Lifestyle & Culture

Department Stores Were Us

April 30, 2020

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In front of Bonwit Teller windows / Photo / Museum of the City of New York.

DEPARTMENT STORES may have been failing slowly for years—think the demise of Bonwit Teller, Garfinckel’s and B. Altman’s—but a recent New York Times article sounded the death knell for the ones that remain, their fall hastened by the shock of the coronavirus pandemic. Barneys New York filed for bankruptcy last year; Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor are facing the same fate; Macy’s is scrambling and so is Nordstrom. The director of retail studies at Columbia University’s Business School remarked, “The genre is toast, and looking at the other side of this, there are very few who are likely to survive.”

Flashing back several years to Masterpiece Theater’s series “Mr. Selfridge”(2013-2016), I’m reminded of American Harry Selfridge who founded his eponymous London store in 1909. His aim was to entertain, amuse, surprise and delight his customers, as well as help them escape their worldly woes. For a long time department stores have seduced us: The cosmetic counters with heady fragrances and prettily packaged makeup that promised transformation, the clothing artfully displayed to convince us how gorgeous we’d look in that certain something.

For me the magic began the moment I went to see Macy’s Christmas windows with my grandparents. In elementary school, my mother would take me to Ohrbach’s, which I don’t remember as anything special, but mom liked a bargain and knew she could get one there.  In later years we’d shop Fifth Avenue, either going to B. Altman’s and Lord and Taylor’s or to Saks Fifth Avenue, where I remember the white-gloved, uniformed elevator operators fascinated me, and our favorite while it lasted, the elegant Bonwit Teller. If we didn’t eat at the Lord & Taylor’s Bird Cage or B. Altman’s Charleston Gardens, we’d go to Hamburger Heaven (across the street from Saks and St. Patrick’s Cathedral) and sit at the counter. I still remember the sign at the front of the restaurant. “If you munch a sprig of parsley, you needn’t eat your onions sparsely.” I didn’t test the idea because at the time I never ate onions on my burger. When I worked in New York City in the ‘80s, Bloomingdale’s under the showmanship of Marvin Traub became synonymous with style, transporting customers to France, India, Italy and Ireland with lavish displays of clothing, furniture and food. On Saturdays going to Bloomies with friends was the afternoon’s entertainment. I continued to love going with my mom, though, whose unerring eye would spot something unique —like a small metallic box with a moonstone clasp from India she suggested I carry as an evening bag.

—Janet Kelly

With Mother’s Day arriving May 10 (a week from this Sunday), I thought many of our readers would also remember shopping with their mothers at these grandes dames stores. I asked; here’s what they—from Pittsburgh to Portland, Oregon—recalled.

Christine Ledbetter (Hannibal, Missouri): When I was engaged, my mother took me to B. Altman’s to buy my trousseau. We purchased white silk Dior shoes, and a peach Pucci negligee.  We had lunch afterwards in the restaurant, and I remember thinking from now on, I would always shop at Altman’s.

Maureen Young (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania): I remember waiting in line to see Santa Claus holding my grandmother’s hand at Marshall Fields in downtown Chicago. I was six or seven years old and heard for the first time Gene Autry singing “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” over the loud speaker.  I was convinced for many years that the song ended with Rudolph going down to his store (ee).

Judith Robinson (Pittsburgh):  I loved going shopping with my mother at Pittsburgh’s fabulous department stores—Kaufmann’s, Horne’s, Gimbel’s and Saks. What comes to mind first was the old ladies who sat against the wall in Horne’s beautiful tea room restaurant. Almost every one of them had blue hair.

Nancy Gold (Philadelphia): I remember going to Bonwit Teller with my mom and sisters for shopping and lunch.  We would get dressed up and have to be on best behavior. I think it was maybe twice a year, for winter and spring coats, which my father’s father would pay for, for some reason. Bonwit Teller has been gone for decades. But I remember it being a wonderland for a kid.

