Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Departure of Department Stores?

It’s with sadness that I read about the latest goings on at some of the most venerable department stores: Saks and Bergdorf with shockingly deep discounts, their tables piled high with designer bags that are being pawed over, and as Roller Girl tells us, the same thing is happening across the pond at Liberty, which has the same tables of goods, but with undisclosed discounts that are revealed only at the cash register.

For the department store used to be the grand dame of elegant shopping (though it had its sneaky strategies for seducing shoppers).

One of the most famous is Wanamakers in Philadelphia, which opened its doors in 1876. In his brilliant history of shopping, stores, and their cultural implications, Land of Desire, William Leach analyzes how Wanamakers attracted its clientele.

He notes how the ground floor was set up with a long central aisle, leading to a grand pipe organ in the very back, echoing how an organ would sit behind a church altar. On each side of the aisle were locked glass cases, filled with goods that a clerk would assist customers with, long cases that resemble the layout of church pews.

By introducing symbolic religious design into the department store through its physical layout and pipe organ at the “altar,” Wanamakers was linking the experience of shopping with the spiritual, hoping that shoppers would (unconsciously) connect the two and not feel guilt over spending money.

Wanamakers is gone now, with Macys having taken over its space, as is Russek’s of Fifth Avenue, which was begun by the photographer Diane Arbus’ grandparents, but Saks, with its striped canopies and Bergdorfs, which once had a penthouse on top, remain.

But in what state?

And what about Liberty, in its Tudor edifice with its stunning tiered interior?

Have these institutions given way to warehouses with shelves of clothing? Or as the New York Times reports today, are luxury shoppers now having items brought to their homes for consideration, instead of braving the crowds?

I’d certainly miss the wonderfully eccentric displays at Liberty and the old world charm of Saks and Bergdorfs. I'd miss their gracious bones and sales staff who have been with them forever. And I'd miss their destination as an idea--when it meant something special to have bought a treasure there.
What role does the department store play in your life? Would you miss it?


K.Line said...

So many great questions tonight! I have to be honest. I rarely go into a dept. store - like twice a year - so it wouldn't phase me on a shopping front. But, I think it would be sad to see the beautiful architecture (when it's beautiful, I mean) go the way of the dino. No doubt those huge, money sucking buildings wouldn't stay up for long.

Would I miss Simons or Holts or Ogilvy or Barneys (not that I can afford much in the latter 3)? Yes. But the Bay or Macy's or Bloomingdales? Not so much.

enc said...

I certainly would miss the department stores. I can't countenance shopping for clothes in big box stores.

materfamilias said...

I still miss Eaton's, and it's been gone for five years now. Before that, here in BC we lost our venerable Woodward's stores. The Bay is still her in name, but it's not The Bay I used to know -- goods crowded together, staff hard to track down. I won't go to big box stores, but I miss the efficiency of being able to do all one's errands in one shop, and above all, the atmosphere of those . . . institutions, really . . . and the lifestyle associated with them, a confidence, as well, of knowing where certain items could be found, and also, I think, of a middle ground -- now there are stores that cater to those desperate for bargains and willing to skimp on quality and there are stores that offer high-end products for clients willing to pay -- a reflection of an unpleasantly widening social gap.

La Belette Rouge said...

I grew up shopping at j. Magnins, I.Magnins, Bullocks Wilshire and Bullocks. They are all gone and the quality of those stores and the service they provided may never return. I fear that soon only Macy's will remain and if that is the case I will give up on department stores all together.

WendyB said...

It's all depressing and terrible. I hate the thought of beautiful products being treated like junk.

Sal said...

I'd miss them less than most, but understand the significance of their possible demise. Not something I'd like to see happen.

Savvy Mode SG said...

it's really sad and seeing all the sales b/c i am here scooping up all the deal but it's a true reflection of the economy. sad indeed. i like dept stores b/c it's one stop shop for me.

Thumbelina Fashionista said...

I have a love/hate relationship with department stores. I absolutely despise Macy's with a passion, Bloomingdale's receives a raised eyebrow from me, and Saks, Barneys, and Bergdorf's are thrilling. But I hate the last three stores on weekends and during the holidays, when tourists overcrowd the stores to the point of making me feel agoraphobic. (I could barely stay at Saks last weekend--it was so congested that there was a mini-line to get on the escalators.) But ultimately I shop at department stores for the special deals (spend some, get some), the amazing return policy (I once returned a pair of pumps I had for five months!), and the dazzling variety. I'd hate to live without it, ultimately.

Songy said...

hard to say. Dpt stores have been out of my price range most of times. Now I can 'afford' but my experience as a cheap shopper gets in the way of going into places like David Jones. In AU there are only two, Myer and DJ. DJ being a little up market.

I don't think it's AU specific but in Melbourne and Sydney there are lots of shopping complexes housing luxe and high fashion designers and specialty shops. These seem to be getting more customers than Dpt stores. Certainly younger crowd seem to hang out there a lot.

Iheartfashion said...

Yes, I find it a depressing thought that department stores may become a thing of the past. There's something romantic and old-fashioned about a store with makeup, clothing, housewares, and a little lunch place all in one.

Mary-Laure said...

Did you read Zola's "Au bonheur des dames"? I just ADORE that book about the birth of the modern department store.

miss cavendish said...

No--but I'm going to find it online right now!