Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On the Newspaper Front...

It's only been depressing. Advertising is recovering everywhere but in newspapers. It is rarely pointed out that newspapers' ad base -- the now-nearly-vanished help wanteds and real estate, the display ads for new subdivisions, and local retail -- continues to be the area worst-hit by the economic malaise and thus showing the slowest advertising recovery. That really doesn't make any difference to the bottom line, though.

So what increasingly looks to many like a march to the cliff continues -- it's now become folk-wisdom, as in "I love your newspaper, it's a shame you're all going out of business." I just wish that in writing about the problems of newspapers, people would cite the no-call law (as Rick Edmonds pointed out in noting an award for the New York Times' success in selling, yes, print subscriptions at events), the merger of Federated and May Co. that killed local department store competition in many markets, and other issues instead of simply saying "the Internet." As has been noted, it wasn't "the Internet" that's essentially killed Borders and put Barnes & Noble in jeopardy; it was the Internet (Amazon) plus Walmart and Target selling nearly every best-seller (or at least every best-seller with a strong female readership) at 40 percent off as a loss leader to get women to do all their shopping there. But journalists tend to look for one cause for any effect. It's the fatal flaw in "get both sides of the story." That works in court and on election night. But most stories have multiple sides -- which makes them, of course, worse stories.

And where did that meme about "the Internet" and its eventual triumph over -- well, everything come from? Read the book "The Filter Bubble" by Eli Pariser, board president of MoveOn.org. Read it for its own usefulness in showing just how quickly the Internet is become a series of paths we will be led down. It's not that the transformation-of-media Pariser writes about isn't happening. It's the law of unintended consequences that he now sees. There's a gem on nearly every page of this book, in which Pariser is hopeful that the better world early Internet enthusiasts saw will still happen but acknowledges that at the moment, it's been hijacked.  I could quote this book all day -- and infringe on Pariser's copyright -- but for now I'll just quote this:

"Experts have a lot invested in theories they've developed to explain the world. And after a few years of working on them, they tend to see them everywhere."

And who did newspaper reporters call about what was happening to their business? Internet experts -- who not only saw the effect the Internet would have on newspapers, but also, more importantly, wanted it to happen and thus told newspapers there was nothing they could do.

Also for your reading list, from the New York Review of Books, "The Very Violent Road to America," by J.H. Elliott, a review of Daniel K. Richter's "Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Paths."  When you're asking yourself, exactly what America do the tea party people want back, don't just think about the president's color or heritage. Remember the history of our country that we all were taught:

"The resulting story, as told to generations of Americans, was relatively simple and straightforward. Its origins were located in England, the England of Magna Carta, the Protestant Reformation, and the seventeenth-century struggle to save liberty from the grasp of arbitrary power. It was thus an essentially English story, which was then carried across the Atlantic by English emigrants, and was in due course replayed on the soil of America, and primarily of New England. Naturally it acquired new elements along the way....

"The story, however, continued to be shaped by three defining elements. It was Anglocentric, in the sense that it placed the weight of its emphasis on the contribution of British settlers, with some assistance from continental Europeans, primarily those of Teutonic origin, who were granted a kind of honorary Anglo status. It was teleological, in the sense that everything in the story built up to a logical conclusion in the winning of independence. And it was exceptionalist, in the sense that it was a story like no other about a nation that itself was like no other. As William Findley wrote, even before the eighteenth century was over, Americans had “formed a character peculiar to themselves, and in some respects distinct from that of other nations.”

"Over the past few decades all three pillars supporting the structure of colonial history have come to look increasingly insecure, partly as a consequence of changes in the discipline of history, but also because of the enormous political, social, and cultural changes that have transformed the world itself. As far as teleology is concerned, the Whig approach to history, with its retrospective selection of those features of the past that are held to explain a distinctive, and equally selective, interpretation of the present, has fallen out of favor. ... American exceptionalism, too, has come to look out of joint with the times.... On examination, the early settlers of Jamestown do not look so very different in their aspirations and methods from the Spanish conquistadores hunting after gold and Indian laborers in Mexico and Peru. But perhaps most important of all, the world has changed, and, with it, the United States’ sense of itself. National self-confidence, which once took for granted a manifest destiny deriving from a set of exceptional national qualities and characteristics, has taken some hard knocks since the 1960s. If the destiny is less manifest and some of the characteristics are less positive than they once appeared, then perhaps, after all, the United States does not have all the answers."

That's the America they want back -- the America that made them, as Americans, not only the greatest people in the world but sort of the point of a theory of cultural evolution. As with creationism, the America they want back is one in which the point of Western history was to create -- us. "Us" did not include a half-African who grew up in Jakarta -- happy to have you live here, of course, but as with everyone who does not have "honorary Anglo status," mind your manners and know your place. This story is about us, not you. When myths meet reality, though, don't myths usually win?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Department Store Buildings of the... Vale of Anthracite

I was just talking with my former colleague Jim Remsen, who hails from Clarks Summit, Pa. -- the upscale and up-the-mountain suburb of Scranton. So here's a look at what were Scranton's two big department stores, whose buildings thankfully have lasted until now.

