said, “made you feel rich, just to be there.” (People could get lunch or coffee at the lunch counter on the ground floor; or a full meal in the cafeteria, at the top, where once a year a kajillion kids sat down to “Breakfast with Santa.” The ground floor “Notions” department was full of interesting knick-knacks, one of the places where customers didn’t need a lot of money to buy something.)
The Diamond was a member of my family. My father moved to Charleston in 1957 or ’58 to be a manager there. He was the last chief executive, overseeing the store’s closure around 1984, when the new downtown mall was built.
As I wrote the book, Carla Rising, I found myself attracted to the design of a big, old store in Itmann (Wyoming County), West Virginia. Placing it in my fictional “Logan County,” I describe the closed “mercantile” store as a symbol of the earlier better times that preceded the arrival of the coal company there, in the (fictional) town of Blair. Once a center of community activity, it had been closed by the coal company, in its desire to wipe out competition against its own chain of high-priced groceries, the “company stores.” (Some readers might recognize the name “Holland,” a long-ago independent retailer in Logan, WV.)
Mary’s expression of the community sadness for the closure of the mercantile was what I felt — along with many others — when the Diamond closed in 1984. I remember that my father, at that time, was seeing the writing on the wall — the coming of shopping malls, Walmart, and the rise of a few huge chain retailers.
Characters in Carla Rising express fond memories of the “Blair Mercantile” before the arrival of coal-company stores. These were summoned by my memory of my father’s work at the Diamond, and the community sadness at having to close it, the year that he retired after almost 30 years there.