Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Time Fades Away

Went last night to hear Michael Lisicky speak on Gimbels at the New York Public Library and promote his book, "Gimbels Has It" -- and announce he's working on a book about Filene's in Boston as well as a "memories" sort of book about all four big department stores in Baltimore, not only Hutzler Bros., which he wrote about previously, but Hochschild Kohn & Co., Stewart & Co., and the Hecht Co./Hecht Bros/May Co. operations that ended up being one. Michael is such an engaging speaker -- I didn't realize he also is the Baltimore town crier. If you love old department stores, and you see him listed in your area, take the time and the effort. Amazingly, the building in which he spoke -- not the main library, but across the street -- was built as the store of Arnold Constable & Co. when it moved to Fifth Avenue from Broadway.

Michael was asked by a member of the audience why Gimbels did not survive, and he cited its stubborn resistance to moving "out of the middle" -- department stores had tried to be all things to all people, and when they lost the "price" market to discounters such as, originally, E.J. Korvette and Kmart and Caldor, some, such as Macy's -- remember, its longtime motto was "It's Smart to be Thrifty" -- and Bloomingdale's realized they could never underbid those stores, particularly on hard goods, and traded up. Gimbels continued to appeal to its traditional customer, but more of its traditional customers were leaving for lower-priced stores and, more important, their children just didn't come in at all -- they didn't see themselves as Miss or Mrs. Oldsmobile Kingsford Briquette. And as Michael noted, if you don't get the next generation through the doors, you are doomed.

Gimbels in New York also pursued an odd branch policy -- all in for a few years in the 1960s, then they forgot about branches until Bruce Gimbel came up with the Gimbels East idea to redefine Gimbels with an upscale store on the Upper East Side. But, like Oldsmobile with the Aurora, Gimbels East couldn't redefine Gimbels in the New York mind when Gimbels itself was sitting a few miles away. Macy's, Michael noted, had branches all across the country -- San Francisco, Kansas City, etc. -- from which ideas like "the Cellar" emerged. While Gimbels operated in four markets and was generally profitable outside New York, it tended not to see its units as sources of inspiration -- where would McDonald's be if the Big Mac, originated in Pittsburgh, had been  ignored by corporate?  Gimbels was Just Doing Business, which had worked well for so long but whose era was grinding to a close.

Michael didn't mention (his talk being about department stores) the effect that new entrants into the clothing field had on department stores as well. Indianapolis in my childhood was not a city of specialty stores, having essentially Morrison's and a couple of smaller stores (Peck & Peck, Schamberg's) for women and Harry Levinson for men, as well as L. Strauss & Co., a clothing store that was more like a department store. But even cities such as Detroit with many more clothing stores -- Winkelman's, Himelhoch's, and B. Siegel for women along with the national Franklin Simon chain and neighborhood stores like Belle Jacob, and Hughes Hatcher Suffrin for men -- weren't operatiing in the complicated environment that started to emerge in malls with the Gap and the Limited, and then exploded into today's world of Old Navy and Zara and H&M and niche stores like White/Black and Hot Topic. While the discounters, and later the big-box stores, ate away at department stores in appliances, furniture, and home goods, the smaller clothing stores pulled in the younger fashion shopper -- in part by being a place Mom would never take you.

So when Michael was asked -- as I'm sure he always is -- could different management have saved Gimbels, his answer was -- probably not. "Macy's," as we know it today, is not even Macy's -- which went bankrupt in the 1990s -- but Federated Department Stores, which decided that "Macy's" was a brand that meant "quality department store" across the country in a way that "Lazarus" or "Bullock's" or even "Marshall Field & Co." didn't. And "Macy's" refers to a company that operates most of the surviving store units of the divisions of Allied and Associated and Mercantile and Dayton Hudson and Marshall Field's that DID successfully trade up in the 1960s but became too beset by competition to operate as independent units -- too much money spent on having divisional staffs, different advertising, different tags, different profiles -- but when you go into a Macy's, chances are you're going into what still looks in some way like a Bamberger's or a Denver Dry Goods or a Foley's or an L.S. Ayres. While the names didn't survive, the companies didn't survive, most of the downtown temples of retailing didn't survive, the Macy's store in Cherry Hill Mall was built in 1961 -- it's now 51 years old, younger by less than a decade than then were the downtown Ayres and Block's stores I went to as a child in the 1960s that felt like Chartres Cathedral. It just doesn't feel that way because it was built the same way department stores are built today and not the way they were built even just 10 years before Bamberger's opened in Cherry Hill.

So Michael's answer -- and he, as I do, loves department stores of the past not just for the trivia and stories but because these stores defined their communities and their communities defined them, Trenton was Dunham's and Wilmington was Kennard's and therefore Trenton was not Wilmington -- was, with a tinge of sadness, that these things just went away. Society changed, retailing changed, people's self-perception changed, the middle class changed, transportation changed, zones of safety changed, and in the end we're pretty lucky that all these stores operating as Macy's are still here, let alone the occasional Boscov's and Bon Ton and Younkers.

The implication this has for the newspaper business is, alas, pretty clear. We won't get into it now, but we will in a subsequent column.

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