Point of view

As the University Mall Roses closes, a conflicted goodbye from a Chapel Hill native

April 12, 2014 


Coin faces

JAMIE CARROLL — Getty Images/iStockphoto

When I learned that the Roses in Chapel Hill’s University Mall was closing after 40 years, I wasn’t surprised. More and more upscale specialty boutiques have been choking out the mall’s more useful shops for years. My mother used to joke that the lease must have been mighty long for Roses to still be around. We both knew it would have been gone ages ago if the mall itself had any say in the matter.

Roses sells almost anything you can think of, and it sells it cheap. Fruit of the Loom is about as close as it got to carrying anything like a “brand-name,” but that was the point. We’d go there to pick up a $10 lamp or a small toy if I were on the way to a friend’s birthday party. It’s where I went to get my parents their birthday and Christmas presents when I was buying them out of pocket money. And whenever I asked my mom to buy me something – a new pair of pants or a soccer ball, for instance – her reply was always the same: “Can’t we just get that at Roses?”

Clearly, I have something of a sentimental attachment to the place. I live just a mile from the mall. Our relationship began based on thrift and convenience, but Roses came to represent a defiant symbol of the way things used to be in the mall – when it was a place that served the neighborhood around it instead of being a gathering point for people who like to overuse the word “artisan.”

There was an ice cream store, a book store, a hobby store and a Kerr Drug. One by one, they boarded up and re-emerged from their plaster cocoons as art galleries and jewelry stores. Roses has stood out like a Hawaiian shirt at a funeral for the last decade. Its days have always been numbered.

My sorrow is complicated by the fact that Roses is owned by Art Pope, a man whose politics I vehemently oppose. This isn’t a unique conflict – Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie and Free People, for example, are operated by similarly questionable interests. Roses’ place in the Chapel Hill community, however, makes it especially difficult to reconcile my nostalgia with the facts of its existence.

Roses is the only store of its kind within walking distance of the neighborhoods that surround University Mall. Many of these are among the poorest in Chapel Hill. As I reached the age of political awareness, I realized that Art Pope was essentially using his customers’ money against them. And because of their limited mobility and the lack of other nearby options, there wasn’t much they could do about it.

While the demise of such predatory practices is to be cheered in the long run, it’s tough to sell that point to the folks who’ll find themselves without a place to buy clothes and other household necessities once Roses closes. My privilege is what allows me to look back fondly upon shopping at what honestly is a pretty lousy store and also what will allow my life to continue unhindered once Roses is gone.

Many of the people who live around the mall aren’t so lucky. Were they being exploited? Absolutely. But that doesn’t make things any easier for them in the short run now that Roses is leaving. I believe systems of commerce need to prohibit the creation of an underclass that at once produces and consumes low-cost goods for the benefit of the upperclass. But it’s hard for me to zoom out and unequivocally say “good riddance” because of how benevolent a presence Roses seemed to be in my neighborhood on a microeconomic level.

This type of dilemma isn’t unique to the South, but it is an inevitable part of its legacy. Those who enjoy vestiges of Jim Crow will rightly never be able to enjoy them independent of their history, even if they seem otherwise innocuous in the present.

The big picture tells us that Roses is an exploitative institution that ultimately perpetuates the poverty of its customers. But the little pictures, the ones I keep in my head that make me smile, tell another story – one of a place that sold me nearly every toy I owned and most of my UNC T-shirts and one that helped me and my parents out of a jam more than a few times.

I think it’s time for Roses to go, but my politics will have to share mental space with my childhood for a little while longer. I hope that’s OK.

Henry Gargan of Chapel Hill is a junior majoring in journalism

at UNC-Chapel Hill.

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