Old Label Scars: Setting and Character Prompts From Closed Stores and Restaurants
Think about your favorite childhood store, attraction or restaurant. Did you sing the Woolco song and chase “blue light specials?” Did you cheer the drums and ice cream at Farrell’s? Can you spot a Whataburger a-frame building even when it’s been turned into a bank? A Toys-R-Us turned into an electronics store with the familiar front intact but painted over? A more recent Payless Shoes that is empty but still has remnants of the sign. A wooden roller coaster standing guard over a city with no visitors.
With many businesses closing due to Covid and entire malls being abandoned across the country, there are often “label scars” where businesses have left, leaving only the shadows of their names behind. As you shop or eat, watch out for those label scars that may trigger memories of shopping or food locations that are newly or long-gone.
- Write about your childhood memories of stores and restaurants that are no longer open. Did you visit a Stuckey’s on a family vacation? Eat at a Woolworth’s lunch counter?
- Write about your first job working retail or as a restaurant server in a place that isn’t open anymore. What do you remember about the experience, good and bad? What did your uniform look like?
- Imagine the employees and shoppers at the same places. Invent characters based on those people. Write about their interactions. Does the manager fall in love with an employee? What was the bestselling item when you worked there?
- Make a list of the sensory details you remember from these closed businesses. The smell of Wicks and Sticks. Tastes from food court stores that don’t exist anymore. Colognes in department stores. The sound of those Farrell’s drum beats. The smell of mall bookstores. Sounds of mall piano stores or dogs barking in the pet store. Shoe stores where they x-rayed your feet and fit your shoes.
- If you find a label scar on a storefront, take a picture of it and create your own ekphrastic prompt. Write about the emotions you feel when you see it. What decade does the remaining font shadow feel like it belongs to? Who hung the sign? Who took it down? Was it a family business that failed?
- Do some research. Go online and see when/how the business closed. For example, the history of Chi Chi’s closing is well-documented but you might learn about your own regional favorite shuttered store. Write about how the community felt when the business closed. Did a little girl cry because Chi Chi’s wasn’t there with a sombrero and fried ice cream for her birthday?
For further research, visit online sites that explore dead malls and abandoned stores. Write about those locations by imagining what happened to them.
Amy Barnes is the author of three short fiction collections: AMBROTYPES published by word west, “Mother Figures” published by ELJ, Editions and CHILD CRAFT, forthcoming from Belle Point Press in September, 2023. Her words have appeared in a wide range of publications including The Citron Review, JMWW, No Contact Mag, Leon Review, Complete Sentence, Gone Lawn, The Bureau Dispatch, Nurture Lit, X-R-A-Y Lit, McSweeney’s, SmokeLong Quarterly, Southern Living, Allrecipes and many others. She’s been nominated for Best of the Net, the Pushcart Prize, Best Microfiction, long-listed for Wigleaf50 in 2021 and 2022, and included in Best Small Fictions 2022. She’s a Fractured Lit Associate Editor, Gone Lawn co-editor, Ruby Lit assistant editor,and reads for Retreat West, The MacGuffin, Best Small Fiction, The Porch TN and Narratively. You can find her on Twitter at @amygcb.
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48 thoughts on “Day 7- Opening Old Label Scars: Setting and Character Prompts From Closed Stores and Restaurants by Amy Barnes”
Great prompt! I will revisit this on future writing days. I opted for a drabble, because I made a promise to myself to complete this May’s challenge (albeit untraditionally…work has been extremely demanding this month…).
Each point of the prompt sows seeds of many writing options. For this exercise I chose my grandfather’s diner and wrote the drabble based on a story my mother relayed.
I look forward to fleshing out sparked memories of Howard Johnson’s, Big Boy’s, a restaurant called the Red Barn, a variety store called TG&Y and some mishaps relating to those blue light specials. I may very well spend a month on this prompt alone. I love essays. However, for May I write in story form. =)
This prompt was a fun memory. As kids, the family spent long weekends at a nearby lake. Dad stored the boat nearby. We’d load up the station wagon, hitch up the boat, and motor out to the sandy islands formed in the middle of the lake. After a fun day playing in the water, building sand castles, and cooking burgers and hotdogs over a sand pit of hot coals, we slept in tents and woke up the next morning to do it all again. Time to pack up and go was always a disappointment. We had so much fun, we didn’t want to leave. But anticipation built as remembrance that we would stop by the Dairy Queen on the way home for a soft-serve ice creme cone. Remembering the story warmed my heart.
