Commentary

Henry Gargan: A conflicted obituary for Roses

April 10, 2014 

Last week, I learned though a tweet from the Triangle Business Journal that the Roses in Chapel Hill’s University Mall is closing after 40 years of business. I wasn’t surprised. More and more upscale specialty boutiques have been choking out the mall’s more useful shops for years now. My mother used to joke that the lease must have been mighty long for Roses to still be around. We both knew that 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 for cheap. Fruit of the Loom is about as close as it got to carrying anything you’d call “brand-name,” but that was the point. We’d go there to pick up a $10 lamp or a small toy if I was 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?”

It might be apparent by now that I have something of a sentimental attachment to the place. I live just a mile from the mall, across the bypass in Colony Woods. Our relationship began as one based on thrift and convenience, but it came to represent a defiant symbol of the way things used to be in the mall – the way it used to be 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 all boarded up and reemerged from their plaster cocoons as art galleries and jewelry stores. The store has stood out like a Hawaiian shirt at a funeral for the last decade. Roses’ days have always been numbered.

Complicated

My sorrow is complicated, as you may have guessed, 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, but Roses’ place in the Chapel Hill community makes it especially difficult for me 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 are to be cheered in the long run, it’s tough to sell that point to folks who’ll find themselves without a place to buy clothes and other household necessities once Roses closes. My privilege is absolutely what allows me to look back fondly upon shopping at what is, objectively speaking, a pretty crappy store, but it’s 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 get make things any easier for them in the short run now that Roses is leaving. Of course, I believe that systems of commerce need to be established that 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,” I believe, because of how benevolent a presence Roses seemed to be in my neighborhood on a microeconomic level.

Inevitable

This type of dilemma isn’t unique to the South, but it is an inevitable part of its legacy. People who are proud of the South and its culture have always had to answer for its history of oppression. 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.

People hate being told something they enjoy is part of an oppressive structure. I learned that the hard way last semester when I pointed out the vestiges of oppression within UNC’s Greek system last fall and touched a few nerves. No one – I hope – joins a fraternity with the goal of oppressing women and minorities in mind. I certainly didn’t shop at Roses because I wanted to fund Art Pope.

This experience, perhaps my first to interweave tradition with consideration of its role in oppression, is pulling me toward a middle ground. Of course we can’t ignore the less just aspects of our cultural history, but I also believe we needn’t ignore the variety of identities held by those institutions in different scales of time and culture.

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, most of my UNC T-Shirts, and 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 is a junior at UNC.

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