Memory lane Monday: Late, great department stores

For some years now, I’ve bemoaned the disappearance of so many wonderful department stores, as I’m sure many of you have as well. Various comments from some previous Posse posts got me thinking about how the great American department store seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur, for the most part. And news about recent store closings, including the Barney’s in Dallas and several Saks store closings, including the one in the Dallas Galleria, really hit home to me. As a friend told me not long ago, “The way things are going, in the next 30 years, we’ll probably be left with two places to shop: Wal-Mart and Macy’s.” Good heavens, I certainly hope not, but there’s no doubt that retail is not what it once was.

department store 2 Anyway, my love of fashion (and eventually fragrance) was sparked by a magazine and the allure of glamorous-sounding stores across the nation. But first, a little back story: My elderly and frugal grandparents raised me, so you can imagine that I was not a very fashionably dressed girl, wearing a lot of hand-sewn clothes and hand-me-downs. We lived in a small town without a lot of wealth so it wasn’t such a big deal, and I never thought too much about it.

But one day in September, all that changed. I was sick at home in bed and asked my grandmother if she would please buy me a 16 magazine at the store (I know I’m dating myself here, but I had to have my David Cassidy fix). Well, bless her heart if she didn’t come home by mistake with — you guessed it — a Seventeen magazine. At first I was quite disappointed, but boredom set in and once I started going through that back-to-school issue, there was no stopping me. Man, I wore that hefty issue out looking at all the fall fashions (plaid skirts, Shetland sweaters, etc.) that I’d rarely ever need in rural central Florida. But the seed was sown and I was hooked. And after a few months’ subscription, poring over issues cover to cover, you could’ve asked me the name of almost any store and I could tell you where it was located.

Several I recall fondly from my youth in Florida (although some were elsewhere in the nation): Jordan Marsh (the one in West Palm Beach, Fla.) was probably my first childhood experience of a high-end store. It seemed the epitome of elegance and class. Walking along on the plushly carpeted aisles, it was so quiet that the air seemed perfumed with luxury, leaving me with a feeling bordering on reverence.

A few miles away in uber-ritzy Palm Beach: Bonwit Teller. I never did get to see the NYC flagship but did visit this Worth Avenue store in the late ‘70s; very cool. And I remember loving their signature shopping bags with violets on them.

Other favorite Florida retailers that are no longer: Ivey’s, Burdine’s, Maas Brothers, Robinson’s.

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And one of the saddest closings of all time, in Chicago: Marshall Field’s (above). The whole chain became Macy’s stores but the famed State Street flagship store especially got folks up in arms. People are still angry and vocal about this one. I remember when I found out that Macy’s would be taking it over, I made a pilgrimage to the flagship that holiday season so I could experience it before it was gone: view the Great Tree, have chicken pot pie and a Frango dessert at the Walnut Room, and admire clothing on their gorgeous designer floor, dubbed the 28 Shop, for its global collection of haute couture.

The following doors in California I had only read about in magazines, but longed to visit them: I. Magnin, Bullock’s and Bullock’s Wilshire, and the Broadway. For a while I got catalogs from I. Magnin and swooned over them. Alas, by the time I got to the West Coast as a middle-aged adult, it was no longer. (I think Macy’s is in at least part of I. Magnin’s old space in San Francisco.)

Here are some other stores, gone but not forgotten:
Foley’s, Kaufmann’s, Famous Barr, B. Altman, Wanamaker’s, Garfinckel’s, Filene’s, Abraham & Straus, Hecht’s, Gayfer’s, Gimbel’s, Hudson’s, Lamson’s, LaSalle’s, the Lion Store, the May Co., May-Cohen, Davison’s, Rich’s, Parisian, Pizitz, the Bon Marche, Kiralfy’s, Kirven’s, Miller & Rhoads, Maison Blanche, Hecht’s, L.S. Ayres, Liberty House, City of Paris

And of course, I’m sure I’m missing quite a few, including many lamented retailers from Canada, the UK, Europe, Australia and everywhere around the globe. So feel free to jump in and share your favorite stores and memories as we remember those days of shop-shop-shop-‘til-you-drop (even if it was mostly window-shopping, at least in my case).

85 Comments
maggiecat October 9, 2013

Oh my - what memories! I also grew up in Florida, worked briefly for Jordan Marsh, as my sister did for Gayfer's. I do miss these stores, so elegant and focused on customer service. But we still have Nordstrom!