The Dairy Queen, if the building is still there, is probably a Chinese restaurant now. That’s sad for me. Come to think of it, I can’t even tell you where a Dairy Queen is located. They were indeed the first fast food restaurant, and a significant part of my youth.
I have happy memories tied to Dairy Queen as well. When I was in elementary school, there was a Dairy Queen on the walk home and we would stop there for a special treat after report cards or field day — Mister misty’s, dilly bars. I still remember walking home with a cool, sweet treat. I don’t know if that Dairy Queen still exists but I always smile when I see one locally where I live now. We used to have an Orange Julius (which I equate with current Dairy Queens because they used to be one store often) in a mall and it was recently removed and turned into a slick boba tea store. I literally gasped when I saw the modern store front and the erasure of the Orange Julius.
I think there is something so similarly warming in your remembrance of getting a soft serve cone as a treat — the happy memories of the trips combined with something sweet. Food memories I think may be the most compelling because we can in some way pinpoint taste but also because food memories (even at closed or changed locations) most often include family and friends too. I hope that your memories brought a smile — good luck on the rest of the May prompts.
When I became a teen, and tired of sharing beds, berths and fraternity with my four brothers, I moved into the unheated room off the kitchen of our home. In winter, I’d scrunch my body into a fist and tightly cocoon it head to toe within a wool blanket. Then I’d shake my body to generate enough heat to simmer me off on an eight-hour hibernation.
If I scraped a hole in the frost off my window, beneath the winter moon I could peek into the neighbors’ diaries written in laundry on clothes lines that strung from back porches to poles at the other end of shotgun barrel backyards. And across the railroad tracks over into West Albany, shining above it all, you could see the all-night sundown glow from the giant sign above the Tobin Packing Company plant .
On summer nights, when the room and I needed an open window to breathe, we’d hear the trains go through and some clank to a stop outside the slaughterhouse. I even heard the sound of the hogs being squeezed from their airless rail cars along the narrow suspended walkway into the factory. From there they were somehow scrunched into sausage casings, packed side-by-side as First Prize hot dogs, a pitiless and final escape.
Years later, on a blowtorch summer afternoon, I sneaked behind a wall into the abandoned plant. I climbed to the room where the hogs blindly ran in the cruel hope of escaping untenable overcrowding with their brothers. I remember seeing walls shedding their old paint like forgotten ancient frescoes, the concrete basin stained with lost life in the killing room, the necklace of hooks on a chain encircling the room and hearing ghosts and echoes I didn’t wish to hear. Looking eastward out a vacant casement, I tried to see my bedroom window across the haze of distance and time.
And, on that August afternoon, I shivered in the cold.
What a visceral, sensory set of memories. The sign. The cold. The sounds. The actual plant itself but abandoned. There’s something so chilling (figuratively and literally) in the coldness of the past and revisiting. We get a peek into a hardscrabble childhood and setting but also a sense of place/space with the descriptions and the naming of the plant just adds to that all. Great work!
It looks like I’m not the only one who was prompted in a more essay-type direction by this one! Mine turned out to be about how parking lots and highways are also former places– sometimes a former used bookstore (I’m only slightly bitter now, 20 years later), sometimes a whole neighborhood. It’s interesting to me because these between places for cars to pass through, I feel like we don’t look at them and see places exactly, not the same way a house or a store is a place. But they used to be, just like the banks that used to be taco bells etc!
I feel that all so much too. Where I live, it’s the still-orange Whataburgers turned into banks and offices but it’s getting extra weird because Whataburger (who completely left my city in the 90s) is coming back and it’s odd to see an old Whataburger slash something else near a “new” building. The orange lettering is still there but not the building style. I have used these details in both essay/memoir writing but then inserted specific details into fiction to show a time/regional area without overtly saying it. I know exactly where our old Borders was — it’s a golf store now and it irritates me every time I go past it. 🙂 Good luck on today’s prompt!
