RIP Dreamland

When I was born in Kalamazoo, my paternal grandmother was the head fitter of the 28 Shop at Marshall Field and Company department store in Chicago. This was the big building at the corner of State and Washington; it filled the entire city block. The first floor, where jewelry and cosmetics were housed, looked as elegant as a palace and at Christmastime, the decor helped create the dream of the holiday for children and adults alike.

Marshall Field and Company
Christmas decor
image by Senor Codo

Grandma was a wiz with a needle and fitted the designer apparel and better fashion lines to wealthy women and to celebrities. Her favorite was Imogene Coca who she felt was a very gracious lady. One of her stories I regret remembering imperfectly was that a very famous movie star had deeply pocked skin and her makeup hid her skin condition from the public. If only I could recall who that was.

When Grandma retired, one of the gifts she received was perhaps incidental to her, but to me meant so much. It was the history of Marshall Field and the department store, called Give the Lady What She Wants.  I grew up among retailers. My dad the luggage store, my grandpa the gas station, and my great-grandfather a fish market and, later, a soda shop. One branch of relatives, the Mulders in Goes, Netherlands, owned a shop selling “paint and colonial goods” for years. A few years ago (not sure if it’s still the case) you could still make out the name Mulder on the building.

When the gardener and I were 23 we opened a small retail store in a mall and stayed in the business until I graduated with my MFA in writing and we moved away for further schooling for both of us.

Although neither of us has worked in retail for years, we have fond memories. In fact, I feel as if retail is in my blood. Maybe it’s the Mulders (and others) in my DNA, maybe it’s from when I “played store” as a kid.

So watching the decline of retail over the years has been devastating to me. It’s a phenomenon rarely talked about by people. But it’s like watching a slow suffering death of a beloved family member. And yet, of course, it’s not. They are no longer beloved because these stores have (for the most part) been long ago taken over by companies called equity firms that are all about the bottom line and not the ART and CREATIVITY and PASSION that goes into building good businesses.

Because these businesses no longer care about their customers, their customers (ex, current, or no-longer-potential) don’t care about them. But I care about them as ghosts of what once existed.

Every city had its landmark department store. Even Kalamazoo had Gilmore Brothers. Think of the department store or stores where you grew up. If you’re old enough, you probably have some fond memories. They could be wonderlands to visit, even if all you did was window shop. Or whisper your wants into Santa Claus’s ear or watch the parade around the time of Thanksgiving. They were a sort of Dreamland for many of us.

When I was in grad school, I loved reading literature about young women who worked at these stores. Carrie in Dreiser’s Sister Carrie and the real life Maimie Pinzer of The Maimie Papers were two of these books.

Is it a coincidence that Amazon and other internet vendors have increased and taken over much of the business from department stores at the same time that these stores have been taken over by equity firms? Or are the two events symbiotic, as in they have both helped each other to their end goals, which (to my mind) is the death of the department store?

The other day I read an article that declared that Macy’s was closing all its department stores and reopening as a discount company. Macy’s has been a cannibal, gobbling up one department store and department store chain after another–even including my beautiful Marshall Field store on State Street.  You can read the article here and weep.

I am getting weary mourning the loss of something so vital to our sense of community and a place of beauty. Weary because this suffering has been going on for a long time now and every time I hear a sputter or gasp it breaks my heart a little more.

55 Comments

Filed under Essay, Family history, History, Nonfiction, Writing

55 responses to “RIP Dreamland

  1. A truly poetic essay, Luanne. One of your best.
    I share your sorrow at the loss of the retailers – I feel the same way about the independent booksellers. I think what we miss most is the sense of community these stores brought to their towns and cities. When our best friends are in cyberspace communities, something is wrong with our reality communities.

    • Thank you so much! I’ve wanted to write about it for some time, but it felt a little overwhelming to me. Finally, I decided to just write it. I agree with that last sentence. It’s ridiculous and yet true. Every new step we take further insulates us from the world directly around us. We had an amazing indie bookstore in Kalamazoo, and it was heart-breaking when it went out. I found this:
      “The Kalamazoo Gazette has a nice Obit for John Rollins, owner of the John W. Rollins Bookseller store. Rollins, a former history professor who had worked at Border’s Books in Ann Arbor in its pre-mega-chain days, envisioned a big Border’s-inspired store loaded with titles and staffed by people who had read them. The Kalamazoo area came to love Rollins’ store for its enormous selection and book-loving staff members who always seemed to have a recommendation for customers. It quickly became a mecca for readers, literary events and author book-signings.”

