The lingerie manager in the long-gone Michigan department store where I worked spent as much of her wages on store merchandise as she did on her rent. On the other hand, she could forgo expensive lunches for the 35-cent grilled-cheese sandwiches always available behind the secret swinging door to the employee cafe.
When car plants close, we mourn the loss of factory jobs, and for years afterward, former workers gather in union halls and bars near plants and mills, telling stories of a more prosperous time. When stores close, though, we don’t really think about the department managers, sales clerks, stockers and janitors who created the special retailing world where not just customers but also workers could escape their routine lives and aspire to the promise that shiny new goods offered.
That world, shrinking for years, took another blow this past week across the country and across income levels: The mass-market giant Sears announced its bankruptcy, saying it would close 142 more stores; higher-end Lord & Taylor continued its closing sale at its Fifth Avenue flagship in New York, never again to draw crowds to its pioneering animated Christmas window display; Gump’s, which sold upscale goods for generations in San Francisco, held a bankruptcy auction. And on those stores’ heels is the New York luxury emporium Henri Bendel, set to close in January.
You might remember these vanishing icons simply as places to buy things, whether a Craftsman tool to upgrade your home or an Hermès scarf to upgrade your suit. But I think of them as a singular kind of American culture — small cities, almost, with distinct social hierarchies and gossiping neighbors and dream chasers. I spent my department store years in Ann Arbor at Jacobson’s, a chain mainly in Michigan, Ohio and Florida that was akin to Nordstrom. The store manager was like the mayor; everyone perked up when he strolled through, surveying his domain, bending to pick up bits of invisible fluff from the carpet. Department managers often had college degrees, and earned salaries and perks that made them the store’s upper middle class. Buyers from the designer section were the people who took the vacations you yearned for — they made glamorous trips to New York and Europe, coming back with look books and fabric swatches, letting us lower-ranking employees see the colors that would be popular next season. Young career men and women on the selling floors outfitted themselves in the latest fashions months before anyone else, at a generous discount, and showed off the styles after work, often spending large chunks of their paychecks to become walking advertisements for the store at nearby clubs. We didn’t have to wonder how new fashions would look on our customers: Smiling models regularly strolled through the store, bearing a printed card with the designer’s name and pausing for inspection.
These stores made an entire lifestyle possible for people who worked in them. Conversely, it was important for customers to see us as symbols of what they could attain, too. Customers were part of our community; our job was to sell them things that would highlight their good taste and let them share the sense of satisfaction that we felt after selling something special. That went both ways. After Diane von Furstenberg landed on the cover of Newsweek in 1976, customers came to Jacobson’s wanting one of her wrap dresses. It took a few years for them to make it to our Midwestern town, but when they did, I waited for one markdown, and then a second, before buying one.
I began in the late 1970s on the bottom rung of a tall ladder, as a holiday gift wrapper. I placed goods in Jacobson’s silver boxes and affixed a small curl of ribbon to each lid. Then I fluffed open a pre-folded bow and stuck it in the middle of the ribbon. After my first Christmas season, I was promoted to the selling floor, working all summer in the gifts and china department. I felt a sense of accomplishment when I could match the right present to the right customer. This was the Reagan era, and customers were pouring in for Waterford and Orrefors crystal and Royal Doulton and Lenox china. I remember the elation I felt the first time I sold a Waterford biscuit barrel, the same jar President Ronald Reagan used in the White House for his jelly beans. The customer was delighted to find a trendy wedding gift, and I was happy he was happy.
The store was a place for learning as well as teaching. I counseled customers not to put their crystal goblets in the dishwasher, to protect their thin rims. Likewise, china trimmed in gold leaf had to be washed by hand or the gold would come off. Jacobson’s most expensive china pattern was Flora Danica, a breathtakingly beautiful Royal Copenhagen design with a gold rim and Audubon-quality florals, but I also sold tons of Spode’s Blue Willow, a happy blue-and-white china that cost just $25 a place setting. In sizing up customers, I learned not to make assumptions, but I got pretty good at telling who would be a Blue Willow customer — often young people like me who were going to their first post-college weddings — and who might be interested in spending a little more.
Managers showed us the ropes, taught us tips on selling and caught us up when we made mistakes. I’ll never forget the look on my manager’s face when I erroneously told a shopper that a high-priced velvet bedspread was machine washable. In the men’s department, I matched shirts to ties, but I learned quickly that men wanted to buy suits from men.
Perhaps you saw the movie “Brooklyn,” in which Saoirse Ronan’s character works in a mythical department store upon her arrival from Ireland, or the Amazon series “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” in which Rachel Brosnahan’s character lands a job at the beloved New York department store B. Altman (another real-world casualty). Both depict life inside the department store doors fairly accurately, especially the sophistication that sales associates tried to convey.
It’s not as if retail is gone. More than 15 million Americans hold retail jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that’s double the level of the 1970s, which we often consider shopping’s glory days. Some 4.2 million of those people are working in sales jobs like the one I had. And, while famous department store names have been closing for decades, new stores are opening, led by Dollar General, which planned to add 900 stores this year. According to Coresight Research, there have been 4,478 store closing announcements in the United States this year (not including Sears), while 2,372 stores have opened.
There’s actually more retail now because there are far more of us now (the U.S. population in 1970 was 205 million, and it’s currently 326 million). But as the nation grew, its retailing didn’t follow the downtown patterns where most of the department stores were born. Retail established itself in the suburbs, much of it in malls, rather than among city office buildings. Population shifts took out the first collection of urban department stores, then the second wave of department stores, in malls; then the Internet dealt a blow to more department stores, as well as to malls themselves. Americans went from dressing up to go shopping to dressing down to go shopping, and now they needn’t get dressed at all.
Every town of any size had at least one department store, while big cities like Washington and Boston and Chicago and San Francisco had a bouquet of choices, tailored to different tastes and incomes. The Wikipedia entry on defunct U.S. department stores now lists hundreds. They range from high-end legends like Chicago’s Marshall Field; to the Hollywood-immortalized Gimbels in New York; to Maison Blanche in New Orleans; Sakowitz in Houston; Filene’s in Boston; Garfinckel’s, Hecht’s and Woodies around Washington; and my own Jacobson’s.
Talking about the Sears bankruptcy, a friend wondered on Facebook whether anyone would miss the mass-market standard-bearer if it simply liquidated and closed its remaining stores. After all, you can buy its tools at Lowe’s and its sweaters from the Lands’ End catalogue. On Thursday, I visited my local store, which is on the list of those closing. Round aqua placards that declared “Sears, established 1893 — 125 years” hung above a rack of lavender sweatshirts with big white hearts. Empty space dwarfed the handful of lunchtime customers and even fewer salespeople scattered across the vast store, mainly standing at cash registers or seated at desktop computers. In the Lands’ End section, a clerk was stocking fluffy fleece tops. She told me the brand was opening its own brick-and-mortar stores. Do you think you’d want to work in one? I asked. She paused. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said.
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