À la Recherche du Perfume Counters Perdu

This weekend I met my BFF who was visiting from NYC at the Academy of Motion Pictures museum (at her request) for a walk-through and a date. The museum is housed in the historic May Company building at Wilshire and Fairfax in the “Miracle Mile” in what’s known as Beverly Grove. Moviegoers who saw “Volcano” will recognize it as the place where they try to stem the flow of lava traveling down Wilshire with k-rails and fire trucks. May Company itself had been closed at the time of filming and sat fallow for years before being transformed into a museum by the Oscars. They spiffed up the facade and gutted the interior. I can’t say that I think it is the most successful museum I’ve ever seen, and I can’t really say I was there for the May Company’s heyday and have fond (or frankly any) memories of the interior, but the building itself with it’s shiny gold abstract perfume bottle (or Oscar, if you will) is still at the corner, so that’s a good thing.

It made me think of other perfume counters I had frequented, some available only as memories. When I was a kid we had Steiger’s, a Western Mass department store chain on the level of Bloomingdales that opened a branch in the Hampshire Mall in Hadley, just over the river from my hometown. The Hampshire Mall was the “New” mall, opened a few years after and right next door to the Mountain Farms Mall. Hampshire Mall killed off Mountain Farms, with the former’s food court, faux “town square” and roller rink on the second floor trumping the dumpy older cousin. (It was only fair since Hampshire Mall killed off downtown shopping for years in Northampton.) I used to ride my bike over the Coolidge bridge to Steiger’s, using my allowance to buy Eau Sauvage and Clinique (yes, you could tell even then.) I know Steiger’s is long gone, demolished in the 90’s for a sporting goods store and the chain was swallowed up shortly after. By then I had long moved on.

Los Angeles is where I have lived since the late 80’s, after stints in NYC, Boston, and Milwaukee. I have memories of the Deco masterpiece that was Bloomingdales beauty department, Bergdorf’s Beauty Level, Saks and a few that are sadly gone. Filene’s is no more as is Marshall Field’s and I am not sure which hurts more: each had their own flavor. Filene’s had the bargain basement with it’s own stop on the T, where you’d play a waiting game to see if that shirt you wanted would get down to 70% off before you’d get it, or someone would scoop it up at 60%. Marshall Field’s had its own confection: the chocolate Frango mint, as addictive as crack but fattening. Both were swallowed up my Macy’s and I’ve never been back.

Los Angeles had it’s own hierarchic of stores: we had (and have still) Saks and Neiman Marcus, and up until recently Barney’s, with their own notable perfume counters. I will say the closing of Barney’s kind of hit hard: Barney’s was not the place that I grew up with in that my mother’s generation didn’t shop there- I wasn’t taken there for tea. It was older than I but came into it’s full Barney’s-ness as I came of age. Barney’s was closer to my East Village neighborhood and was more cutting edge than the more formal but beloved Bergdorf’s or the Busby Berkeley glitter and flash of Bloomie’s. Barneys was for US.

But the LA Hierarchy was this: May Co. was the low end. There was a board game back in the 70’s called “Beverly Hills: The Game” (I believe) and one of he bad cards to draw was “Be Seen Shopping at May Co. Go back 3 Spaces” which could only be trumped if you had on hand “Explain you are buying a present for the cleaning lady” In the movie “The Star” Bette Davis’ comedown is shown as having to work at the lingerie counter at the Crenshaw May Company until she throws a Bette-sized fit and walks out. It was the Chevy of the LA stores.

The Broadway was higher up on the totem pole: not quite luxury, but younger and hipper than some of the more staid stores. Sort of the Pontiac “We Build Excitement” store of the group.

Robinson’s was the Oldsmobile of LA stores: not flashy or ostentatious, usually housed in a sleek, mid-century building like the flagship store in Beverly Hills, long demolished and still sadly missed. It was the sort of place you would see the real movers and shakers of LA: ladies dropping their Ninety-Eight with the attendant after a tennis game at the ultra-conservative LA Country Club next door for some shopping therapy before heading home to Hancock Park or Holmby Hills. The Nouveaux Riche went to Neiman’s in the deVille. The Oldeaux Riche went to Robinson’s in the Delta 88. Robinson’s fate was to be mixed in with May Company to be come Robinsons/May, to the detriment of both, then gone.