At the upper middle (with the large light roof, and extending to the next building to the right as well) is what generations of Scrantonians knew as the Globe Store. Its official name was the Cleland-Simpson Co. at 119 Wyoming Ave., but it was known initially as the Globe Warehouse, then the Globe Store.  John Cleland, John Simpson, and a Taylor established the Globe in 1878. The company established many branches, among them Trenton and Allentown. Around 1900, John Taylor, son of David, withdrew from the partnership and went his own way in Allentown. By 1910 the Globe was totally under the direction of the Simpson family and its heirs, one of whom was the wonderfully named Urbane Noble.  The other Globes -- there were Globe Warehouses across northeastern Pennsylvania, in towns such as Danville and Carbondale -- gradually withered away, although the Taylor store in Allentown continued until the Depression. The Scranton Globe prospered, however. It expanded downtown in the 1950s, as did so many department stores that 20 or 30 years later were gone, and purchased the Isaac Long Store in Wilkes-Barre.

In the 1970s it was briefly a division of John Wanamaker in Philadelphia, then was spun off in one of the Wanamaker sales (to Carter Hawley Hale or to Woodward & Lothrop) and operated as an independent store until the mid-1990s.Even though it was attached to a downtown mall with a Boscov's store, it could not last and closed in 1994.

Here, I'd like to make a point about historical accuracy. Very few department stores, other than the largest, had books written about their histories, such as happened with Strawbridge & Clothier, Belk Bros., or Marshall Field & Co. Newspapers tended to cover the deaths of department store owners lavishly (thank you for the advertising) and the sale of their companies miserly (are you going to continue to advertise?). Occasionally one will find a treasure trove like the historical records of P. Wiest's Sons at the York County Historical Society. More often, though, one is left with memories, occasional clips, and records that may or may not be reliable.

The Globe Store creates a couple of problems for researchers online. This story from the Scranton Times-Tribune says the Cleland-Simpson Co. was founded by Cleland, Simpson, and William Taylor in 1878. That indeed may be, but by the 1880 city directory David E. Taylor was listed as a partner and the firm was called Cleland, Simpson & Taylor for two decades. (The Times-Tribune story becomes suspect by calling Taylor  "Williams" on second reference.) It also says Cleland bought Taylor's share of the business shortly thereafter. That also may be, but David Taylor was still listed as a partner in the firm in not only the Scranton directory of 1900, but in the Allentown directory as well. So it depends on the definition of "shortly."  Most suspect is the phrase "the Globe and its warehouse." The store was called the Globe Warehouse to emphasize that it sold at lower prices. As it became more established and upscale, it became the Globe Store. But there was never a difference between the store and its warehouse.

The Wikipedia entry on the Globe offers more confusion. It correctly notes that the Danville Globe was operated by Charles Hancock, and notes that he had worked with Cleland, Simpson, and Taylor in Danville and that they then moved to Scranton. This again may well be, as it is taken from an old county history. But that book confuses the issue for modern readers by referring to Hancock's moving back to Danville "where his former employers were located." I assume that it uses "were" to mean "had been." But they had moved on to Scranton and taken Hancock with them, and he then went back home. Hancock opened his Globe in 1883 and may have been an independent operator, but even in those days, it was usual that a store of the same name would either have been started as a branch or the owner would have been "staked" by the original partners. The Wikipedia writer, confused by all this, has Hancock's Danville Globe moving to Scranton, which is inaccurate, because the Globe Store had been in Scranton for five years before the Danville Globe opened.

But on the other hand, in an earlier post I said John Taylor was an original partner in the firm. John Taylor was the son of David Taylor, who either was an original partner or became one in place of the mysterious William Taylor. John Taylor did become a partner with Cleland and Simpson in the Allentown operation briefly, but was never a partner in Scranton. So I guess none of this is completely trustworthy.

The other big store in the photo, on the corner at bottom with a canopy over the sidewalk,  was known to Scrantonians as the "Scranton Dry" or the "Dry Goods," and about this store the Times-Tribune article appears absolutely correct. The Scranton Dry Goods Co. was founded by Isaac E. Oppenheim on Washington Avenue in Scranton in 1912  and quickly moved to occupy a giant store at 401 Lackawanna Ave. that had been built as a branch of Jonas Long's Sons, another Wilkes-Barre store. Isaac and Jonas Long were brothers.   (The Jonas Long firm apparently fell on hard times, because the original store in Wilkes-Barre also was sold around the same era.) The Dry Goods also greatly expanded over the years, including into the much taller building behind it. In the 1970s, in an attempt not to sound archaic, it rebranded itself "Oppenheim's." But it closed in 1980, apparently still run by Ellis and Richard Oppenheim, sons of the founder. The building is used for offices; here's an appreciation.