I was born during during the Depression, and the only consumer goods my family knew were the things we ate. My mother sewed our bedsheets out of fabric remnants; consequently, the seam ran up the middle, where it would irritate the sleeper most, and the two sides didn't match. Occasionally, it was necessary actually to go out and purchase something that wasn't makeshift, such as a winter coat for me. Then the entire family would troop down to S. Klein on Union Square, home of the bargain, and examine every garment carefully for damages. If you found a damage and hollered loud enough, they gave you an extra dollar off.
As I grew older, I discovered that not every family in New York lived this way. Uptown were the real stores that offered perfect merchandise, stores like Best & Co., Jay Thorpe, De Pinna, Arnold Constable. I grew up; I shopped those stores. I grew older; one by one they closed - yes, even S. Klein is no more. I write this review surrounded by the shades of departed stores....
If the British are a nation of shopkeepers, then America must be a nation of shoppers. Certainly in New York, shopping is for some a way of life, and for many, one store alone is "Like No Other Store in the World" - Bloomingdale's, about which Mark Stevens writes with repetitive passion, padding his article-sized manuscript into a redundant book. "It's the obvious place to go for everything," Stevens quotes a gushing Lee Radziwill. "Oh, gosh, it's the most fantastic and exhausting store in the world." True, Bloomie's is special (when I was very young, it lurked dingily under the shadow of the Third Avenue El and was noted for selling sheets at prices so low that anybody except my family could afford them), but a whole book devoted to it did startling things to my blink rate and left me feeling as tattered and fragile as does a lunch hour spent in the minefield of its cosmetic departments.
On the other hand, I found Nan Tillson Birmingham's account of how America's great stores came into being a delight. Moving easily among the high and mighty, she offers a gold mine of anecdotes in a light, chatty style. Nuggets: Did you know that Saks Fifth Avenue in Phoenix, Arizona has a hitching post out back for those arriving on horseback? Or that the employees of Neiman-Marcus in Fort Worth once built a snow lady in the store's parking lot, used real diamonds for her eyes and nose and dressed her in a $16,000 mink coat? Now that's my idea of Texas!
Speaking of Neiman-Marcus, when they open a new store somewhere, they don't cut a ribbon; too pedestrian. Instead, N-M uses a 16-foot-high derrick which pumps, through a clear plexiglass pipe, a liquid appropriate to the location of the new store. In Bal Harbour, the derrick pumped Tang, representing orange juice but more colorful. In St. Louis, Budweiser beer. In Atlanta, Coca-Cola. And, when Neiman-Marcus opened its Washington, D.C. store in November of 1977, "Mrs. Herbert Marcus pressed the button to activate the oil well, and up through the pipe, exploding like a blowout, came red tape." Thank you, Nan Tillson Birmingham. I haven't read a book about business so entertaining as yours since Andy Tobias' Fire and Ice.
The Grand Emporiums isn't so much entertaining as it is thorough. It deals not only with the fashion-conscious citadels, but also with such great American institutions as F.W. Woolworth, J.C. Penney, Sears Roebuck, Montgomery Ward, Kresge and even E.J. Korvette and Crazy Eddie. It tackles shopping centers and malls; boosting, snitching and new forms of security; labor problems and strikes, the changes that window mannequins have undergone over the century and a half of department stores, and more, much more.
It's as thick as a Sears catalogue and as comprehensive. I'm glad to own it, and I will keep it on my shelf as a standard reference, but wading through it was, I confess, a chore. Outside of people in retailing, I cannot imagine anybody needing to know quite so much information as Hendrickson so painstakingly provides. Certainly, the development of America's stores is part and parcel of our nation's social history, but few of us have the author's conscientious zeal or his storage capacity. Also, the illustrations were a little disappointing; printed as they are on uncoated stock, they tend to be muddy and lose detail.
It's hard for me to hold onto my temper in the presence of Abingdon's, the only novel in this batch of books. Third runner-up in the Arthur Hailey-readalike contest, it combines the most predictable, banal plot, and faceless, sexless characters, with sloppy editing. Nobody should have let it go out of the house dressed like that. Aware that I was destroying precious tooth enamel by grinding while reading, I began to keep a list of solecisms on page 30 and gave it up on page 143. But not before I'd clocked the following beauties: "...the old man lavished him with praise and good wishes..."; "A fifty-year-old former model, remarkably trim, adorned in Indian turquoise jewelery, Monique's expression of displeasure was a constant." Why was the expression adorned in the jewelry? What on earth has happened to copy-editing?
On page 239, I encountered this sentence: "Cynthia, recognizing her benefactor from Tuesday, lit up with a sanguine smile." There, I must confess, I threw in the towel. The book had defeated me; punchy, I couldn't slog through one more abysmal page. So I cannot tell you if hero Peter or one of his tedious competitors won the presidency of the store; whether the visiting foreign dignitary was assassinated (as he is named Pierre Trudeau, I rather think not); whether the bomb scare at the store was real or phony, or answer any other burning question about the fate of Abingdon's, store or novel. Never would I have believed that I'd find myself recommending Scrupples, but if you're hungry for a junk read about a sexy store, that's the one to buy.
Not having read Stanley Marcus' Minding the Store, the story of Neiman-Marcus by its former chairman, I didn't expect to derive much pleasure from his second book, Quest for the Best. But I was wrong; I loved it. Mr. Marcus is a simple man - give him the best of everything and he's happy. Since he can afford the best of everything, he lives in the best of all possible worlds. He never had to sleep on a piebald sheet with a seam running up the middle; he has slept on linen sheets at Claridge's in London (on his list of bests). Marcus is an unabashed elitist, a snob without shame. He has opinions on everything from custom-made suits to art galleries, from the best grapefruit to the most efficient pepper mill.
Declaring that "bigness is inimical to fine quality," he takes the reader on an idiosyncratic, anecdotal, expansive and expensive quest for elegance - traipsing in his $600-a-pair Lobb of London shoes through snooty restaurants, posh hotels, costly luggage-makers, he skims the cream off the world of Never-Never. The world is Marcus' oyster, and every month has an "R" in it.
Stanley Marcus wears a muffler of shahtoosh, the rarest and most costly fabric in the world at $1500 a yard; it's made from the neck hairs of the Himalayan ibex that are left behind on the branches as the goats nibble leaves. I have a son like that, not yet 15. He's had trifle with his tea at Fortnum's, bagels with his lox at the Beverly Hills Hotel, attended Zabar's exclusive Christmas party, nibbled at the smorgasbord at the Gyldne Fortun in Copenhagen. My kid and Stanley Marcus; two of a kind. At Alex's age, I was lucky if my socks matched, and I had a permanent crease down my back from those damn sheets. CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by John Pack for The Washington Post