This is the Affordable Wheels sign on Route 45 as you’re coming out of Martinsburg and headed towards Shepherdstown. There is no dealership, just the sign. To me, it’s kind of come to encapsulate Martinsburg.
I live in Martinsburg, WV by accident. Before I met my wife, she had decided to move out of her parent’s house and buy a house in Martinsburg for two reasons. One, it was much more affordable than Vienna, VA, and two, she liked the idea of living in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I ended up out here with her because I accidentally fell in love with her and chased her out here. Not taking “No” for an answer. It was an answer that had came up a lot.
When I first moved out to Martinsburg, I hated it. I couldn’t wait to get us moved back closer to “civilization”. But Martinsburg has grown on me, especially now that I no longer commute to an area closer to D.C., and now every time we visit “civilization” the traffic and stupidness kind of just leaves us sick.
When Lorie first moved here back in 1997, the area was booming. The mall was new and the outlet center was going strong and Martinsburg was where fancy people from D.C. came to do their outlet shopping. The outlets closed awhile ago, and Martinsburg has yet to recover. The city seems… old. Which means I’ve started to love it more than ever.
Martinsburg has a history dating back to the Civil War. And that’s great, but it’s not what’s on my mind today. Driving through town you can force your mind to imagine what the place must have been like in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The bustling factory area a few blocks from town center. The all-important downtown with its many shops that were a draw for everyone in the area. There’s a soda-fountain counter pharmacy that’s still open. There’s a train station with an old, unused, roundhouse. And as you tour around town you get the feeling that inhabitants of Martinsburg lived very close together and the center of the city was everything.
But our society and culture is different now. The need to live close to where you work and shop for supplies is completely gone. Martinsburg has spread out and prospered in other areas that used to be farm land, leaving the center of old town Martinsburg kind of desolate looking. There are efforts under way to revitalize downtown Martinsburg, but I’m not holding my breath for that to happen. Maybe it’s my age, but I don’t feel like people really need malls and areas to shop anymore. Toy stores and book stores are having severe trouble staying open. Those were always my two reasons to shop. What’s left? Clothes? Shoes?
The Affordable Wheels sign is cool. There used to be a cracking, overgrown parking lot and a two-story house here. When I first moved to Martinsburg, the house was no longer selling the wheels, but instead offered an enticing selection of satellite dishes. Then it went unused for years. It was torn down last year.
I can’t help but think about the guy in 1955 who came to the Affordable Wheels lot, extremely eager to buy his first car and enticed by the idea that it was ‘affordable’. Where is he now? Does he still have the car? Does he think about it when he passes this old lot with the Affordable Wheels sign? And does he think about what Martinsburg used to be? Did he buy comics at the old pharmacy downtown? Did he read pulp novels? Did he listen to Jack Benny on Sunday nights with his family in front of the giant radio? Did he use his new affordable wheels to take a date to the drive-in movie theater that was just a little ways down the road on route 45?
And would he see our culture and era as a sad dissolving of his way of life? Or would he view it as a magnificent vision of a bright and hopeful tomorrow?
Or would he just do the cliché thing and say “What… no flying cars yet?”