Loved this prompt! I’ve been back to my little home town a number of times over the years, and this prompt made me think about the changes there that made me feel that a beautiful era had passed. As it must, of course. For each generation, whatever was familiar and beloved form “the good old days.”
So glad to hear the prompt worked for you! I think the past few years have made me more nostalgic in part because many current favorite businesses/restaurants also closed down. I found myself going back to those “good old days” to escape the current ones even more. Those memories feel as important as the stories themselves we might right but it’s also good to get them down/share.
Day 7 is complete!
Congratulations on getting Day 7 words down! Here’s to Day 8 and beyond —
I loved this prompt for the nostalgia it brought to mind, although I also wrote more memoir than story arc today. I found that many of my memories of the shops in my neighborhood were olfactory, but I had a hard time describing the scents. The local pharmacy, deli, and five and dime where I spent my babysitting money on blue Slush Puppies and Nancy Drew books – each one had a distinct smell. I need to research when and why they closed, so hopefully will add more to the 700+ words I wrote.
700 words and sensory memories – congrats! Sounds like a productive writing day. It’s so hard do add a sense of smell to writing (maybe the hardest sense.) Great job at getting worlds down and envisioning the best step:. 😍
700+ words — congrats! The smells of slush puppies and Nancy Drew books are so distinct. Such a great way to share your memories with others through sensory details!
Most of this prompt wasn’t applicable to me, but I did feature a place that was important to the character in my story and wrote from that angle instead.
I would take that as a writing win — the prompts didn’t have to be a story. Sometimes, filling in those character details and settings is just as important. I like to use the store/restaurant details from the past that may be just memories — as ways to set time without saying it outright. Thank you for sharing!
Fun prompt that brought back good memories. I wrote 608 words. My father was in the Army and my mother was German. We moved back and forth from Germany to the states quite often. Not far from my grandparents’ apartment in Germany, was an Aldi’s grocery store, about one fourth the size of the current ones. After carrying the groceries two blocks from the store to their apartment building came the hard part, walking up five flights of stairs to the apartment. Many years have passed and I haven’t been back to Germany in a long time. There are now several Aldi’s grocery stores near my home in South Carolina and shopping there still brings back good memories. I googled the original store in Germany. It’s still there and looks just like the Aldi’s in the US.
Love these memories! When I went to Germany, I made sure to visit the Aldi’s there and am fascinated by the family drama behind Aldi/Trader Joe’s. 680 words is such great progress — congrats on getting them down!
I didn’t know about the drama. Will have to check it out.! Thank you.
Day 7 Completed! Yay! More memoir than story but mined some good things.
From the other comments, it seems like memoir might be the starting or jumping off point for these prompts. Congrats on getting the words down!
May 7 2023
Deb was sitting on the green couch in the modest living room. Rosie O’Donnell was inviting NSync back on the stage. Over the cheering crowd, Deb asked her grandmother Alice about the plan for the day.
“We need to wake up Amber,” Deb said. “She’s been asleep all day, and I’m hungry. Would you want to go get something out?”
“You know,” her grandmother smiled, “I really could go for a big fat hamburger right about now. I am so sick of this hospital food.” She gestured toward her special bread and sugar-free snacks she was consuming to maintain her blood sugar.
“A hamburger doesn’t sound bad at all,” Deb said to her.
“It’s not the burger, honey,” Alice said. “It’s the bun. But I’ve got my insulin, and I’ve been doing great. Let’s take Amber out and have a nice Sunday.”
Deb creeped into the bedroom where Amber was still fast asleep, a slight snore escaping the 7-year-old girl, peaceful and serene. Deb lay next to her little girl, stroked her hair against her forehead and back.
“Amberrrr,” she whispered gently. “It’s already lunch time. You’ve been sleeping a while.”
“5 more minutes,” the girl mumbled.
“Come on, we’re going to go with your great-gramma and get some grub!”
At that, the little girl was suddenly awake and said, with wide eyes, “Can we go to Fuddruckers?!”
