Interview with Jeff Wood
Conducted by Ellen Simon
October 25, 2007
Jeff Wood is a Dickinson alum, an owner of Whistlestop Bookshop, and town historian. With knowledge on a wide range of topics, Jeff Woods provides the perspective of local businesses for this project. In my interview with Mr. Wood, we discuss how business in Carlisle has evolved, as well as the impact of truck traffic on businesses in downtown Carlisle.
MS. SIMON: How would you describe downtown Carlisle?
MR. WOOD: I would describe it as mostly well preserved, high traffic [town], both residential and commercial.
MS. SIMON: Do you live in downtown Carlisle?
MR. WOOD: No. I live outside of Carlisle.
MS. SIMON: How would you describe the evolution of the atmosphere and aesthetics over the past twenty years of downtown Carlisle?
MR. WOOD: I think the aesthetics have improved over the past twenty years, in the time we’ve been in business, with attention to details like flower boxes, pedestrian markings and storefront facades. Let me try to think what else includes aesthetics. As far as a place to walk in, in other words a pedestrian friendly place, it still has far to go. There’s still a lot of room for improvement.
MS. SIMON: Where do you see the need for improvement?
MR. WOOD: I see it mostly in the control of the quantity and speed of car traffic and truck traffic. That still has not been managed very well.
MS. SIMON: How would you describe the evolution of business over the years?
MR. WOOD: The evolution of business has been reflected nationwide by having the chain stores move out of the downtown and having independent, locally owned businesses—which have existed before in the downtown but they reasserted themselves—in the downtown.
MS. SIMON: Are you saying that you think business in Carlisle has improved?
MR. WOOD: It’s hard to say. In some areas it has suffered. I think the downtown would benefit by having a grocery store, which used to exist on North Hanover, for instance. Having a drug store downtown would be helpful. But at the same time, all those are detractions from the appeal of downtown. It has improved in a mix of restaurants and retail businesses. So it’s improved in some areas. Actually, it’s improved in most areas. I’m very satisfied with it, but we still have some things that I think could be improved.
MS. SIMON: Do you think the improvements that you mentioned have helped your business?
MR. WOOD: Yes, definitely. Things like the restoration of the Carlisle Theater and the presence of active restaurants downtown in the evenings have helped my business.
MS. SIMON: Overall, why do you think your business is able to survive successfully in Carlisle?
MR. WOOD: Because we put our emphasis on three aspects of business that are not unique to the book industry but seem to repay very well in the book industry. Those aspects are the ambiance or the feel of the store, selection as in what we actually stock and carry, and our attention to detail and how we fulfill special orders.
MS. SIMON: Is there any part of downtown Carlisle that you feel hinders business?
MR. WOOD: It’s always a difficult question what you want to cast on others responsibility and what you want to take responsibility for yourself. One thing I can say immediately that does not hinder business is the perceived parking problem. We have never been affected by that and I don’t think it restricts anything for us. One thing that may [hinder business] is ease of getting around. I mean, in other words, flow. It can be both pedestrian flow and traffic flow. Sometimes various events either close streets or result in the entire block being parked up for an event. Sometimes that works against us if the event has nothing to do with us. Other times, we don’t mind it because we get a lot of pedestrian traffic coming down to park for an event. I’m thinking of something at the Carlisle Theater or an event at the College. As far as direct hindrances, I can’t think of any at the moment. Nothing major, so no, I don’t feel we’re hindered by anything that the downtown does or does not do. Most of it is occasional and event-driven so it’s something that we can live through and tolerate.
MS. SIMON: So then how do you perceive the flow of truck traffic? Is it more something that bothers you as an individual rather than a business owner?
