Ever since my dad passed away, my trips back to my hometown of Burlington, Iowa have come in five-year cycles to attend class reunions. Each succeeding return has been marred by my realization that the town is “shrinking.” The population is moving west. When I lived there, the town numbered around 32,000 people. According to recent Census figures, that number has decreased to around 25,000. Both homes I lived in as a child and later as a teen have deteriorated, or have my memories of those days merely painted them in happier colors? The incredible “singing” bridge that linked my area of town to two beautiful parks has been closed for safety reasons.
Jefferson Street, the main street through the downtown area used to be home to three dime stores, J.C. Penney’s and Sears-Roebuck, two drug stores, and what as teen I considered the greatest department store and best of after-school hangouts, J. S. Schramm’s. “Dragging the strip” along Jefferson was on every local teenager’s to-do list for weekend nights. These days, all of the above are gone, and until this weekend, when I was back in town for a booksigning, I thought Jefferson Street, as well as the rest of the town, had pretty much folded up and closed its doors for business.
Not the case. By a long shot. Here’s what made me change my mind.
One of those old dime stores has been refurbished and reconstructed into four smaller suites. One of those areas has been home the last three years to Burlington-By-the-Book, an independent bookstore run by owner Chris Murphy. BBTB is an amalgam of old and new, books and gift store, the kind of place where a book lover could get lost for several hours, even if your book-buying habits these days tend more toward the online variety. Chris said all he still needs is a cat or mynah bird on board and he’ll be totally set. For a Saturday in late August with ninety-five degree temps outside, it was a delightful way to spend a few hours and introduce a few more readers to Barbara Barrett.
The other discovery that made me change my mind was right across the street from BBTB. I remembered the building as Sutter Drug Store. Although it was destroyed by fire several years ago, the building itself still stands and is currently part of efforts to bring it back to life. Long before I was born, the building housed The Barret House Hotel, built almost 150 years ago (1845) by Richard Barrett (my dad’s name was Richard). Can you believe the coincidence? I took my pen name from the street where I lived as a teenager. It, more than likely, was named for the hotel. Although my Masters’ Degree is in History, I’ve never been involved in building preservation efforts. But this project, to restore some of the town’s previous glory within the context of modern-day technology, has me psyched.
In an earlier post on this blog, I wrote about being encouraged by the writings of John Sandford to improve my description of setting in my sequel to my first book, which is set in Burlington, The Sleepover Clause. Now, besides referring to certain landmarks, streets, and areas of town, I am considering how I can incorporate something about preservation efforts as well. Going “home” was quite a trip.
The Sleepover Clause
And He Cooks Too