Bullocks and I Magnin were sister stores and were the Buick of the group. A little more staid than Robinson’s, a little more formal. Very luxe with beautifully laid out stores that up until the last days of Magnin at least still had formal rooms set up where clothes would be shown to you. I had a friend who grew up in LA and mentioned that this was the case at these stores- there weren’t racks of clothing. You would sit down and models would walk by wearing selections and you would choose. They were swallowed up by Macy’s as well.

But the Cadillac of them, the Ne Plus Ultra, was Bullocks Wilshire. That was a stand-alone building constructed in 1929 on what was then the Eastern reaches of Los Angeles. The store was enormous and had some firsts: the main entrance was not on Wilshire Boulevard, but in the rear at a Port Cochere where motors would disgorge shoppers before being parked in the lot behind the store. The various salons were each decorated in a style that went with the goods: the Men’s department was not as you’d expect a cavern of dark woods but a riff on Frank Lloyd Wright’s concrete textile block homes then being constructed in the LA area. There were Louis VVI rooms for couture and rooms for hats and furs and shoes and Chanel. There was of course a tea room at the top where bridal shows were held bi-monthly and weary shoppers could refresh themselves with fresh crab in a grapefruit ring and a Cuban frappe. But however you entered the store, you went through the Perfume Hall. It was an art-deco cathedral of commerce, with a vaulted ceiling, marble walls, black and silver deco display cases and deco salesladies seemingly from Central Casting (Angela Lansbury worked there prior to being discovered) When I moved to LA in the late 80’s it was still there- not quite as popular as perhaps it used to be- the neighborhood had long faded from bleeding-edge chic through not so great into the somewhat moribund area it was then. The Ambassador Hotel down the street was closed and facing demolition. The ladies who literally grew up at the store from their mothers taking them for their first pairs of gloves to choosing their daughters wedding things were aging out and the younger set were waiting with bated breath for Barney’s to open their flagship store a few miles and yet a million miles away in Beverly Hills.

What finally killed it was not the riots of ’92 which partially happened right outside nor the Northridge earthquake of ’94 but the acquisition by Macy’s/Federated. The building was shuttered and eventually became a law school. Tours are still given but I could never bring myself to take one. The graveyard quiet of a law library is antithetical to what Bullocks Wilshire stood for: the joy of consumerism, the glamour of commerce. I miss the place. I almost wish that I had headed over during the unrest to see if I could have looted the perfume area, if only to carry off the mega-factice of Patou Normandie in the shape of the ocean liner. Oh, heck, all the Patou..

Please share your memories of shopping in the comments- I would love to read them.

Pictures are from Wikipedia Commons and my iPhone.

  • ElizaC says:

    I was lucky in the 70s to enjoy some of the Seattle grand department stores: Macys (stunning art deco style interior), Frederick and Nelsons and I. Magnin. I was always so fascinated by the idea of lunching at the department store. Even if I didn’t have a penny to spare, it was always such a treat just to go into these stores.

    • Tom says:

      It still is for me. Even if I am totally cassé a cruise through Neiman’s or Nordstrom or wherever will perk me right up

  • Maggiecat says:

    I love reading about these different department stores! I didn’t become familiar with many of them until I was adult (modest family income coupled with interests that ran more to books than clothes). I loved the Nordstrom is Boca Raton, where I used to live -the associates were friendly and helpful, unlike some of the others. I worked in the late and unlamented Jordan Marsh for a while while waiting for a teaching job to materialize and learned a lot. The Macys nearest me is a solid option for clothes, but the associates in perfume and beauty are uncomfortably aggressive.
    I need a shopping buddy – anyone coming to the North Texas area soon?

    • Tom says:

      Friendliness was a Nordstrom “thing.” (One would hope it was universal, but..). It was being “Nordy” and I still love the place for it.

  • Musette says:

    omgosh! I LOVED this post! Thanks so much for a trip down memory(ies) lane.
    I grew up in Chicago, so my best memories are of SFA, back when it was a much smaller store on the East side of Boul Mich. Elevator operators! In white gloves!
    Bergdorf in NY – my weirdest memory is right before they refurbished it. Soiled, dove-grey carpeting. Shipping boxes stacked in the aisle (just because – they weren’t yet packing for reno)…. it was like seeing Queen Elizabeth with her bra hanging out!