MR. WOOD: It does bother us because its one thing in twenty years that has increased dramatically. Downtown Carlisle now apparently is perceived as a transit route. In other words, a way of getting from one highway to the next or a way of cutting through and taking a short cut. So the truck traffic by its nature— I know it’s theoretically necessary on the big scale—but truck traffic by nature is extremely alienating, alienating to pedestrians. In other words, it makes them feel out of scale and at risk, even though the truckers may be the safest people in the universe. It is not a natural scale to have trucks thundering down the main business streets of the town. This is outside of deliveries which all tend to be very small van-type trucks.
MS. SIMON: Oh really?
MR. WOOD: Yes, deliveries tend to be from smaller units of the trucking industry. The biggest truck that makes downtown deliveries is usually a soda truck, like a soft-drink truck, or a beer truck. That’s still a human scale thing. When we get very large trucks [in Carlisle] that operate normally only on 81 or Route 11, that’s when the equation of traffic is thrown way out of wack. And also, which I have said for years, the speed of traffic. If people are racing from streetlight to streetlight, that’s also very endangering to people even if they just step outside to get into their car. To have people going by at 40, 50 mph in a 25 mph zone creates an air of intimidation.
MS. SIMON: Would you say this bothers you more as a business owner or a resident of Carlisle?
MR. WOOD: It affects business directly. Yes, if I lived in downtown Carlisle, I would be annoyed by it and I know a lot of our customers who like to walk from their residences to my business are affected by it. But it affects my business in the fact that it creates an air that is not pedestrian. If you have fast traffic and you have busy traffic and you have truck traffic—you know busy traffic in the sense that no one’s looking for a parking space—they’re just racing through town. You create an air that the streets are made for the cars first rather than the humans walking alongside them and crossing the streets. If the cars are given top priority, then that affects people’s decisions to pull over to the curb for a quick run-in. It affects people’s decisions about parking in one place and hitting a number of stores whereas the mall appeal—even if malls are in trouble anyway—is that you park your car once and you can go into a completely pedestrian zone. That is an advantage. That’s why a Wal-Mart builds at the edge of town and calls itself Carlisle Commons. ‘Cause they want to give an idea that you park your car once and then you walk along a commons even though it’s a complete fantasy. [Laughs] But I mean that’s the idea, ‘Don’t worry, you won’t get run over here.’ I mean, that is a psychological edge they have. If downtown Carlisle wants to have people do multiple visits to shops, they have got to place the pedestrians on a higher priority than the cars.
Truck and Car Passing the Carlisle Theater, Carlisle, PA. December 5th, 2007. Photograph by Ellen Simon.
MS. SIMON: Do you think the Downtown Carlisle Association is doing anything about that? I know they are doing the Clean Air Study.
MR. WOOD: Yea, they’re doing advocacy about it. They need to coordinate with a lot of different entities to get any real affect. A lot of it has to do with the Boroughs, PennDot, Dickinson College, and the people who actually own the property that the highway passes through and that the roads pass through.
MS. SIMON: Do you see anything being done about the impact of trucking on business in the future?
MR. WOOD: You mean whether something can be done?
MS. SIMON: Yes.
MR. WOOD: Yes, definitely something can be done.
MS. SIMON: I don’t know if your answer to this question will be the same as what you’ve already mentioned. But, as an historian, do you that think Carlisle has changed due to the trucking industry and truck traffic?