Catherine Clifford (Washington, DC):  My mother grew up in New York City and every year, took us to see the Fifth Avenue Christmas windows. Elegant old stores like Bergdorf Goodman, Best’s, Peck & Peck were always at the horizon, but as the seventh child of a teacher, my wardrobe came from used-clothing sales, sparsely supplemented by bargain bins at S. Klein. But when I was in sixth grade and we’d gotten very slightly richer, my mother decided that a family event warranted a dress from De Pinna’s. Thick carpets, high ceilings, hushed tones, commodious fitting rooms, unfaltering service from a certain-age attendant—all imprinted deeply. In high school, I started sleuthing markdowns from high-end stores; out of college, despite poverty wages, my first credit cards were from Saks and Lord & Taylor. As a poor Conde Nast writer and editor, sales racks at Altman’s, Saks and Bonwit’s were regular stops on my way home. Above all, I adored going to Lord & Taylor first thing in the morning: coffee and tea from silver services on white tablecloths in the foyer, and at 10am sharp, all stood while the national anthem played, then velvet ropes were unclipped and shoppers ushered in. It was not the merchandise so much as this—the tradition, the echoes of gracious New York history, the beautiful furnishings in beautiful buildings, the city at its best even in the gritty ‘80s, the icons from my mother’s girlhood, and the grown-up that it meant I was if I shopped in such places—that cemented my affection for the grandes dames of emporia, and makes me so wistful at seeing the last of them fade away.

Caren Sniderman (Pittsburgh): Pittsburgh lost its downtown department stores so long ago. Kaufmann’s, Gimbel’s, Horne’s, the large department stores where everyone shopped before shopping malls rose in the suburbs. My grandmother dressed up, with a hat and white gloves to shop in town, I met my friends under the Kaufmann’s clock, and my mother and I enjoyed tea sandwiches and rich chocolate milkshakes with coffee ice cream in Kaufmann’s Tock Tock Room. In a way, we said goodbye to downtown department stores long before Covid-19 and sheltering in place hurt the ones still standing. But the sweet memories of a different era are still there.

Kit Alderdice (Portland, Oregon): Lunch in the Birdcage. With the birdcages hanging in the center of the room. L&T was my mother’s go-to, and I, of course, went-with. I could always hear the alarm system on the floor with the high-end designer and furs. A high-pitched buzzing that my mother couldn’t hear. Made for an exciting elevator ride. Fifth floor, I think!

Nancy McKeon (New York City): I remember something probably a lot of us do: getting separated from my mom at Macy’s Herald Square, that ginormous store, and having to sit in the security department while they paged my frantic mom. I was crying (of course, I was always crying). But the one I regret most has been gone quite some time: B. Altman & Co., Fifth Avenue and 34th Street. My great-grandmother bought the fabric for her daughter’s (my grandmother’s) 1906 wedding dress at Altman’s new Fifth Avenue location (and had a seamstress copy the wedding dress of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, which had been seen earlier that same year in all the newspapers, complete with leg-of-mutton sleeves). During the years after Benjamin Altman’s death, when the store was run by the Altman foundation, it changed little: there was always a fireplace department (because back then grand apartments had fireplaces) and a main-floor religious counter that sold Bibles and hymnals and such (maybe rosary beads?). That latter was reputed to be because the foundation made generous contributions to Catholic charities, and the nuns and priests repaid it with their custom. The building exterior was declared a New York City landmark in 1985, but I don’t know how much has happened to the interior. So I don’t know if the original water-hydraulic elevators are still there—but they were well into the 1980s, the enormous pistons under the elevator cabs visible through the glass elevator doors and glistening with water!

Linda Kastan (New York City): In the late fall of 2001, my mother was in a coma in a south Florida hospital after surgery on her pancreas. Nobody knew whether she was going to survive but the doctor gave me leave to go back to New York for a couple of days. When I arrived home I headed to Barneys and splurged on an expensive winter coat by Jean-Paul Gaultier. It lifted my sad mood. I returned to Florida to find my mom had come out of the coma and was doing well. She lived another three years. I still have the coat.



11 thoughts on “Department Stores Were Us

  1. beth rosner says:

    As a small child we lived in Baltimore. There were some glorious department stores back then- Hoschild Kohn, Stewarts and Hutzlers. My mom loved to take me shopping back then. My dad would drop us off in the morning and we’d spend the day swooshing from store to store. We’d always take a break at the Hutzler lunch counter where I remember eating Chicken Chow Mein- which must have been the daily dish– and cost a pittance. I’d usually get some new shoes, hat, skirt, something out of the day — it was the ’60s so I recall a mod leopard skirt (rrrr) that she bought me. My mom almost always bought on “sale,” something that has been heavily imprinted on me. We’d end the day with maple nut candies and some fudge from the candy counter on the first floor. Then my dad would pick us up and we’d go home and admire our purchases. It was as perfect a day as there ever was.
    Later, when we moved to DC, and I was around ten by now, I remember my mother buying me a beautiful green wool coat with a belt from Garfinckels, a beautiful DC store. So was Woodward and Lothrop. Woodies would not survive into this century. The grand Woodward and Lothrop building is still there in DC at Metro Center. It was later turned into a Forever 21, also now defunct.

