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.