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Big Chuck

February 27, 2012

All Oneontans have memories of Bresees'

You can feel it. You can just feel it.

The wooden barriers have come down from around the front of Bresee's recently. People slow down and stop while passing by, shielding their eyes as they peer in. Not that there is anything to see.

Yet.

It's amazing how a simple thing like removing a wooden barrier around a store can create such a stir. Of course, this was no ordinary store.

The lore of Bresee's has reached mythic proportions over the years. All generations of Oneontans have sentimental memories of our very own "superstore."

For more than a century, it was a reliable commissary of general goods, high fashions and home-style meals. Plus it had a great Santa Land, a giggle-inducing coin-operated horse at the foot of the "moving stairs" and Muriel Ross, chirping away behind the Health Bar counter since time immemorial.

Yes, it was quite a place. It was "our" place.

So when "our" place disintegrated under the weight of urban blight, disappeared into a vacant vacuum and finally succumbed to the unrelenting claw of the heavy machinery, we all wondered what was next for this sprawling building site, long considered the "heart of Downtown Oneonta."

Well, after a long stretch of inaction, we mostly assumed that the answer was ... nothing. We watched the windows get dirtier, the bricks fall and the signs vanish.

But it made it. It stood. It was sold, and things began to stir. A little. The back came off. The 1950s aluminum facade came off. Press releases were, well, released. People started to buzz. "What's happening at the Bresee's store?" they asked over coffee up and down Main Street.

And then, in a final dramatic move, the storefront of the building was recently shrouded in wood, hiding the progress being made. The buzz died down.

When I got a call at the radio station recently saying, "Hey, Big Chuck, the wooden barriers are down in front of Bresee's," I took off my headphones and ran around the corner to take a look.

I wasn't alone. A large knot of city residents, mostly old-timers, was already there taking in the sight.

The new bay windows. The new architectural flourishes. The three new separate store entrances. It was actually exciting. People were laughing and telling stories of the "old days." I think the sun came out while I was there and a rainbow dipped down from over Sport Tech as cartoon bluebirds flitted around our shoulders.

It really was like that.

So what is next for our old friend? We don't know. But we are trained to expect the "whatever" to happen later, rather than sooner.

But still, to see the new configuration of the store has brought a welcome sense of movement, excitement and positive energy to the downtown community. And that is a very good thing.

We cannot preserve the "old Bresee's" in amber for us to take out and gaze at once in a while. But we all have memories, and they are everlasting.

I think the most enduring snapshot of Bresee's that we carry closest to our hearts is the restaurant. Don't you just love that name: "The Health Bar."

The big booths, the counter with the pie cases, the Shopper's Specials. The Health Bar was really Oneonta's "Cheers," a place where everybody knew your name.

Before writing this column, I asked my daughter Frances, now living in Los Angeles, for her Bresee's memory. Again, we go to the Health Bar for the story.

"Well, Dad, what I remember is the great food at the restaurant in the basement. I remember the chicken soup with the dozens of little perfectly diced carrots floating on top. But my forever memory happened near the end of the store's life," Frances began.

"My best friend, Sarah Keating, and I went in after school for their famous hot roast beef sandwiches. We both ordered one. After we were served, a couple sat down in the booth behind Sarah. We heard them order the hot roast beef sandwiches also. 'Sorry folks, those two young girls over there got the last ones,' we heard the waitress say as she pointed to us.

"The store closed the following day. Here we were, two young girls in our St. Mary's uniforms, and we got the very last two hot roast beef sandwiches ever served at Bresee's." Frances said with a laugh. "And they were delicious!"

Funny the memories that get all stirred up just because a couple of wooden barriers come down, isn't it?

I'll catch you in two ...

"Big Chuck" D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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