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?