  2. Lisa McAllister says:

    Beside the “charge plates” for now-gone individual department stores, I still have my blue “Washington Shopping Plate,” which covered most of the area department stores. I must’ve gotten one of the last ones, and was so proud when I did. When I had accompanied my mother and grandmother as a child, the blue card had been the ticket to the temples we loved. Right now, I’m lying on a fabulous couch from Garfinckel’s that my late parents bought after marrying in 1950. Mom rebuilt/reupholstered/refashioned it twice, and I did a third time after they passed. Goods were built to last back then. And people didn’t buy a lot, but they bought well.

  3. Catherine Clifford says:

    Re: charge plates–I found my original Saks and L&T cards recently, and my kids were astonished. No chip, no magnetic strip, not even raised numbers, basically just plastic with a name and a signature on it??? It was as old-timey to them as a button hook.

  4. My artist mother grew up in Michigan City, Indiana, east of Chicago. Her mother, a “Women’s Section” editor, was a single mother with 3 daughters and 2 spinster aunts in the household. During this late 1950’s trip to Chicago, Mommy was sharing her high school and college years with us kids. I remember the excitement glowing on my mother’s face as she led us into Marshall Fields. She waved us, plus Daddy carrying my youngest brother on his shoulders, to cram in the fancy elevator. Our mission was the toy section so my toddler brother—whose birthday fell during the trip to Chicago—could pick out a Steiff stuffed animal, a family tradition for a special present. The rest of us had had a group Steiff toy pilgrimage one mid-1950’s Christmas in New York City where Mommy showed us the windows at Saks, Bloomingdales, Macy’s, L&T and the others.

    In the Marshall Fields toy section my bother didn’t want a stuffed animal. He pointed to a big dump truck-bulldozer in primary colors that looked like the real McCoy. He didn’t cry or make a scene, just blurted “truck.”
    And he’s still a no-nonsense, straight-up, do-it-his-way guy who daily cared for our mother during the last 9 of her 99 years until April 30, 2017.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      Thanks for sharing that lovely memory of your family shopping trip.

  5. Just reading the headline … How many memories??? Overhearing a clerk at Bonwit’s graciously refund $5 (?) for a blouse that was “guaranteed to last forever” twenty-five years after it was purchased; buying my (first) wedding gown at Altman’s; shopping for men at Bloomingdale’s on Saturdays; bunch of stuff here that can’t be reduced to a sentence; and, most recently, saying to my 30-something daughter — I can’t find my charge plate — and her saying — YOUR WHAT? I have also been known to say ice box, but that is neither here nor there.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      My husband says ice box, mostly to annoy his son. I bought my first wedding gown at Kleinfeld’s, the second at Lord & Taylor.

  6. Madeline says:

    I can never forget the Soup Bar on, I think, the ninth or tenth floor of Lord & Taylor. In the open end of a U-shaped counter, stocked with baskets of Ritz crackers, stood two huge gleaming copper kettles filled with the eponymous offerings: thick parsley-dappled Scotch broth in winter, vichyssoise in summer. The kettles were overseen by a hugely rotund black man in a chef’s toque and a petite black woman in, as I recall, a tidy waitress uniform. They were there for years. Dessert was deep-dish apple pie with gritty hard sauce or Cheddar cheese. It was always the hard sauce for me. A simple, unvarying menu that was deeply satisfying as much for its predictability as for its excellence. Before the store finally closed the long-gone eatery had been replaced by a Sarabeth’s. Not bad, but NOT the beloved Soup bar.

    1. Janet Kelly says:

      I didn’t know there was a Soup Bar at L&T. Thanks for describing your memory of it so well!

  7. Nancy G says:

    I guess we are the last generation to have such memories. But what wonderful memories they are. A bygone age. It will be very sad if none of these grande dames survive.

  8. Carol says:

    So many memories. Gimbels Kaufmann’s Horne’s and occasionally Mansmanns (the best housewares) and Frank and Seder ❤️

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