Jamie October 9, 2013

I remember Jordan Marsh at the Palm Beach Mall in West Palm Beach (and for some reason their parquet flooring). Lord and Taylor there too. That mall is now gone and a new upscale outlet mall is being constructed.

annemariec October 9, 2013

Late to this one. Thanks for mentioning Australia. The department store scene here seems healthy enough but underneath the glittering facades I suspect they are in trouble. There seem of be an awful lot of sales. Australians spend a huge amount of their shopping dollars online and visit the department stores mostly to look. And as seems to be the case elsewhere, the diversity is gone. The high-end part of the sector is now dominated by just two companies, Myer and David Jones. But when I was growing up in the 70s there were local companies in different states and regions. Mostly gone now. At the cheap end of the sector, Target, Kmart and Big W all seem to be doing well. And, well, I contribute to the problem. I too shop a lot online, and buy my kids' clothes (made by sweated labour in China) from Big W. Sigh.

minette October 7, 2013

furchgott's! the highest-end florida department store i knew back in the '60s-'80s! and it wasn't stuffy at all, style-wise, makeup-wise or perfume-wise. i had the most gorgeous and avant-garde makeup i've ever had done on me - with helena rubenstein shadows (pink and black!) in the early '80s there. if also found the fragrance folies bergere there - the one men stopped me on the street to ask about - and their jewelry department was top-notch. we also shopped at ivey's - where i worked summers before the limited opened in the mall. when we lived in pittsburgh, i was a huge kaufmann's fan. and here in texas, i miss foley's and sakowitz and now barney's in dallas where i could at least sniff a lot of things on visits there. i liked the first barney's when i lived there, but mostly for jewelry and the hair salon - wasn't into my perfume craze phase yet. they just don't do retail the way they used to, and that is a shame. then again, they don't do a lot of things they way they used to, and we just have to get on with it.

ClaudiaRae October 7, 2013

Fowler's was the biggest store in the Binghamton, NY area, McLeans was also a great store to shop in. Fowler's in now Boscov's - still a department store, but never the same again. McLean's in just a beautiful old empty cast-iron building, both unique and sad.

Tiara October 7, 2013

By the time I finished this, I was missing Shillito's (now Macy's), McAlpin's (now Dillard's) and Pogue's, all found in Cincinnati. Shillito's was a big deal around the holidays as they had mechanical elves around which they designed "sets" like Santa's mail room, toy shop, etc. By the time we saw Santa, we were quite excited! Enjoyed my trip down memory lane but realized I never shopped for perfume in any of these stores (my non-perfume days).

Maureen October 7, 2013

I live in the Philadelphia suburbs, and I can remember taking the train and going to Wanamakers in downtown Philly at Christmas for the light show and Lit Brothers for the Christmas Village display...I also took my children there in the late 70's early 80's. My godmother was a buyer for Gimbels Dept . store...a very elegant lady. These stores are all gone now. Sad.

Teri October 7, 2013

Your lovely article brought back so many wonderful memories. And now that I think about it, so many of them scented ones, too. :) Of them all, however, my fondest are the Saturday mornings in our early teens when my girlfriend, Carla, and I would take the train into downtown Chicago, gawking and dreaming of what we hoped would be our futures as careerwomen in the big city. We loved to visit the big department stores - Fields, Saks, Bonwits - and find some tiny thing to buy so that we'd have the bags to show off back home. One Saturday we wandered into Bonwit's couture section. With no customers on an early Saturday morning, the wonderful sales ladies there took us under their wings, picking out fabulous dresses for us to try on and nuturing our budding sense of personal style. They knew, of course, that no sale would be made that day, but I've never forgotten those moments when I first realized that the 'sisterhood' of women extended to all ages, stations, and circumstances. We went back to the couture section several times over the next few years, each time receiving a warm welcome and a fantasy shopping experience. I will treasure those times forever. And Rosarita....I, too, had the ritual first bra fitting at our local department store, where they also kept index cards on your size and preferences and where you were gently told what to buy because Miss Francie (that was the clerk's name) who had been there forever knew more about such things than we'd ever know. I remember being told quite directly that a certain style and model were not at all suitable for a girl with my figure. Miss Francie retired shortly after I left for college and they never replaced her. The store itself closed about a year later, sadly.

Dana October 7, 2013

I don't know where "Beachwood Place For Sale" came from. I hope not!

Dana October 7, 2013

As a young girl I loved going to Hudson's in downtown Detroit. Moved to Pgh as a teenager and heading to Kaufman's or Gimbel's was quite the experience. Even worked at Gimbel's one summer and learned the bus system. Now live in suburb of Cleveland and do enjoy heading to Beachwood Place for Sale and Nordstrom. Too bad Higbee's isn't still downtown.

