The front page of The Wall Street Journal is not the usual purveyor of nostalgia, but a bit of the past flashed before me the other morning when I read that Terry Lundgren, the CEO of Federated Department Stores, wants to revive the "cathedral of commerce" that once anchored Main Street. Visions of shirts and shoes and crystal, of sparkling glass counters and uniformed elevator attendants, danced like sugarplums through my imagination.
Federated recently acquired May Department Stores, at $17 billion the largest acquisition in department store history. With the joining of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, Mr. Lundgren thinks the department store won't join the pushcart and the street bazaar in the Valhalla of merchandising after all.
For decades the department store hasn't been what it used to be. These "museums of merchandise" were often beautifully designed stores, with departments displaying clothes, dishes, glasses, pots and pans, carpets and furniture, all tastefully organized. Walking into a department store was an adventure, with discoveries around every corner. Each item was meant to seduce the eye, to invite the touch. A shopper could try on a blouse or skirt in a clean dressing room, with a knowledgeable saleswoman eagerly at hand with another size or color. Courtesy came with the sale, and if the respect was something only offered in return for your cash or charge card, it could nevertheless make your day.
My mother and I often made a day of it at the department stores in downtown Washington. Dressed in our "Saturday best," as a trip downtown demanded, we might stop for lunch in an elegant tearoom for a salad, a sandwich and iced tea, served with cloth napkins. The stores down market offered lunch counters with revolving stools, made for spinning, while we waited for a hot dog with bright yellow mustard and a cherry coke in a tall glass with a straw.
Familiar names like Lord & Taylor, Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's and Dillard's still anchor many a mall, but the large family-owned store is as rare as a traffic jam on Main Street. The food court in the suburban mall is for eating, not dining, and the food is served on paper or plastic, with noise on the side with a serving of rude. Lundgren, who wants to bring back graciousness, has a full day's work ahead of him.
The clock is not for turning back, of course, and the likes of Wal-Mart and Target offer stylish goods for modest budgets. But nobody makes a day of it at the strip mall, where the dressing room is littered with the discards of the slob who just left, and the clerk often doesn't know (or care) whether she has the brown blouse in beige or black.