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.
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.
Department stores were initially an improvement on specialty stores and the street hucksters because they offered fixed prices -- no haggling or bargaining -- on a wondrous variety of items all under one roof. Consumption became democratic, and the range of choice and price soon made the department store a palace, presided over by princes of merchandising. Dynasties followed. Many of the princes were sons of Jewish families, grandsons of peddlers, reflected in the names on the door of the stores that defined Main Street in cities across America: Kann, Lansburgh, Hecht, Garfinkel, Gimbel, Rich, Blass, Goldsmith. Isidor and Nathan Straus were the Bavarian Jewish brothers who built the "largest store on earth" at Herald Square in New York City in 1902. Macy's required 33 elevators to take customers to nine floors of merchandise. Decades before the computer would simplify things, a vast network of pneumatic tubes took the paperwork speeding from department to accounting, and eventually Macy's covered an entire block, the symbol of the department store. But that was then, and this is now, and that brings us back to Terry Lundgren and his dream of reviving Macy's.
Hecht's, one of the stores Federated acquired in downtown Washington, already shows new sparkle. One of the displays to catch a woman's eye is the display of cosmetics, and I recall how a little girl felt grown up, sampling the perfumes in gorgeous tiny bottles of different colored glass. I lament the loss of the old family name as Hecht's becomes another Macy's, but the old family is long gone, too. Fifty years ago, more than 4,000 department stores presided over Main Streets across America. We'll never see that again, but quantity isn't everything. Just a little quality and an appreciative word from someone who knows the merchandise ought to do it. Here's wishing Terry Lundgren good luck.