    • Tom says:

      I forgot that Bullocks Wilshire had an elevator operator as well. An elderly man with white gloves also and he was there until the end. Then they moved him to the I Magnin store in BH until that finally closed and became Saks mens store. Now the main Saks is moving to the old Barney’s in BH while the Saks lot is redeveloped (luckily they can’t tear down Saks as it’s landmarked) but no word as to whether Saks will move back or what.

      Progress. It sucks.

  • Dina C. says:

    It wasn’t until my family moved to Virginia in the mid-70s that I discovered fancy department store shopping. Up until then, we’d shopped at military exchanges and my mom had sewn many of my clothes. Almost all those department stores are gone now: Garfinckl’s, Woodward & Lothrop, Hecht Co., Lord & Taylor, and low-end ones like Sears and Montgomery Wards. We’re left with Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, and Saks, and Macy’s on the lower end. I can remember when downtown department stores were so glamorous, so elegant. It was an occasion to go there. When Nordstrom first hit our area there was a grand piano played in a special niche near the escalators during the day as shoppers shopped. The niche is still there, but the piano is long gone. That level of specialness disappeared sadly.

    • Tom says:

      I wonder if the piano was a Nordstrom thing? I think I remember one in the Santa Barbara one and there was definitely one in the Westside Pavilion one. I haven’t been to the SB one in forever and the Pavilion (used as the mall in “Clueless”) is being gutted and turned into office buildings.

      The last time I was there was with Portia who was buying something at the Macy’s there (now also gone)

  • rosarita says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this post, thanks Tom! Even my little town had Kline’s department store, with perfume and cosmetics on the main floor with a sweeping curved stairway to the upper level. My family also had dear friends in Chicago and we stayed with them for a few days every Christmas season. Marshall Fields was a must, and Carson Pirie Scott, all of the gorgeous window displays on State Street. Sometimes just my mother and my sister & I would take the train to shop. All gone now. My mom bought me a bottle of Chanel No. 19 for xmas at Fields in, I think, 1976. I still love 19, it’s the perfume that feels most like me. She knew when I tried it that I’d fallen in love.

    • Tom says:

      The worst part of losing all of these for me is that all these places were replaced with generic Macys. Nothing against that store but for me it is simply not the same. In some cases it’s (IMHO) a step down but for the most part it’s just the watering down of local color and interest. It stinks.

  • cinnamon says:

    Others have mentioned it, but Takashimaya on 5th Ave in the 50s. Worked near it for several years. All kinds of incredible stuff. Great perfume area and very good CS. And then there was Bendels as well before they started messing with it. Finally, of course, Barneys and the stupendous Warehouse sales (and the things I should have bought but didn’t—
    That glorious dark green velvet YSL Le Smoking jacket that fit like a glove for $100 down from $900— still kick myself).

    • Tom says:

      Takashimaya for some reason I don’t think I ever went to. But I was an East Village person and used to get nosebleeds above 14th street. Barneys was like a trek and Bergdorfs was like Boston to me. NYC snobbery at it’s worst.

      I used to stay away from the Barneys sale. I don’t think the LA one was as much as a blood sport as the NY one (nor were the values as good), but still.

  • Portia says:

    Hey Tom,
    We saw a very interesting doco on Bullocks Wilshire a little while back and hoped next time we hit LA to go have the tour with you.
    It will be so much more interesting if you come, and we promise to bring at least a little of the life back.
    Shopping with you is always fun.
    Portia xx

    • Tom says:

      I was just writing about shopping with you at Macy’s. The one in the Westside Pavillion we went to is no more and I don’t think you would even recognize Century City as it has been redone and grown to twice it’s size.

  • alityke says:

    It seems Department stores the world over are becoming extinct.
    In the UK we’ve lost Debenhams completely, House of Frazer has cut back its presence hugely as have John Lewis.
    My hometown is about to loose its town centre Marks & Spencer. Instead we’re getting just the Food Hall in an out of town retail park.

