Friday, February 9, 2024

Letting go of department stores


     “I’m going to visit my mother,” I’ll say, then catch myself: “My parents.” An easy mistake to make. Because while my mother, 87, is alert, attending concerts, reading the paper (hi Mom!) my father, 91, is well along his slow retreat from the world. I’ve come to think of him not so much as my father as the box my father came in. A bit cold? Perhaps. But if we can't change things, at least we can call them what they are.
     Here, yet not here. A sad state, and common. I visited Macy’s downtown this week, inspired by Lynn Becker’s elegy in the Sun-Times last week, headlined “The long decline of Macy’s in Chicago, now a shell of a once-great department store.”
     A shell it is. The store is still open, still here. But also not here, the physical place without its essence. The still-grand Marshall Field’s box with crumbs of Macy’s rattling around inside.
     I entered into the vast women’s fragrance department. It wasn’t deserted. A few customers, contemplating bottles. A few clerks. I moved toward the men’s department — Macy’s covers a city block. An enormous, neck-craning atrium, with a Tiffany glass dome. We’ll miss that splendid bigness, like the waiting rooms of long-demolished train stations.
     Nature tapped me on the shoulder. A quick detour into the basement, and its vista of carefully folded towels, large platters, gifty housewares. I didn’t notice any china. My wife and I picked out our wedding pattern here; now china is a shunned, outrageous, indulgent affectation.
     No one to ask. I searched for a sign. Finally, in Barbara’s Bookstore, a clerk, who pointed.
     Book department. Stamp department. Stationery department. Did a young man really once order dove grey personal stationery, the address, 2948 N. Pine Grove Avenue, embossed in glossy black letters, because fans writing an author deserve something classy in return? I must have been insane.

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25 comments:

  1. "It's too brown." That's hilarious!
    If I may be so bold, I'm going to predict that when the time comes to clean out your house, your son will snatch up that table and proudly display it in his own home. After all, "This belonged to Dad. He taught me to play chess."

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    1. I hope so. But who knows? It is a really beautiful table. Little drawer. Walnut inlay. I'll never forget standing outside the door, listening (worried about my little boys with some strange guy I'd never met). I could hear those pieces slamming against the board — Russians play hard — and so wanted to go in and say, "Gentle guys, gentle." But I knew if I did that, it's all he'd remember, and stayed outside. The board was fine.

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    2. My father would have come in and yelled that I was abusing the board. Perhaps he'd have even stopped the game, snatched the board away, told me I didn't deserve it, and possibly given me a "potch in tuchas" (Yiddish for a spanking).

      Sis and I called him Old Yeller. I always say that I had a father, but not a dad. You sound like you were a dad, Mr. S, and a pretty damn good one. You knew when not to yank on the reins. Maybe you learned from personal experience.

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  2. I'm just enough older than you that you could be my little brother. Yes, to everything you said. Field's; everything beautiful you could ever imagine, in the display cases, where well dressed clerks waited on you, helping you, sizing you, the clothes rack neatly maintained. No more. I recently roamed through the dismal Macy's in Old Orchard. As you described, not a clerk to be found; one cashier on the whole floor, and I said to my daughter in law, "Robots would be better than this."

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  3. I'm in the older age group who has fond memories of shopping trips with my mother at the local Carsons and taking the train downtown to shop at Field's on State Street. But change is evitable, I tell myself. That's when I think of the candle industry tanking soon after electricity started to brighten our homes, streets and everywhere else. Scary for some (example - Lady Grantham in Downton Abbey) but a welcome new world for the vast majority - especially young people starting their lives.

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  4. A reflection of the decline of Chicago, or the decline of a retailing tradition? Or both? In a few years, I suspect the hallowed Macy’s Thanksgiving parade will be history, unless Mideast investors step in to save the brand, as they did in London with Harrods. You should have bought the handkerchiefs to mop up the tears.

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  5. I will try to keep this short, as your column opened up a box load of memories. In 1970, I joined Fields as a management trainee. When the Woodfield store opened up I was the assistant manager of the Housewares department. Shortly thereafter I became the manager. It was there I met a wonderful young lady, a salesclerk in my department, who, come this December, will have been my life partner for 50 years. (Nowadays, this type of romance is mostly forbidden.) Fields had a special painting on display which very much reminded us of her folks cabin in northern Wisconsin. Finally I decided to buy it but it was gone when I went to get it. I was devastated only to later find out my wife to buy had bought it to surprise me.


    It was a wonderful place to work except for one thing, the pay. So I left for other employment. It was still a wonderful place to shop and we still have clothes from when it was Fields. However, when it finally changed the name to Macy's we stopped. Have not been in any of their locations since. Macy's got rid of most of the Chicago staff saying they, NY Macy's, understood the Chicago market better.

    Seeing what has become of Fields is bittersweet. Bitter because Fields and Chicago deserved better. Sweet, because Macy's kind of hubris deserves this fate.

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  6. I have spent the last three months trying to find a dressy winter coat. I have returned 3 to Amazon for various reasons. Kohl’s and Al the Walmart type stores only had puffer jackets. NOT dressy. Pennys had one coat in some odd purple color. There are things that a good department store can do that no other store can do and certainly not online. I grieve for Carson’s every day

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  7. Your column made me cry.

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  8. "Soothing your confusion with assurance and respect." Exactly. I still remember going to Fields to buy a dress for a friend's wedding, while a confused Barat girl, and how wonderfully well I was treated. And years later, going with my husband to buy a good suit - the same respect and expertise. (PS: you should write about Barat, please.)