MR. WOOD: From an historical perspective, from day one, literally from 1751 when the town was laid out, Carlisle was seen as a transit point. It was destined to be the legal, commercial and religious control point for the rest of the territory, literally as far out as the Indian Lands and as far out as the Ohio River. Cumberland County was to be controlled by Carlisle, Carlisle was to be the point at which you depot your goods or you depot your people moving west and then move on. We have accounts from 1758, which was when certain military operations were passing through town, that there were traffic jams here in Carlisle. There were literally wagon jams. I mean it was chaos and it was because there was too much traffic for the roads available which is hilarious to read now. But you realize that Carlisle has always functioned as a stopping point because it’s that convenient twenty miles away from Harrisburg and then down the Great Valley. So, I understand it’s a point of convenience for transit. Certainly, when 81 was finished in the late ‘60s, that was a recognition of Route 11 which is an old Indian path had already created. There’s a reason why we exist here. At the same time, there’s too much of a good thing. In other words, you can create a natural industry, a human industry that Carlisle’s good for, but you can push it beyond limits of human toleration. And if you make it unpleasant for people to live here, you’ve destroyed the benefits of it being a transit point. You can have a solace transit point, but what’s the point? You know there’s no reason for anybody to take advantage of the fact that so many trucks pass through, so many visitors come, so on and so forth. At that point, you might as well just pave over 100 square acres and have trucks moving in and out. But. the important thing about Carlisle and Cumberland Valley is that it’s a beautiful place and it’s a convenient place to live. If you push people out of it, you’ve destroyed the reasons why we stay here and why we want to be here. You can’t do that. The transitory aspect of Carlisle’s strength cannot destroy the appeal of the stationary aspect of Carlisle. That’s silly, I mean it’s insane. You’ve extrapolated something to the point where it’s destructive and people are already saying that about air quality and there are other factors like land use. You know, there are a lot of issues that that intensity of traffic and trucking traffic affects
MS. SIMON: Do you think that the removal of Carlisle’s train station led to an increase in truck traffic or were the two unrelated?
MR. WOOD: No, that was a definite transition point because highways were being built and Route 30 was underway. Unfortunately, when the train station was removed from down the street, it removed the idea that you could get anywhere you wanted to from Carlisle without the individual car. You could show up at that train station and the rest of the nation was open to you. When you remove that, you suddenly said to human beings living in town, ‘You must rely on your own now. You’re on your own. You’ve got to get a car, you’ve got to do your own travel.’ That sort of took away the notion that ‘Oh the world is open to me ‘cause I can just go down to the end of the block.’ And all of a sudden, now we’re all driving alone. There’s no mass transit available in this part whereas one hundred years ago Carlisle was at the center of a huge amount of mass transit. We had trolleys, we had trains. There were all sorts of ways for people to get around.
MS. SIMON: So, do you think that goods used to be moved through Carlisle on trains?
MR. WOOD: Yes.
MS. SIMON: Then when the highways were built goods started to be transported on trucks?
MR. WOOD: We used the trucking because trucking at that time was a much cheaper way to move goods and a much more efficient way to move goods. Unfortunately with the decay of the railroad industry, it’s still a more way to move goods as far as getting from point A to Point B. It’s actually cheaper to move it by rail but that rail no longer extends to all the places it used to.
MS. SIMON: Right. That’s very interesting, my class was sort of curious about why that train station isn’t there anymore.
MR. WOOD: That was moved out because of the pressure of the car. It was 1936 and once the cars got at a critical mass in quantity, the train became a hazard to the cars. And the cars were never a hazard to the train [laughs]. But as soon as you had the train, the wonderful mass transit mover, endangering the cars, people felt that they were being personally threatened. And so people said, ‘The train’s gotta go’ and they moved it two blocks over and it became a non-passenger entity. I hope at some point people are going to see the trucks as a hazard to the people and therefore the trucks have to be moved.
MS. SIMON: Right.
MR. WOOD: I hope we get a little recycle here of critical point where decisions must be made. A tripping point, you know. But we have to definitely reach that. It is a shame that we don’t have any downtown point that you can go to that says ‘This is where you can get on—whatever it is, a bus or a train—this is where you can get on to go anywhere you want.’ We don’t have that. Everybody has to get in cars to do that.
MS. SIMON: Right.
MR. WOOD: And that atomizes things. You know, that breaks people apart. That doesn’t bring people together. It makes everybody do it on their own.
MS. SIMON: Thank you so much. You’re so helpful.
MR. WOOD: If we skipped anything or if you think of any more questions, feel free to come in. My opinion’s free, it’s very easy to supply.