  2. It is heartbreaking even if you don’t come from a family of retailers. My heart sinks every time I see the demise of an independent shop, particularly bookshops and quirky, one-off boutiques. I always find television series based on the life of a big retail store like ‘Mr Selfridge’ delightful, even if they’re not so good!

    • I had never heard of that series! I just looked it up. It sounds so yummy. I wonder if I can get it here in Arizona. I will have to investigate! Thanks for that tip. Yes, the little boutiques and the indie bookstores. So so sad. But it kind of started with the bookstores, I feel, and then moved to other areas.

  3. Luanne — This is a very good post. Evocative, nostalgic, and informative. It touches upon something important that we are losing. Another book I thought of is Zola’s “The Ladies’ Paradise,” which is about a department store and a salesgirl who works there.

    • I didn’t know about this book. I just ordered it! It looks fabulous. Thanks so much, Roger! And thank you for your nice comment about the post. It’s such an important subject and I’ve wanted to address it for so long. But it seemed so difficult to approach as it’s quite a large topic which I just touched upon here.

      • well, Luanne, you “touched upon” it very effectively, in my humble opinion, mixing the personal with the general, thereby saying a lot more than other commentators seem to manage … not just my opinion … thanks for getting back to me, Roger

  4. This is one of those posts where you’ve made me think, and so my commentary may be lacking. I understand this from different angles. Stuff in my blood, family traditions, sense of belonging and actual services provided to a community. Much to chew on.

  5. I share your pain. Our local Macy’s, which used to be Bamberger’s, is one of the very few (maybe only) stores where you buy better clothes in our area. So many of our local stores are chains. You buy there and it’s the same stuff everyone wears. Just as sad is the demise of the local hardware stores. We have two locally…yet. They carry everything. Their staff has been there a long time and they know stuff. They even run good specials. One business that has been sprouting up around here are small bakeries run by some creative person. Fabulous! When in my local mall I always visit Barnes and Noble and buy something hoping it helps them stay in business. I love Amazon but sometimes I like to touch and feel what I buy.

    • This is ironic because when I was a indie bookseller in the 1980s Barnes & Noble was one of the bad-guy chains that were colluding with big publishers to get unpublished discounts that weren’t available to smaller stores. However, my first e-reader was a Nook because when push came to shove I loathed Amazon worse than I loathed B&N. (At the time I wasn’t aware of the other options.) Amazon.com helped put Amazon, Minneapolis’s feminist bookstore, out of business even though the bookstore had been using the name a lot longer — since 1970. Big money buys big lawyers so it can talk big.

    • There’s another one: Bamberger’s. The list must be so long. So really it serves Macy’s right, but then who suffers? We do. Oh, the hardware stores. Thank you! Gosh, we had the most amazing hardware store in Kalamazoo: Hoekstra’s. They had . . .everything! I loved that place. But I heard they are or were recently going out of business. 😦

  6. This is such a complicated issue. Who’s fault is it when people want cheap stuff and big profits? When I went to school in Manhattan there was still something called the garment district. The slogan BUY AMERICAN was everywhere. Clothes cost more and we had less of them but they were better made.

    Publishing through Amazon has made it possible for regular people to get their words out–even if conglomerates just want to publish what sells. The public demands average books and entertainment. Theaters are packed with people who only want to see bad remakes of children’s action hero tv shows.

    Owners of independent bookstores beg us to shop there yet look down their noses at independently published books. Why go to a bookstore that sells what I can easily get on Amazon for less? I wish everything was local but know it’s a pipe dream because it needs people to all get on board. Some people believe they can only afford Walmart clothes yet fail to realize the clothing there lasts for about three washes. “Quality is better than quantity” is a little remembered truism.

    We get the politicians and the stores we deserve, I guess. Sad.

    • Good points all — where I live is too small to have ever interested any big-chain bookstore, which is why two indie bookstores have managed to survive this long. Neither one is anything to write home about, though in recent years they’ve become a little more receptive to local writers who are either self-published or published by indie presses not based in New York. And most readers make an end run around them to buy books cheaper! faster! from the online behemoth.

