Farewell Department Stores

Oh, shit!

Now it appears Department stores are going to belly up in the wake of the arrival of this Corona virus and the crushing impact it has had on the economy. Anyone who knows me at all knows I am not much for fashion, but I must confess I enjoyed rambling the hallways and restaurants of Department Stores much more than anything else I did in downtown Chicago, and that includes years and years of working.

I knew this was going to happen eventually because, just as other places to advertise wrecked the revenues of journalism, other places to buy wrecked the revenues of department stores. Let’s not let this passing happen without taking note that it was not really about shopping for most of us. It was just a place to go to hide from work and have a little fantasy about whether your waist could ever get back to a healthy 36″ (NO!)

Not to mention the foods.

My fondest memories of department stores go all the way back to Altoona, Pa. in the 1950s when the downtown was anchored by a place called William F. Gable’s (and also the place I worked for a while, Wolf Furniture, which was not really a department store but tried at it very hard for a number of years. My darling Aunt Rose, never married, never actually settled in my memory until she moved into an apartment next to the church, would announce about two times a month that it was time to go to Gables for lunch. She would haul us there on the trolley that ran down Broad Avenue, walk us up to the lunch counter and order grilled cheese, French fries and whatever sweet fizzy drink you wanted. My parents would not ever think of doing that, but Rose was the perfect aunt. It might have cost a couple of bucks at most, but Rose never hinted it was a strain. She worked as a nurse’s aide at the hospital and probably got paid an embarrassingly small amount of money, but seemed to enjoy the work and really, really enjoyed those lunches. What fun that was. Then she would haul whichever ones she brought up to get some new socks or underwear or something.

I loved that.

My father used his railroad passes to take us all to Pittsburgh to visit its famous local department store. I think it was…whoops, that’s gone. Anyhow, one trip was just to see the wonderful chimp Zipee in his rollerskating act, which took place on a stage the size of a boxing ring. I sat on my father’s shoulders for this event, just so I would not miss a single move. Zipee was a tad excitable and midway through his fantastic show, started grabbing the heavy aluminum cups he was skating around and lofting them into the audience. One of them hit my father right in the forehead. These days, that would be a lawsuit. Those days, that was a huge laugh.

I have lived an interesting life, and part of it carried me to the Soviet Union where my family and I lived for a couple of years. There was one department store in Moscow, GUM, a big, gray shed of a building on Red Square with lots of little stores inside and almost nothing you would ever want to buy. I got a gray coat so I could look Soviet if I had to. It was something like $7 and overpriced at that. We hated Moscow’s shopping options.

So every couple of months, when UPI needed supplies for its Moscow bureau, we would hop on a very Soviet overnight train and rumble on up through what was then Leningrad and across the border and into Helsinki, where we found Stockmann’s.

What a fabulous store that was. People who came from Paris, I am told, thought nothing of it. People who came from Moscow thought it was heaven! It sealed my appreciation for department stores forever. They became my preferred shopping places and all of them were compared to Stockmann’s. When we moved to Chicago in 1979, it was Fields, which had its big store downtown and then lots of smaller stores in the burbs. The big store was great, especially around the holidays. It would not do to miss a lunch in the Walnut Room (which was actually Circassian, not Walnut) on the holiday visit, if you had the patience to wait in line. Huge tree. Ridiculous Christmas music. Candy to die for (literally) and, of Course, shopping.

Of course they were all going to disappear anyhow because who wants to go troop through a variety of nominally interesting things when you can order up a vast number of nominally interesting things on line!

It’s not the same.

And I don’t think Aunt Rose would approve because, no grilled cheese sandwiches!

9 thoughts on “Farewell Department Stores

  1. Charlie – I loved this piece. I have fond memories of another store, Ben Franklin. I could spend hours going up and down the aisles in awe of all the little trinkets (and candy) of course.


  2. Loved hearing about Aunt Rose. She was the best! Always brought us kids a gift. And I never thought about how little money she made until I read this piece. Made me love her even more. I have a card from her that she wrote me back in the ‘90’s about genealogy: beautiful writing. BTW I think the Pittsburgh store was Kaufman’s? Used to go there on the bus on Saturday when I was working and going to school at Pitt. Nice memory. thank you.


  3. I loved every word of this writing. Aunt Rose,who delighted in every thing and could always find the good in any situation. I bought more than one pair of shoes from her at Shirleys Shoes. Mom could never let Dad have the monkey he wanted for a pet because she said “You can’t housebreak a monkey, Gerald!” gables basement, the source of every article of clothing my kids owned- Buster Brown no less. People today don’t know the little joys life can hole. Too bad!!! Thanks for the memories, Bro.


  4. What a walk down memory lane. Our sweet Aunt Rose..the joy she brought to all of us. Gables..that candy counter on the first floor..certainly worth the walk over the railroad bridge & under the culvert to return home..sometimes sinfully late for dinner. Thanks brother..I really hate shopping on line & I really like counter French fries!


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