JAMES BEHRENS: Neighborhood shopping district offered an idyllic setting for childhood

The place was called Watchung Plaza. It was a cluster of stores not far from the street where I used to live. We were kids and used to hang there a lot in our high school days.

There were a lot of stores, though the plaza itself was not that large. The stores were, for the most part, small. The only big stores were the Acme and First National Markets, which, by today's standards, were not that big, either.

The other stores were across the street. There was a hardware store, a paper store (with a lunch counter and an array of toys, magazines, cigars and cigarettes; it was called Fishers), and two delicatessens a dirty one and a clean one, according to local lore.

I liked the dirty one. The owner was a Greek and was friendly. He and his wife lived in the rear of the store; there were a few rooms in the back. The other place may have been cleaner but the people who ran that place did so with severe looks on their faces, especially when we would go there to buy stuff for our moms.

There was also the cleaners, the drug store, a paper goods store, two liquor stores, a bank, a barber shop and a bakery. We spent so much time there that we got to know most of the owners and the people who worked for them. I can still see their faces to this day.

I was back a few months ago and walked around a bit. Instead of all the stores I mentioned above, there are a lot of small restaurants. The candy store has new owners. The cleaners is still there. There is an art supply shop now where there used to be an expensive food store that boasted the home delivery of goods. Mom never set foot inside that place.

One liquor store remains and so does one drug store. The drug store is amazing there are still these old things there, things that were in the window when I was a kid. Admittedly, the place is run down and tired looking.

Where there was once a pet store there is now a restaurant. I used to work in the pet store, cleaning the cages. The owner, an old blind man, sold harmless animals -- turtles, fish and guinea pigs. I liked the guinea pigs and had a few of my own.

The bank is still there, but a bookstore has replaced a photograph studio. There are pizza parlors and Chinese take-out places. The paper good store is still there.

Lots of memories came back to me as I walked from one store to another. The Newman's owned the bakery. They were from Norway and were the nicest people. Because I was one of seven kids, Mrs. Newman would always toss an extra dozen buns into the bag, at no charge.

The lady who worked in the cleaners had such a shiny face. She is still there, which amazed me. She is well on in years. Her face still shines, like her smile.

I thought of Nelson when I passed what once was the First National Market. He was my boss when I worked there and was a good man. A funny man, too. He used to make me laugh. All the kids liked him. The store is long gone. The building has gone through several reincarnations; it is now an Italian restaurant.

I noticed that it was more peaceful at Watchung. A lot of people were having leisurely lunches, sitting at outside tables and chatting away.

When I was a kid, there was a lot more coming and going. People were busier, or so it seemed. There were also more kids. The only place where people lounged was the candy store. We were the loungers. We would sit there for hours, just hanging out. The Fishers never threw us out.

During the Christmas season, Watchung Plaza looked like a fairy land. All the stores had different Christmas decorations a beautiful array of lights, trees, Christmas ornaments, window displays.

We often had snow during that time of the year and I loved to walk up to the Plaza right after a blizzard. The cars in those days had chains on the tires and I can still hear the sound that those chains made as the cars moved ever so slowly down the street.

The stores looked like a row of little cottages with Christmas decorations galore glowing through the snow.

All that was long ago. I was going to take pictures on my recent trip back to Watchung Plaza, but I had no way of photographing what once was. Those images are imprinted in my mind and, I think, my heart as well.

It was a wonderful period of my life. A place to shop in a suburban town called Montclair, where I first learned to hang out and, without then being aware of it, took in all the beautiful and ordinary things around me, things that glowed like Christmas all year round.

Father James Stephen (Jeff) Behrens, O.C.S.O., serves at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, 2625 Highway 212 SW, Conyers. His email address is james@trappist.net.