From 1934 until the 1960’s, my parents owned Harry Smith Shade and Linoleum Company in North Park at 2912 University, where Off the Record is now. At the front half of our shop, six-foot-high rolls of linoleum lined up in rows. I had favorites like the Armstrong abstracts with pieces of shine in them that caught the light. Or a pattern called Tessera made of tiny mosaic squares. (You can sometimes still see Tessera on the bathroom floors of old restaurants.) All of the linoleum smelled like its white asbestos fiber backing: A businesslike, chemical scent something like asphalt, sharp and unmistakable.
But down in the basement, the big nine-foot rolls of linoleum lay lengthwise on the floor like felled trees. After my father died in 1956, the work of unrolling and slicing lengths off those giants fell to my mom and her new helper, a young single mother named Carol Arnold. That linoleum got its scent from its dark gray tarpaper backing. You could pick up its tar smell as soon as you came down the wooden stairs.
During World War II, because the government was afraid of bombing raids, San Diegans were ordered to buy regulation window shades to black out the city at night. Lines formed around the block leading into our window shade store. After the war, people were glad to switch out their dark green shades for eggshell, white, and cream, and later on, pale blue, sunshiny yellow, and a soft green. In the fifties, when customers were starting to feel expansive from having a little extra cash, they wanted the ends of their window shades cut into fancy designs like scallops. They wanted them trimmed in rickrack or fringe.
The ten-by-ten-foot shade-making table stood on six-by-six-inch square wooden legs. A soft dusty scent came from underneath where shelves stored cutting tools and scraps of window shade material.
We sewed a casement across the bottom of each window shade for a wooden slat. So, from time to time, a light odor of sawdust and fresh pinewood would puff out in the back of the store when somebody pushed a long slat into the cutter and smashed down the heavy handle to cut it to length.
Twenty-foot ceilings in the store kept the place cool, and the scent that drifted through that coolness was the signature smell of our shop: the soft, oily, painty odor of window shade fabric.
Today, I go into Off the Record in North Park once in a while so that I can press the metal thumb tab on the old door handle and hear it click. The same heavy front door closes behind me with its familiar chonk. But the new owners have installed an acoustic tile ceiling nine feet up, so you can no longer see the mark my dad put on the wall at 12’ 11 7/8”, which was his world pole-vaulting record. The old scents of our shop are gone too, replaced now by the 1950’s vintage smell of vinyl records.
- Anitra Carol Smith