Guest Commentary: Running Away Brought Me Full Circle: Back Home


This summer I ran away from my North Carolina home of 24 years and returned to my roots. 

You can go home again; just don’t expect it to be the same as it was when you left. Even in small town America. 

The forever Fuller Market Basket became Shop ‘n Kart since I visited a year ago. The historic Matz building on Tower Avenue burned down. The El Rancho Tavern from my original years finally went the way of the Doghouse Tavern. No loss there. 

A plethora of outlet stores at the interstate, restaurants on the one-time residential Harrison Avenue, and stores (antiques and otherwise) in town have cropped up in the 42 years since I left home for college. Centralia is reinventing itself, and that is a good thing. 

The Fox Theater is being restored to its original 1930 appearance as funding allows, after years of vacant decay. And the Olympic Club, a classy tavern formerly owned by the family of one of my high school classmates, is a hotspot for dining, as well as a unique hotel and movie house. 

The post office remains virtually unchanged, and I delight in that familiar oak and ancient paper smell. 

I confess to missing the “old” library with the downstairs children’s room, and the young adult books up the wide stairs with the grown-up stacks. 

The Shanghai Restaurant is apparently still going strong, its butterfly sign still hanging over the sidewalk. Next door is Hubbub, the artsy gift store that brought high class to town six years ago.

An experimental rain garden has gone in next to Hubbub’s amazing sculpture park since my arrival in July. Rain water soaks into the porous sidewalk and returns to the garden alongside it rather than into the storm drain. That is forward-thinking innovation.

I stopped one evening on a stroll through town to take a picture of the Gibson House sign, and was saucily informed by an inebriated young man on the sidewalk that, “Ma’am, that’s not the Gibson House anymore.” 

I just said, “I know that.” 

I also know that before the building was the Gibson House it was Proffitt’s Department Store where I got my Girl Scout paraphernalia, and dresses for special occasions as opposed to daily clothing needs, which were bought at JC Penney on south Tower. And before it was the Gibson House restaurant, it was the Gibson House gift and book store, which used to be two blocks down the street and was my first place of high school employment. Bet you didn’t learn that in your history class, son. 

I came of age on the wrong side of the active railroad tracks. That is, the wrong side to get anywhere in a hurry. My dad and I, waiting at one crossing or another, counted cars or got whiplash looking for the “BLT” date to identify the oldest car on the train. 

According to my research there are an average of 60 trains a day passing between town and my house; sometimes rattling straight through, sometimes stopping and backing up and blocking the tracks for interminable minutes. Some things haven’t changed. There are two viaducts, but figuring out when to bail and when to be patient is tricky. I have put a book in my car. 

It is odd to be back in my small home town, and it will take time for me to figure out what I am doing here. But the air in the hills and fir trees vibrates with energy; whereas the heat and humidity in the Southeast sucked the life out of me. I will discover what to do with that energy; and keep breathing deep and exploring the new old Centralia in the meantime.


Gretchen Staebler has lived in three eastern states since membership in the first graduating class from the new Centralia High School, Class of 1970. She writes a weekly blog called, “My View from the Garden” at