      But I think we’ve got to look more closely at what the book-reading or moviegoing public supposedly wants. This has been shaped by corporate advertising for generations now. As the “bean counters” took charge of the mainstream publishing scene, they couldn’t help but notice how inefficient it was: no two books were identical, and each one (if done right) was expensive to produce. Aha! they thought. If we treat books like widgets, we can market books more efficiently and make lots more money.

      So genres and subgenres and sub-subgenres have proliferated, and three or four decades into the process many of us are convinced that each genre, subgenre, and sub-subgenre is a distinct territory with a high wall around it. We stick to our own territory for the same reason we eat at fast-food chain restaurants: the book/food may be so-so but it’s familiar and predictable, unlike the book or restaurant up the road, which may be spectacular but may also be a total waste of money and time.

      The self-publishing writer who aspires to sell her work and even make a living from it can’t afford to ignore this: Marketing is hard, but it’s much easier to market a book that fits into a particular niche than one that doesn’t.

      And no, it’s not necessary for everyone to “get on board” to make change happen. Where we spend our dollars and our hours is as important as how we vote — and we have many more dollars and hours to spend than we do votes. Seek out alternatives. Take risks once in a while. Our choices add up. They can affirm and buttress corporate power, or they can create alternatives to it.

      • People do get pretty comfortable in their little niches! Individual choices do count. I agree, but because most of us don’t have time to think big picture when shopping–and some of us can’t afford to either–beautiful stores and corner diners go by the wayside. Unless they’re really special.

        Corporations have their place and I understand the need for profit so I’m not anti-big all the time. I blame an education system that for 100 years has put more emphasis on creating docile workers than on creating inspired humans with an appreciation for the things that make life beautiful.

      • That is food for thought: “it’s much easier to market a book that fits into a particular niche than one that doesn’t.” True for every type product, I imagine. Of course, genre has been around for a long time. I know that I was trained as a kid to think in genre at the school library: mystery, adventure, animal story, etc.So genre isn’t merely a response to the bottom line. Plus, I know I like an idea of what “kind’ of book it is before I start to read or even to pick it up. But it’s interesting to think about the “genres and subgenres and sub-subgenres [that] have proliferated” as being a new phenomenon caused by the trajectory of big business.

    • Your last line is so true. And very very sad. The gardener always saw this coming. I remember when Walmart first came to the rural area where my aunt and uncle lived in Illinois. They were so excited. He was merciless, talking about how bad it was going to be. YUP. He was right. The stuff we buy today at Walmart and the like does not last. Period. Not at all.

  7. It’s really sad to see the individual stores being gobbled up by the box stores. Times are changing and not always for the better. Excellent essay. I was with you every step of the way.

  8. Excellent post, although it made me sad. I have vivid childhood memories of visiting my grandmother in West Virginia. She lived outside of Charleston and I remember we’d get dressed up and head into town to shop at The Diamond or Stone and Thomas. After, we’d go to Woolworth and eat at the lunch counter. All of these closures makes me wonder if department stores will become obsolete in our lifetime…so sad. If you haven’t read the book SUMMER AT TIFFANY, you should check it out, Luanne. I think you’d enjoy it.

    • Zipping over to Goodreads . . . . OK, is it the Marjorie Hart one? There is that one and then Summer at Tiffany’s, which is different. Want to make sure I have the right one! I’m sure I will love it! Thanks, Jill!
      About the Woolworth’s lunch: YES!!! Grandma and I used to go “uptown” to Woolworth’s. Their lunch counter was so long–across the whole left side (facing to the back) of the store. And the pie was great. So were the lunches. And Grandma always got a coffee with her piece of pie. No matter what I had to eat, she had her coffee in those little diner type coffee cups.

  9. Wonderful post, Luanne. I enjoyed hearing about your grandmother’s experiences. I also come from retailers–my mother’s father had two different candy/grocery stores in Philadelphia. My parents had a very successful antique store in Dallas (wholesale to dealers, rather than retail), but then my mom later worked in stores and later had her own consignment/jewelry shops Philadelphia suburbs. The old Wanamaker store in Philadelphia is amazing. It’s now a Macy’s. I wonder what will happen to it? It’s a national landmark, so I guess it won’t be torn down. There was magic in those old department stores.

    • Marshall Field’s flagship store is also protected. But it can never be as it was when I was a kid. Or as I imagine it was for decades before that. Speaking of candy stores, the gardener’s grandparents owned a candy store in, hmm, maybe Chelsea (Manhattan). Can’t remember right now. And his uncle owned Karoll’s Red Hanger Shops, including their flagship store at State and Washington across from Marshall Field! Too bad the gardener wasn’t his heir ;). My grandfather used to work for his aunt and uncle’s grocery store when he wasn’t working for his dad’s retail business.

