Everybody caught up on their Christmas shopping? Done your part to feed the great American retail beast?
(No? Good for you.)
Personally, I do my holiday shopping online. I cannot stand malls — absolutely can’t stand ‘em — especially at this time of year.
Plus, my family is transitioning away from pure stuff for Christmas, so my gifts more and more tend to be gift certificates and charitable donations.
That wasn’t how my grandparents and great-grandma would have done their holiday shopping, of course.
So this week, in honor of the plastic-wielding hordes, we’re taking another ghost-shopping trip (this was the first) to a store that once stomped across the retail landscape like a woolly behemoth:
The Great American Department Store used to be something to see around this time of year, done up in its shiniest, most beckoning seasonal plumage.
Department stores were special places then — sprawling one-stop destinations, dazzling in their sheer range of stuff, not to mention the frills and entertainment they dreamed up to go with it.
People in the Allentown, Pa., area, where I live now, still talk about getting dressed up and going into the city with their parents or grandparents for an afternoon of shopping at Allentown’s legendary Hess’s. A visit to Hess’s might involve a slice of strawberry pie at the store restaurant, a glimpse of the latest fashions, an autograph from a visiting celebrity or athlete, or even — on one occasion — a high-wire walker crossing Hamilton Street.
(For people of a certain age — including mine, barely — talking about department stores is like pulling down a family photo book and remembering the distant relatives in the faded color pictures. You remember seeing them when you were younger, and you vaguely remember — within a couple of years, give or take — when they went away.)
I remember Gimbels, too. Not the actual interior of the store or anything like that, just the name, rounded and resonant.
I don’t think Rochester had one (how many department stores could one mid-level metropolis support?) but I must have heard of it somewhere … perhaps through its sponsorship of a major Thanksgiving Day parade. I’d also heard of Saks Fifth Avenue, which grew to national prominence under Gimbels’ ownership.
There aren’t a lot of references to Gimbels on my grandfather’s calendars. I’m guessing the clock bought in February 1972 was a special purchase, though I don’t know what for. My aunt was out of grad school but not yet married, so it wouldn’t have been a gift for either of those events.
Bridgeport is about 25 miles up the coast from Stamford, too. There must have been a closer department store to my grandparents’ house; I wonder why they chose Gimbels for this particular errand. I can only assume Gimbels had something they didn’t feel they could get anywhere else.
1972 would be the Gimbels chain’s final full year under the ownership of the founding Gimbel family. The family sold out to corporate ownership the following year. In 1986, the well-known brand disappeared.
It would be easy to blame the new corporate owners for mismanagement. But the national decline of the traditional department store had already started by then, as other retail concepts stole the allegiance of the American shopper.
The Sibley’s name disappeared around 1990, and Hess’s and McCurdy’s followed in the mid-’90s. Others — Strawbridge’s, Hecht’s, Hudson’s, Horne’s and many more — went the same way. (Some of the buildings that housed the old giants, like Midtown Plaza, are also gone or going.)
Where I live, the suburban mall that helped kill Hess’s starting in the 1960s still has a dogged pair of traditional department-store anchors, Boscov’s and Macy’s.
On the rare occasions when I go to the mall — I was dragged there just the other week, on an errand not my own — I walk through them to get somewhere else.
I do not stop.
Not for Justin Bieber’s scent at the perfume counter, not for rows of misses’ sweaters, not for boxes of chocolates, not for diamond rings, not for smartly casual shoes, not for any of the other thousands of consumer goods so painstakingly gathered there in vain hopes of gaining my approbation.
The department store seems as outdated an institution to me as the ethnic social club. It’s just not where I spend my time or my money. There is no dazzle there, at Christmas or any other time. It’s just another in a million ways that my world differs from that of my grandparents.
Ah, well. Sic transit gloria mundi.
Are you being served?