In the beginning, there was only Roger Wilco. In the 1960’s, our hometown grocery store stood alone in the middle of its vast asphalt parking lot. It was one of a handful of grocery stores in the entire town of Novato. As a teenager, I remember my surprise when out-of-town friends would make fun of the quaintly-named market. I’ve read that at one time, the parking lot was dirt, with an old oak tree at its center. Kids would play on its rope swing while their mothers were inside shopping. There was always a Post Office kiosk inside the entrance. As a child, I also remember the fascinating vacuum tube testing apparatus that sat inside the front doors. I remember my mother with her paper bag of tubes carefully removed from our dark TV set. I remember her, and later myself, writing checks to “CASH” at the check stands in those ancient days before ATMs. Over the next 20 years, Novak’s Square grew into a cornucopia of necessary shops and services, and served as my family’s base of material consumption.
First came the the Pay-n-Save, next door. Over the years, an entire shopping center popped up: Radio Shack, Red Boy Pizza, Arthur’s Toy Town, Happy Steak, a liquor store, an ice cream parlor, a health food store. I remember riding my bicycle to the Square on hot summer days to spend my allowance on candy or ice cream. As a teenager, I spent many afterschool afternoons loitering in the Radio Shack and the toy store. My friends and I would often get thrown out after pestering the managers endlessly and programming obscene messages to flash on the TRS-80 Personal Computers' screens.
With the 80’s came a building boom. It seems that there was an unwritten rule that one should not have to travel more than a mile to find a shopping center. San Marin Plaza was built, with its upscale Petrini’s Market, now Harvest. The founding fathers’ names were the first to go. No longer “Novak’s Square” or “Tresch Triangle,” they became simply “The Square,” and “The Triangle.” Adolescent troublemakers hanging out in the lot became known as the “Square Rats.” The Pay-n-Save became Bill's Drugs, then Longs Drugs, even though there was already another Longs within walking distance.
Today, all that remains of the original tenants are the liquor store and the Pay-n-Save, now a CVS Pharmacy, and yes, there is still another CVS less than a mile away. The market, having gone through multiple owners - Cala Foods, Bell Market, and DeLano's - has been vacant for several years now. There is talk of the entire center being “rezoned,” to make way for plentiful, possibly low income, housing. Slowly, the other tenants are disappearing. Sometimes they reappear across town, in the more bustling centers – Radio Shack, Red Boy, and most recently, Tagliafferi’s Deli have made the move successfully. Others have simply vanished. Gone forever are Villa Roma, Arthur’s Toy Town, Happy Steak (I still have a cardboard employees hat somewhere in my garage, filched from a high school friend’s summer job), and Henry’s Burgers. The remaining shops: a tanning center, a (fairly decent) Thai restaurant, a nail parlor, a Laundromat, a fitness center, donut shop, and a cigarette store, look like dusty faded photographs, a memory of a time before this town had 6 different supermarkets, including a Trader Joe’s and a Whole Foods. And that’s not including the Target and Costco, on the other side of the freeway.
It’s odd living my life now in the same town in which I grew up. Although I lived in San Francisco for 16 years, met and married my wife, and saw all three of my daughters born there, I returned to Novato in 1998. Everywhere I go, I see ghosts. The old Grant’s Department Store is now a Dollar Tree, the Tijuana Taco is a Taco bell, Goodman’s Lumber is a gymnastics center. The school I attended Kindergarten at is now a housing development. Raising my girls here has superimposed a new set of memories on top of my childhood ones, but occasionally I’m reminded of how much things have changed.
I suppose it’s only a matter of time before Novak’s Square is just a pile of rubble, and after that, just another neighborhood. Every time I drive by though, I’ll know, that's where the Roger Wilco used to be.
05Mar2013 UPDATE / CORRECTIONS: I've edited the original text to correct various inaccuracies: The original tenant of the pharmacy/drug store was Pay-n-Save, not Longs Drugs. I also added the various later tenants of the market building, and corrected several other minor errors.