When I was a kid in Connecticut my mother and sister and I dressed up to take the bus from Hamden to New Haven to go to Malley’s, our big city department store. My mother wore her brown and white spectator pumps.
I have no memory of any purchases – maybe a rare something for Easter – but I know the store smelled rich, of perfume and leather. A trip to Malley’s was to drop inside a sophisticated urban world of pretty things and pretty people. To look, to browse, usually not to buy. School clothes more often came from the Montgomery Ward catalog. When our family moved to Pennsylvania our big city store became Kaufmann’s in Pittsburgh and The Boston Store in Erie.
My memories were prompted by watching Mr. Selfridge, the Masterpiece Theater series about the man who dramatically transformed the world of shopping when he opened Selfridges department store in London in 1909. For the first time, shoppers of all ranks were invited to touch and try on a world’s fair collection of merchandise, laid out like a tray of bonbons.
Henry Selfridge boldly moved ladies perfume out of the pharmacy department to the store’s entrance, which may be why we still get spritzed walking into some stores today. He created an entire beauty counter with such as Pond’s cream and lipstick, back then favored more by chorus girls than proper ladies.
So far in the TV series I’m unconvinced of the charms of the ego-maniacal Selfridge but I understand the allure of big city department stores.
Shoppers of a certain age probably all have a memory of their big city store, in one of the tallest buildings in town with lavish window displays, white tablecloth tea rooms and elegant ladies’ lounges. Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia. Hudson’s in Detroit. My husband would accompany his mother by streetcar to Hinks in Berkeley and Capwell’s in Oakland .
Many of our grand American stores are long gone, bulldozed and replaced by faceless malls. Some have survived and remodeled. But the grandness is gone. When I revisited Malley’s in New Haven decades later, it had become a generic store at one end of a downtown mall. It was like it had a lobotomy and didn’t speak to me anymore.
There are vestiges of the old elegance. My friend Jane still seeks out a Neiman Marcus tea room for the nostalgic taste of tiny popovers with strawberry butter and dainty cup of chicken broth.
Mr. Selfridge, and likely Mr. Malley and Mr. Kaufmann, aimed to make shopping a thrilling experience for all. The big city stores that I remember generally aimed at an upper middle class budget, but anyone could say “just looking.”
The first time I went to New York as an adult I wondered how so many New Yorkers could look so chic when certainly they couldn’t all afford to shop at high end stores. A local told me that if you walk through certain stores you can’t help but inhale a sense of style. Then you can take that bargain basement scarf and wear it with pizzazz, a la Macy’s or Bloomingdale’s.
Now the shopping trend is e-commerce. Buy online, save time and money. That’s efficient but it’s more like doing an errand than having an experience. I prefer a shared day of shopping, with a daughter or best friend, where talk comes easy and the conversation has nothing to do with the sale on cashmere.
For my daughters’ birthdays I give them a shopping trip, usually to San Francisco. It’s as much for me as for them. I get uninterrupted time with them away from grand-kids and jobs. They get a birthday present and lunch. You can’t do that online.
Probably started when I took my baby daughter to Joseph Magnin in San Diego when she was six weeks old. Ah, Joseph Magnin, fondly remembered as JM… now, that was an experience.