    As a child I remember an independent called Butterfield & Massey. It was the place mum bought patterns, fabric & knitting wool from. Barnsley British Cooperative was a strange one, it had departments spread across town in different buildings. I don’t remember either having a cafe. Mum always took her coffee at Guest’s, what would now be called a deli. The smell of coffee beans roasting, the cheeses & the smoked meats was enticing. My brother & I were made to have strawberry milkshakes. Apparently chocolate milkshakes were “common”! Every table had glittery red metal ashtrays, Mum took full advantage of them. How those nicotine fumes didn’t get into the goods I don’t know.
    None of these places had a Beauty Hall, only Boots & Woolworths stocked fragrance & cosmetics. Mum frowned upon both of these. Of course, both were made even more alluring by her disapproval!

    • Tom says:

      My hometown had nothing in the 70’s when I was growing up except small shops. The mall(s) opened up in the 70’s and killed the downtown dead until some entrepreneurs came in and started filling the places with little cafes and shops. The big downtown department store was McCallums, which opened in 1873. I think it closed in the early 70’s and the building was taken over and cut up into small boutique shops (while retaining the lovely interiors) and became Thorne’s Marketplace, which is still there. So that’s nice.

  • Kathleen says:

    Such a wonderful and educational post Tom. Nostalgia! Retail just isn’t the same. I grew up in Canada and we had Eatons and Sears as our department stores. Eatons a tad more upscale and had a perfume counter which I adored in childhood. When I moved to the US, I was enamored with Macy’s and Nordstroms. I’ve never been to LA or NYC.

    • Tom says:

      I miss Sears! I don’t remember going to them growing up but we ordered from them. I do remember going to the one outside of Milwaukee and buying a leather biker jacket I had until a few years ago. There used to be one in Santa Monica that I would pop into as well as one in Glendale that had a little perfume area. All sadly gone. The SM one was quite lovely too, a little art deco jewel.

  • Tara C says:

    I was so sorry to see Barney’s go, that’s where I had my first real forays into niche perfumes, along with Luckyscent. Growing ip in San Francisco, it was Magnin’s, Macys, Emporium, Saks, Neiman Marcus, Gumps, and on trips to NYC, Takashimaya, Bergdorf’s and Bendel’s. Oh, and Lord & Taylor. So many fun times with my mom and various friends, those were the glory days of retail.

    • Tom says:

      Yes, Barney’s was one that kind of hurt. I felt like it was kind of “my” place, even more than Bergdorfs, which I love. It was so much part of the zeitgeist it was even a running joke in Will & Grace.

  • March says:

    Oh, nostalgia; what a lovely post, thanks. I grew up in a very sensible navy-pump existence (my parents having clawed their way from working- to thrifty middle-class.) Hechts was the go-to for whatever; for “nice things” we went to Lord + Taylor or Garfinckels. I still remember our Garfinckels with its white wicker furnishings, gold accents and a lush kelly green (!) carpet that I thought was the height of chic luxury. Got my first pair of Amalfi pumps at L&T and thought myself very sophisticated (also, their building was an awesome spaceship-looking thing). Of course, all those stores and those buildings are long gone, and how I miss them. But Macy’s still sells Frangos!

    • Tom says:

      I think we mostly went to Caldor’s (a local discount store) because my mom didn’t really see any point in spending real money on clothes we would grow out of in ten minutes or be rolling around in the dirt in. Pragmatic lady. We got new shoes and sneakers for the new school year and short of a growth spurt that was until the next year. I didn’t start my personal consumerism until I could pay for it.

      We were given luxuries, but they were durable ones. For my 16th birthday I got a Polaroid SX-70 with leather carrying case that I wanted more than anything in the world. I still have it and use it.

  • Filomena says:

    What a great post and department store history lesson! I have never lived in Los Angeles or New York City but have been to both many times but to neither in several years. I have to say that I truly miss Barney’s. It was a very cool and unique store and I knew several of the women who worked there. Thank you!

    • Tom says:

      In some ways LA is almost unrecognizable. Parts of it have changed so much- Century City has exploded with growth of both high-rises and the mall doubling it’s size. The downtown skyline has spilled out of dowtown and has moved all the way south of the Staples Center (or whatever it’s called this week- crypto-something?) and Hollywood and the Sunset Strip is a sea of construction cranes where there aren’t new buildings.

      A lot of my friends have decamped to Palm Springs because they say the LA they knew is being ruined. Doubtless they are ruining the Palm Springs that long-time residents there knew, but that’s an irony that is perhaps lost on them..