Suzanne October 7, 2013

What a wistfully lovely trip down Memory Lane, Ann. You made me remember how much I loved Seventeen Magazine (and your mention of David Cassidy and Hajusuuri's mention of Tiger Beat magazine brings back all kinds of teeny-bop crush memories too). Growing up in central Pennsylvania, I didn't know any grand department stores, but when I was going to college in Williamsport, PA, there was one truly great and historic, family-owned department store called L. L. Stearns & Sons. Stearns had a spacious floor devoted to ladies fashions, so large you could actually walk around and not bump into anything (versus the way most stores today are crammed with racks that make the shopping area seem cramped - and also it makes it difficult to eye up an outfit and see what's really there). Stearns also had a little dining area (like a tea room) with a fine foods department where you could purchase fancy pastries and savories. Having tea or coffee there, and a bite to eat, really made the shopping experience seem special. Even if you couldn't afford to buy anything, you could have a nice nibble that made the outing worthwhile.

AnneD October 7, 2013

Yes, to lose both Barneys' and Saks in Dallas has been very depressing! Nordstrom does a great job on giving us a good time, but we truly miss our old friends and the lovely and generous SAs that worked there. I bought my first bottle of Must de Cartier at Saks in 92, I still have the bottle. I also bought countless other classic fragrances there that I wish I still had. Marshall Fields had a lovely and generous SA who always let me play with the fragrances. I recently ran into her working in Neiman Marcus and now we love to meet and have coffee together. Sometimes change is good.

Kathryn October 7, 2013

The vanished department store I miss the most is Filene's Basement in Boston. The upstairs Filene's store was a pretty standard department store, by my lights a little boring and too expensive. Downstairs, the Basement was another thing altogether, a random assortment of junk, good stuff, and some real treasures. Back in the day there was nothing else remotely like it, at least in Boston, although I'd heard rumors of a place called Loehman's in New York. The Basement was often sheer pandemonium. You didn't want to be anywhere in the vicinity on the days wedding dresses went on sale. With all the pushing and shoving, you were in danger of getting trampled. Nonetheless, I treasure the memory of seeing a bag lady resplendent in a wedding dress tried on over her bulky winter coat, a beatific smile on her face. I still wear a cashmere sweater I caught in mid-air during one particularly raucous New Year's Day sale. It wasn't always completely crazy, though. All the odd corners and a progressive markdown system rewarded sleuthing and watchful waiting. That's how I managed to acquire the Oscar de la Renta wool dress that gave me confidence in college interviews, the decades worth of Ferragamo shoes that looked good in the office but actually fit my troublesome feet, and eventually just the softest, loveliest baby clothes for my darling daughter. The Basement is closed and those days are long gone, but there are still things in my house and things that I wear that will catch someone's eye. "Where did you find that?" "Why in Filene's Basement, of course."

Laurels October 7, 2013

The town where I was born and now live again had a lovely little outdoor mall with both a Bullock's and a Buffum's. When we'd visit at Christmas, my great-grandmother would take my sister and me to Buffum's and buy each of us a dress or coat. (We weren't allowed to pick them out, though; we were just there to try them on.) Then she'd take us to lunch at the Tea Room, which I loved. I always ordered the beautiful fruit salad, and felt very sophisticated. They tore down the entire mall when I was in college. It was replaced by a strip mall.

Portia October 7, 2013

Great post Ann. We had a Department Store in Sydney called Farmers. It was great and the scene where our Mum got down on the floor and had a tantrum to show us what we looked like while we were having one. NEVER FORGET IT!! She was the best, Portia xx

Sally M October 7, 2013

As a kid growing up in the 50s/ 60s in the UK, a yearly special treat was to go up to London to see the Christmas lights on Oxford Street in London. Part of the trip was spent gazing in absolute awe at the windows of Slefridge's department store which were all decked out for the season with the most amazing displays. The bug certainly bit deep because as soon as I was allowed to go up on my own, I would immerse myself in department store heaven - Debenhams, Liberty, Fenwicks, and of course the grand dame of them all - Harrods. Last year I took a trip back across the pond, and went back down memory lane - sitting in the train heading into the city, the anticipation was just as strong as it had been 40 years ago. Fortunately all of the stores there are still going strong, so I feel for those of you here who can no longer experience similar trips. I was also incredibly lucky to be able to experience the iconic BIBA boutique in the 70s - not a department store, but an absolute phenomenon,the closing of which was mourned by many of us who came of age through those doors...

eldarwen22 October 7, 2013

I remember when Tower City (Cleveland) was the place to shop. Back in the 80's and early/mid '90's it had a lot of really nice stores. My mom remembers Higby's that was either next door to Tower City or just a block down. Now, Cleveland is just a scarey ghost town. Beechwood Mall and Legacy Village are still really nice places to go. If I am near Beechwood, I'll periodically visit Saks 5th Avenue and the Coach store. Not the Coach outlet but a Coach store proper.

