Monday, August 11, 2008

Stores of Yesteryear

Lori Thornton of Smoky Mountain Family History has a great meme going which asks genea-bloggers to post about the long-gone stores of yesteryear.

As I mentioned in a comment on Lori's original post about obituaries, many times in my family a conversation would turn to reminiscing about stores that we grew up with that no longer exist. We'd also bemoan the fact that no one these days goes to a haberdasher or a dress shop. Instead we have to go to a cookie cutter men's or women's store in a mall where the fashions make us feel old and unhip and the staff don't understand how to measure for pants, etc.

Growing up there were several dress shops in town, the largest being Marcia's right on the corner of Chestnut and where Main Street became North Main and South Main. This was a traditional dress shop where a woman could go to pick up anything from a summer cotton dress to a more formal dress for cocktail parties or weddings.

Across the street from Marcia's, on the opposite corner was Town & Country where I went as a child to buy suits and sports coats for events such as my Confirmation. This was a true haberdasher's that had everything from suits, jackets, shoes, to belts and even hand-rolled handkerchiefs. The store front was very unique, very "fabulous fifties" and it has been renovated as part of a "renaissance" movement in my hometown (see image above). There is a now a great antique store operating in this location.

The only true department store in town was Sullivan's which was located about a mile outside of downtown in what many people were calling the "new Liberty" - where the Grossinger hotel was located and mostly fast-food places. The fascinating thing about Sullivans was that it was two-stories, modern and had an escalator! You need to understand that this was probably the first escalator ever in Sullivan County when the store opened in the late 1950s. Also, my father briefly worked there as a manager and I remember going to visit him there as a child.

I also remember the Woolworth's (or as my grandmother still called it "the five and dime") which is now one of those ugly Dollar Stores seen everywhere. Remember the lunch counter at Woolworth's? How about the section at the back with the parakeets and birds? I have to laugh because one Christmas Eve Mom bought us a parakeet as a gift and we were so excited! Only to find the bird dead when we came home from Midnight Mass later that evening. The best part was, my mother took the dead bird, placed it in a clear plastic bag (we had no "zipper bags" back them - but we had Baggies!), and placed it outside on the clothes line. Then on the day after Christmas she marched right into Woolworth's with dead frozen bird in hand and demanded another bird or a refund.

Other store memories involve two large department stores in Washington, DC. One was Woodward & Lothrop which has since become a Macy's. The other was Garfinckel's which to me was the epitome of good Southern manners bundled into a commercial venue. What amazed me was there were no "checkout counters" even in the mid-1980s. You basically sat at a very nice desk with the saleswoman across from you and she wrote up a receipt by hand. You then handed her cash or a charge plate or your card for "charge and send" and suddenly she'd disappear with the money and the merchandise! She went to the back and packaged up your purchase and then brought your change as well. No loud obnoxious cash registers. No "upselling" or phrases such as "would you like to open a Macy's account? If you do, we'll give you 15% off today's purchase . . . blah blah blah."

The other memory of Garfinckel's is my favorite: it was the place to purchase a gown for a White House dinner or event or some other political soiree. Now this may just be a local urban legend, but as it has been told, a society matron walked up with gown in hand stating that she wanted to return it since it just didn't fit right and she couldn't wear it. The department manager gave the woman a most withering look from over the top of her bi-focals, pulled out that morning's Style section of the Washington Post and while pointing to a photograph, told said matron that the gown had fit well enough the night before to wear to a function.

In Chicago there is still quite a backlash over the loss of Marshall Field's. It too has become a Macy's. To me, having grown up in New York, Macy's belonged in New York and should stay there. I haven't been back to Fields as we still call it since the change over two years ago. The main building on State Street looks the same but I just can't bring myself to call it Macy's or make a visit.

Every Christmas we'd make trip 90 miles south to New York City for shopping trips. There were so many great stores that no longer exist such as:

A&S (Abraham & Strauss)
Alexander's (especially the one at Fordham Road and Grand Concourse in the Bronx)

I'm sure I could list so many other stores, either national chains or local department stores that no longer exist. The new trend towards cookie-cutter stores really disappoints me: when traveling it was fun to stop in stores like Strawbridge and Clothier or Thalhimer's and find items that were unique to the region. Now every store is part of a large chain where you could basically shop anywhere and get the same items. Better yet, I could stay at home and just order it online. That I can do.


wendy said...

Thomas - thanks for the great post on stores! I agree about the whole Macy's thing! And I wanted a mynah bird (like on Bewitched) from our Kresge's five & dime store (it was $15) but Mom said no.

Carol said...

Wonderful post Thomas. :) I think as we read each other's stories about these old stores some additional memories will get stirred up too. I just posted mine tonight. I wrote it two years ago but it was about growing up in Olympia, WA and the stores in town were mentioned.