Deb smiled. “That’s a great idea,” she said. Gramma Alice from the door shook her head to agree. So once they were all ready, they all piled into the OIdsmobile Cutlass and made their way to the restaurant. Everyone was excited and very hungry.
The ladies pulled up to the Fuddruckers, its bright blue sign immediately bringing a lively fun feeling to the group, especially Amber. She loved coming here with her mom and her great-gramma. It was one of the only times she felt like she could just relax and be a kid.
Amber wore her best tube top and black glitter flare pants. Alice and Deb were both dressed in Good Will chic. They were always making sure Amber was taken care of, even if it meant they had to wear old threads.
They walked into the restaurant claiming to make the “world’s greatest hamburgers”. They weren’t kidding. Deb, Alice and Amber could all smell the wonderful greasy fresh made-to-order beef and could almost taste the unlimited cheese sauce.
Deb began the order.
“Yes, hi,” she started. “We will have one of your one-pound Jersey Burgers with the pork roll slightly burnt please…yes, fries with that is fine, cheese sauce. Oh, okay, I’ll get it over there. Ok, I’ll have a Philly chicken cheesesteak and can you put mayo and mushrooms on there, please? Thank you, okay, and Amber, what do you want?”
“I’ll have the chicken fingers and fries and extra honey mustard please,” she beamed. She was so excited and she knew she would get to have soda today, too!
After a momentary battle over who would foot the bill, Gramma Alice paid for the food and the cashier handed them each a cup for the fountain.
Amber rushed over and filled her cup with ice and root beer. Her mother and great-gramma both took iced tea. They went to sit over by the window where the jukebox was. Amber loved to put the change in and choose Bon Jovi or maybe today she would put on Britney Spears. She decided to just queue both.
When the food came, Amber sat down where her family was and took it all in. The happy conversation, the delicious food, and the feeling like everything would be okay. She couldn’t know this would be their last trip to Fuddruckers, or one of the last moments she would enjoy with her great-gramma. But she did know that today felt special, and she never wanted to forget it.
My daughter and I just went on a college tour trip and came across what might be the last Fuddruckers in South Carolina. It was firmly ensconced in the 80s and my teenager giggled at the easy word switch in the name just like I did with my friends 35 years ago. 🙂 Love how you not only brought in sensory details and an emotional connection but also — the related time period details like what was on TV and what band was popular. To me that makes stories more interesting than just saying, it was 1986. Great job!
Thank you!! I miss that place. My dad always thought it was hilarious when I said the name wrong 😉 Awesome that you and your daughter got to see that together and good luck to her in college! 🙂
I did a little research about some of the businesses named here, and I saw that one of them (Woolco) had a store’s grand opening a few days after they’d announced they’d be closing all their US stores. So I wrote about what it might have been like for one of those store employees. Not my best work, but fun to write!
Retail stores are so ripe for research and stories. I remember Woolco so vividly (it was ahead of and behind the times) — can still hear the theme song “we want to be your favorite store.” They played that until the last moment of their liquidation sales. I could imagine them opening a store in those last days too. Great approach!
Ok! I enjoyed this…I indulged in some nostalgia. I didn’t use it so much as a story prompt, as a walk-down-memory-lane prompt, but that’s good too. I tried to use sight, smell and sound to bring my forgotten place back to some kind of life.
Wonderful! It really was intended as an open ended series of prompts to do everything from getting those memories down to inspiring a story or memoir piece. Those sensory details are so important in bringing the memories to life for someone who didn’t get to visit these places but also to jog memories back for someone who did. I’m glad you found some memory details to write down — hope they fill in or help you create a story soon!
I really enjoyed writing to this prompt. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I’m making a note to come back to it when I have more time.
I live in an town where the old folk are very free with their nostalgia so I had plenty of source material based on building I never saw with my own eyes when they were in their prompt, but about which I’ve heard a ton of stories.
I wrote at a different time today and I didn’t entirely love it. I wonder if I’m becoming more of a fan of routine as I turn into one of those ‘older people’…. Hmm. Something to consider.
Great prompt. Thanks, Amy!!