Caroline October 7, 2013

We lived in Manhattan when I was very young, and my mother & her sister would shop for me & my cousin at Bonwit Teller for our special occasion dresses (Easter, Christmas, birthday). Have no recollection of the place myself, but my cousin remembers that seeing a Bonwit Teller box made her giddy with anticipation. Then as a teen in suburban Chicago, got my prom dress at the very fashion-forward I Magnin. And in my twenties, discovered the incredibly elegant Guerlain perfume space (it was more than a counter) at Marshall Fields on State St. I still miss the Walnut Room and the original Frangos! We now have a cosmetics/perfume retailer that carries some niche called Blue Mercury. Unfortunately, they have a harsh return policy that makes me reluctant to shop there. So I'll stick with Nordstrom, N-M, Barneys or Sephora. It was fun taking a trip down memory lane!

LaurenW October 7, 2013

Globe Department Store in Scranton, PA. A whole city block of loveliness.

FearsMice October 7, 2013

In the Washington, DC, area -- I still miss Woodward & Lathrop, Garfinckel's, and Hecht's!

hajusuuri October 7, 2013

To add to your list: Abraham & Straus, Alexander's, Bamberger's, Fortunoff, Gimbel's, Hahne's. Some of these stores were bought by Federated (Macy's) and the brand consolidated with that of Macy's. Fortunoff just went belly-up although there are still some outdoor & patio furniture stores around but I don't count them as THE Fortunoff...and don't get me started with the online jewelry store. I'll age myself and mention that I remember my sister's Tiger Beat magazines. I was younger and was not allowed to read it...but let's just say possessions couldn't be guarded 24 x 7 ;-)

FeralJasmine October 6, 2013

I am really going to date myself here: in New York City in the early 1980s, the Macy's on 34th street and Bloomie's further uptown were actually exciting places to shop. I have no idea where the excitement is these days.,

Kandice October 6, 2013

I lived in Seattle when the Bon Marche was still open. I remember going with my mom when I was little. We would have a girls day out shopping, having tea, eating chocolate. And I remember at one point my mom buying me a coat that looked like it was made from a fuzzy lamb (artificial actually, but totally unique in my mind). Thanks for bringing back such wonderful memories. I miss the glitz and glamour of the old department stores and hope they're not gone for good.

rosarita October 6, 2013

When I was growing up, we had a local department store called Klines. On the second floor was ladies lingerie, and the most marvelous woman bra fitter. You went to buy a new bra, she would measure you up in a very matter of fact way and shoo you to a dressing room, where she would bring you a selection of bras to try and make sure you were putting them on properly. Yes, no need to put your clothes back on to schlepp out and find something in another size; she would make sure you got just what you needed. Your name, measurements, size and style were kept on a card in a little file, so return shopping was a snap. I wish I knew her name; she measured me for my first bra as a girl and also my daughter. Alas, Klines has been closed now for years. And every summer and over the holidays growing up, my family went to Chicago to visit friends and family and shop at Fields. The holiday window displays, Frango mints, all those gorgeous displays; I fell in love with Chanel 19 there when I was in high school and my mom bought it for me for Christmas, on the sly. Then Foley's in Houston was where I would splurge on great shoes with my waitress tips as a single girl far from home. I smelled Coco at Foley's when it first came out, saved my tips and bought a bottle. That night I met my husband and we've loved Coco ever since! Yes, I miss department stores. Very much. Shopping is so different now and honestly, I hate it, just because I don't like the whole mall experience and box stores are worse. Like so many, I shop online, but there's nothing like seeing and feeling and smelling an item up close and personal. Even the closest mall is a long drive and there's nothing but Macy's anyway.

Tara October 6, 2013

I loved I. Magnin's in San Francisco... such beautiful hushed elegance. Louis Vuitton is now in that space, next door to Macy's. There was a book published several years ago that I have been meaning to procure with photos and stories about the store and its founders (there was a J. Magnin's as well). Ah, those were the days!