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  9. By the '90s chains were buying up department stores. Attractive displays and room for customers to easily navigate the racks and fixtures, gave way to a messy mass of poorly organized displays. Rather than parcelling out new products so there was always something new, every possible piece of merchandise was crammed onto an uncomfortably crowded floor. Today you can experience the old days at Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus. At Northbrook Court, Neiman had a large display of colorful neckties at the base of an escalator inviting into the mens department. I couldn't resist browsing despite a total lack of need for another tie. With the exception of Fields State Street first floor at Christmas, they had a similar philosophy. Macy's actually learned a lesson from Chicago shoppers. After initially overstocking the Woodfield store, they reverted to a less intense display.

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  10. The Elmhurst History Museum just closed its exhibit on Lost Chicagoland Department Stores, which documented the origins, rise and dissolution of several major stores, including Field's. It included wonderful artifacts, as well as programs about Field's Christmas displays (and some of the figures from the windows). The exhibit was probably the most well-attended in the museum's own history, which has produced many fine ones in over 40 years. The memories and nostalgia that were triggered were not going to change the way people shop now.

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    1. The Sun-Times had a paragraph on the exhibit: https://chicago.suntimes.com/2023/10/4/23902372/things-to-do-in-chicago-oct-5-11-bonnie-raitt-wonderful-world
      Other news sources (see Google) had full articles.

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  11. Thanks for this memory piece! So many of the old Fields-my first-I got my first credit card from Fields-I was 16 and a parent had to sign for it and there was a limit of $50-that would buy two blouses in those days. And as a high school kid, going downtown with a friend to spend the day looking, etc. We took the "L" and got off right at the 2nd floor of Fields-walked thru the china dept. Always had such in the Walnut room-and have the chicken salad and dessert. Many years later, my husband who worked downtown would go to Fields to check out any Polo on sale. He had a sales guy named Reggie who would call hum if there was something he thought my husband would like. Things change and we haven't been in a department store since covid hit in 2020. Oh-an I got my wedding dress at Fields-not the bridal dept-I hated all that lace and layers-but in the After 5 Shop-loved it-short, simple white silk/wool crepe. A designer, so it was still costly-but I actually wore it years later to a friends wedding-no lace veil that time.

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  12. When I read Lynn Becker's piece, I felt bad at first that I hadn't been to that store in so long. Like you, I used to stop by fairly frequently, and we bought our share of stuff there. Obviously, it has not prospered in the years since we and so many others have made ourselves scarce.

    At first, I thought "oh, we need to get over there sometime." But her reporting (and yours) pretty much indicate that the ship seems to have sailed. "It’s a mistake to visit these dying places again. Better to let them exist in memory." I'm not pleased about it, but that thought has come to predominate. I'd like to see that Tiffany dome again, though.

    As long as we're strolling down memory lane, I don't remember a whole lot of things from childhood, but I remember the first time I ever went into a big department store -- Lazarus in Columbus, Ohio. The first time I rode an escalator. And the book department! When I saw all 50 or so of the bright blue-spined Hardy Boys books lined up on a shelf, I really couldn't believe it. I think I was allowed to buy 2, but just seeing them there was good enough.

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  13. For some of us of a certain age this is not our world anymore

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    1. I'm of that certain age...77 in August. The world has become so alien that I'm more and more relieved that my time is relatively short. Maybe even shorter than I realize. Tomorrow I'm going to my third funeral in the last six weeks. You never know.

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  14. I forgot about the Tiffany dome. One of many magical aspects of a truly magical store…Marshall Field’s, that is. From the deli in the basement to whatever was on the ninth floor. The Walnut Room. More young adult memories for me, my folks didn’t care for the Dan Ryan. There hasn’t been a store quite like Marshall Field’s, and I doubt there ever will be one again. Hey, at least we have our memories.

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  15. It's a real estate holding and tax deferral company that pays executives well. Selling stuff gets in the way.

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  16. My youngest boy has a serious girlfriend again and wanted to buy her perfume. Like the real stuff. Found that he could buy it at Macy's. Asked if I would take him
    We ended up downtown the day before Christmas Eve.
    It wasn't empty that Friday evening.
    I dropped him off out front and told him I'd be back in 20 minutes. It took that long to drive around the block once.
    I wish I'd have spent the $50 to park and went in with him. That's always been my favorite day to Christmas shop. I loved the crowds and the vibe of the season. Back when I could still walk more than a block.

    He came out and said he remembered that I always shopped at the last minute and now he new what it was like to not do on line for everything.
    He said the sales person was great and that for an extra $20 bucks he could buy the fragrance in a special bottle.

    He unwrapped it and showed it to me.
    Such a fine young man
    Then when we opened gifts he presented me with a wallet he bought there. for me

    Great experience.
    Very thoughtful. I'm a fortunate man




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  17. Marshall Field's also had an extraordinary fabrics department heralding the days when a number of their customers sewed. The department included one of the definitive selections of fine buttons sought not only be sewers but by knitters and crocheters as well..The buttons section commanded enough attention and revenue that Marshall Field's sent the button buyer to Europe annually to select new inventory for the steady stream of customers.

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  18. So many memories. Taking the train along the lakeside, up from South Chicago. Wandering the loop in awe.

    Wish I could...

    No, I'll just say thanks for the column.

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  19. Do you ever play chess on chess.com?
    I'm a big fan. Play with a couple of friends now and then. If you haven't, you should try it. The 10 minute games are the best

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