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Posts Tagged ‘retail’

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:

February 17, 1972.

February 17, 1972.

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.

My childhood retail memories, few as they are, involve going to downtown Rochester, N.Y.’s Midtown Plaza around Christmastime to see the Clock of Nations and ride the temporary seasonal monorail.

The anchor stores at Midtown were the McCurdy’s and B. Forman’s department stores, both gone. Located nearby was Sibley’s, also gone.

(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?

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I don’t much like to shop unless I’m buying groceries, beer or guitars.

I’m willing to visit a store from the past, though, in the name of family history.

So pack your charge card and we’ll go:

October 7-8, 1970.

October 7-8, 1970. Nice weather, eh?

I have a few retail memories from my visits to Stamford, even though I didn’t like shopping as a kid any more than I like it as an adult.

I remember going to a Caldor discount store, probably in the early ’80s sometime. It was located in a shopping center where you could see Long Island Sound from the top floor of the parking deck. That made an impression on me.

I remember Stew Leonard’s, the grocery store with the petting farm; and another local grocer called Bongiorno’s — my maternal grandma called it “Bonji’s” and used to buy Italian sausage there.

Maybe five years ago, I was in Stamford for a cousin’s wedding, and the front-page lead story in the newspaper that day was the closing of Bongiorno’s. I hadn’t thought of the place in years, and there it was in the news. It was like they’d waited to close down until I got to town, just to poke me in the memory bank.

Then, as a teenager, there was a visit to a place called United House Wrecking, which sold all manner of windows, doors, frames and other items salvaged from old houses. That, I actually thought was kinda cool.

I have no memories of ever going to an E.J. Korvette store. And I probably never did: According to Wikipedia, the discount department chain closed in 1980, when I was seven years old.

Clearly my grandparents went there, though. I’m guessing they must have special-ordered something, since they apparently went to “Korvetts” after receiving some sort of telephone notification.

(Has anyone ever analyzed people’s curious tendency to attach the possessive to the names of retail businesses? I still think of Caldor as “Caldor’s” even though that name has no basis in reality. I’ve even heard people refer to “Burger King’s.”)

According to Wikipedia, E.J. Korvette stores offered a scattershot lineup of goods for sale — everything from pets to tires to clothing to to furniture to high-end stereo equipment. No way to guess, then, what my grandparents might have bought.

At its peak, E.J. Korvette was a discount retail groundbreaker, so much so that co-founder and visionary Eugene Ferkauf landed on the cover of Time magazine and was extensively featured in Fortune magazine, both in 1962.

By 1970, the company had merged with another retailer, and Ferkauf had been removed from management. And ten years later, during the Christmas season, Korvette was gone. Retail is a tough business: You either change or die, and sometimes, you change and die anyway.

This blog post tells a little more of the company’s story. (The comments are as interesting as the post itself.)

It also shows some images of what Korvette stores used to look like. From the sound of it, the New York suburbs were Korvette’s core market, so Stamford would have been a natural place for the company to do business.

I suppose you can tell a lot about a person by where he shops. My grandparents were frugal people, and I guess my grandpa’s mention of E.J. Korvette just shows that.

Now, if Tiffany’s had been on the calendar. that would have been a story worth telling …

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