I prefer to write in the morning, and do revisions in the evening. I am an (ahem!) older person, but it’s been true for a while that new words come best with the sun low in the east. I had a conflict this morning, and couldn’t write until the afternoon. I feel that the piece wasn’t as good as it might have been. I don’t know if this will serve as validation of your writing habits, or confirmation that you’re becoming a crusty old fart. If I were you, I’d choose to believe the first.
Then you for including me! Glad to hear it helped you get words and memories down on paper. Sometimes, just those germs of ideas help inspire something later on. I’m finding Ii need to get them down as I age. 🙂 I like having even just sentences or phrases down and then I go back in to Google docs and search.
Day 7 ✔️
Not able to write a story. Started a story three times but I was not satisfied. Deleted the story. Too many things swarming in my mind. A good friend called and the news was not good. Monday is another day.
I hope you’ll keep coming back to the site and trying again. Remember, this is not about writing individual stories we’re satisfied, but about being satisfied with ourselves that we’re giving it a shot.
Learning to keep writing even when the individual days ‘work product’ doesn’t delight us, is an essential step on the road to a happy writing life.
You can do this!
Yay! Congrats for completing another day. Hope you continue to make progress.
Yay! Congrats on getting words down on another day!
Not a story, but a memoir. I just couldn’t generate a plot for some reason, but at least I got some words written down, about the daydreams the Mobilgas Pegasus signs used to inspire in me.
Oooh — I remember those signs, so many memories behind them just with that one visual image! We don’t always have to start with plot, sometimes just those initial images and memories are enough to get things rolling and inspire.
I worked on today’s story in short bursts, so it took me most of the day. But, I finally finished it. Barely managed to work in a restaurant the character remembered going to as a child that has now been turned into a shoe store and it was the final thing that broke her after a stressful moment. Also figured out a few other things about her and her history. Another piece added to my selkie story idea. 782 words, my longest one so far.
782 words is awesome! Shoe stores are so ripe with story possibilities, love that you integrated them into a story like that! One of my favorite stories that I wrote is about an evil shoe store owner that steals people’s souls when they shop there. Here’s to more progress for you the rest of the month. Although almost 800 words might be hard to top. 🙂
There are a lot of moving pieces to this prompt! What came out is more memoir/essay but that is ok. The research part of why the restaurant closed was an interesting part that I would not have done without the prompt.
I am eternally fascinated with store/restaurant histories — the why/how of their closing and overall history. Sorry for all the moving parts. 🙂 I was trying to offer multiple approaches. So glad to hear you found a way that worked for you and definitely the prompts work for memoir, essay or fiction!
This brought back a fond memory of mine when I was little, so I wrote it down. I’ll try to fictionalize it tomorrow.
Woolworth’s was my favorite place to go shopping when I was little. In second grade when I was in Catholic school, the nun marched our whole combined first and second grades a few blocks to the Woolworth’s before holidays so we could buy our mothers a present. There were 76 of us in her combined classroom, and we all knew we’d better behave on our walk to the store.
Each time before we went, she reminded us for days to remember to bring a quarter. There was always a child who hadn’t brought one, probably because they were so poor, they didn’t have a quarter to spare. In that case, Sister Celeste provided the quarter. I knew how embarrassing that must be for that child, and I also thought it must be hard for the Sister to come up with that much money, as well. In 1950, a quarter would buy you a lot, and I was always thrilled to be able to buy my mother a nice present at Woolworth’s.
Love this! Turning it into a fictional story or character detail/back story is a great option but you could also use it in an essay or memoir piece. I’m happy you found some writing inspiration but also a happy memory. 🙂
Thank you, Amy, for commenting, and letting me know it was interesting to you. Nice to know it could stand alone as a memoir piece.
You offered a lot of things to think about in your prompts.
So glad to hear! Hope you find even more inspiration as the prompts progress. 😍
What a wonderful experience! Do you remember any of the presents you bought with your quarters?
Thank you, Faith, I’m happy to know I conveyed the experience ok. I only remember one thing I bought my mom at Woolworth’s that school year, an embroidered hanky or probably more than one with my quarter. In those days we still used pretty cloth hankies to blow our nose instead of Kleenex, so it was good to have plenty on hand.