Garfinckel's F Street was the store where the sales clerk didn't say "what?" when you asked for two- or four-button gloves. Where the stationery consultants knew the proper form for calling cards. And where the salespeople on the seventh floor counted how many fish forks the bride already had.
Washington cave dwellers brought their granddaughters -- who had grown up ordering their clothes by mail from L.L. Bean -- to Garfinckel's to buy ball gowns or tea dresses for their coming-out parties.
Shoppers who were accustomed to Vienna, Paris or London department stores felt at home in Garfinckel's. Caroline Simmons, who has been everywhere and serves on half of the art organization boards in Washington, said, "We always went to Garfinckel's. It was the top place."
Most people yesterday, on hearing that Garfinckel's is closing, mentioned first the service and the knowledge of the salespeople. Sylvia Bernstein, who worked in the gift department, said last night, as she came home from the store's day of reckoning, "It's sad. Sad for us, sad for the store, sad for the city. It's a quality store. And it hasn't changed that much since I came there 18 or 19 years ago."
For many of the fortunate, Garfinckel's was the wedding store. Enid Johnson, a Phillips Collection volunteer, bought her wedding dress -- "the most beautiful dress, all re-embroidered lace and heavy satin" -- there in 1951, after she graduated from Barnard College. "And a month before our wedding I was photographed in my dress at Garfinckel's. The wax orange blossoms that held my veil lasted to be used again for two of our daughters. When Diana was married, I bought my mother-of-the-bride dress at Garfinckel's."
Other store executives appreciated Garfinckel's. Saks Jandel Vice President Val Cook bought her "coming-out dress there. My family lived in San Francisco, but I went to school in Baltimore. One day I saw it in the window and I had to have it -- even though it cost my mother too much money. The gown was a knockoff of the Givenchy dress that Audrey Hepburn wore in 'Sabrina' in 1954. Garfinckel's had an image and an aura -- known for quality. The closing of such a Washington institution is a terrible thing for the city."
The department store was opened in 1905 by Julius Garfinckel. Back then, people spending sizable amounts of money expected a proper setting -- a palace. Even into the 1990s, the store kept its elegant turn-of-the-century air -- tall ceilings, columns, beautifully dressed windows, spacious aisles, a tearoom (not a snackbar) and real elevators (escalators are for the masses).
"The store had a quietness about it. When I walked in there, I felt as though I was removed from the confusion on F Street, said Yvonne Clayton, a Museum of Natural History docent and bridal consultant. "Garfinckel's is my favorite store in Washington -- where people cared about waiting on you. When I first began to shop at Garfinckel's, you would go sit down in the designer dress section and they would bring out clothes to show you."
"I always bought clothes for my children and grandchildren there," said Clayton. "I had a saleswoman who would let me know when the best things came in. I remember once I bought a dress for my daughter Carol, a sheer wool, and I asked that it be lined. Garfinckel's sent it back to the manufacturer, and had it lined with a lovely gray fabric. I still have that dress and several other good quality ones I bought for Carol. I've saved them and now her daughter will wear them."
Not until after World War II could blacks try on clothes in Garfinckel's. Like some other department store eating places, the Garfinckel's restaurant would not serve blacks until the 1950s. Since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, the store has been integrated.
Clayton remembers hearing "when I was a little girl, they wouldn't wait on blacks at Garfinckel's. I never had a problem there. But back then, children didn't pop in and out of shops the way they do now. We went at Christmas and Easter; at most, we went downtown three times a year. The shopping was left to parents."
Clayton remembers as a young woman watching as the creative fingers of the Garfinckel's gift wrappers did their work. "I loved seeing them do it. And that's how I learned how."
And years later when she was a consultant to a young bride who wanted to wear the Sweet Sixteen dress her grandmother made her, why Garfinckel's refurbished the dress and designed a veil to go with it.
Yesterday's news that the store is closing seemed like the obituary of your family's most elegant older friend. And now, where will we go to ask about linen sheets, the care of pearls, the size of tea napkins and how many inches a cloth should hang over the dining table?