  10. A powerful lament, Luanne. During my school holidays I worked for a while in the dispatch section of a now vanished department store. It was my job to take received goods to the relevant departments.

    • Yes, a lament. That’s a good word for it, Derrick. So many of us had jobs in the department stores. My first job working for someone other than family was a beautiful small department store in Kalamazoo (not Gilmores, but Jacobsons). It was a vibrant community of its own. Not any more.

      • When I began working at Lloyd’s Insurance in 1960, we worked with a filing system called Kalamazoo. The store I worked in was Kennard’s. Years later, in Newark, we met a family called Kennard. The husband’s parents had changed their name for reasons of ethnicity during WW2, when spotting the store driving through Wimbledon.

  11. Macy’s gone? Wow. We lived in the suburbs, so we didn’t really have the big, beautiful department stores – just the ones in the mall. Still, I feel this is another era gone.

    • Yeah, you grew up in the days of the suburban mall stores. Do you remember when there were other department stores at those malls? Before Macy’s bought them “all” up? There was Robinsons, May Company (then Robinsons-May), Broadway, Bullocks, etc. All different regional stores became Macy’s. In recent years, the main thing I like Macy’s for is to be able to get Fiesta ware applesauce bowls on sale for my cats. (I wish I had Fiestaware for us, but can’t break enough of my old dishes fast enough). It’s true: it’s the end of an era.

  12. Such a heartfelt post, Luanne. I have been complacent about the demise of the retail world maybe because I blamed them for their slow death. Stores I used to enjoy shopping at have reduced sales staff and are messy and hard to find what you want. So I go to the big discount chains figuring I might as well get my clothes at bargain prices since I’m not getting the service that I used to get at other stores. But you’re absolutely right about the impact the closing of these stores has on downtowns everywhere and neighbourhoods and our sense of community. When I was 10 we visited Chicago at Christmas time (mom was from Chicago) and I remember feeling just like you describe – as though I was in a dreamland.

    • Yes, their own fault. Exactly. But that is because we have demanded cheaper and ugly. Look at how we “all” dress! I am one of the worst. Boring “uniform,” to make it easy for myself. We are isolating ourselves within our own homes. It’s awful.

  13. Lovely memories of a bygone era, Luanne! Sigh.
    Re this: “One of her stories I regret remembering imperfectly was that a very famous movie star had deeply pocked skin and her makeup hid her skin condition from the public. If only I could recall who that was.” I say: never mind the movie star – where can we get that makeup??!
    LOL. Have a great day! ❤

    • Ellie, you crack me up. I’ll bet it was that make up that caused the dang pockmarks! Remember how the movie stars had to wear that greasepaint in those days? Ick! I don’t usually wear foundation, but had it professionally applied for my son’s wedding. Now my skin is driving me crazy. Pores are clogged and the skin is dry and itches. I can’t imagine wearing that horrible greasepaint day after day!

  14. I also miss these stores. However times change and people would rather save a dollar and buy at a big chain store where not only is the price less but they have a bigger selection of goods. Many downtowns (where these grand old stores lived) refused to stay up with the times. I recall in my own city where they refused to extend their hours of operation only staying open late on Friday nights. I can remember when the downtown merchants voted to continue to charge for parking (they owned several big lots in my town) when the new shopping plaza had plenty of easy parking for free. Plenty of blame to go around but the fact is shopping and the ways we shop are always changing. However when you think about it internet buying and the old catalogue (the big wish book) is not so different.

    • Hi Charles, nice seeing you over here. (not sure you realize it or not, but this is Luanne from thefamilykalamazoo.com). I agree with you except about one thing. First, what I agree with. People would rather pay less, the old-time merchants didn’t keep up with the times in many ways (sometimes they couldn’t and sometimes they wouldn’t), and shopping is changing. I also agree that internet buying is similar to the Sears catalog, etc. This is a striking comparison. What I don’t agree with is that people now get a bigger selection of goods. In fact, I strongly feel that the opposite is true. When I was a kid (hohum, that phrase hahaha), if you went to a luggage store, you found a very wide assortment of sizes, shapes, colors, prices of suitcases, briefcases, handbags, small leather accessories, desk accessories, travel accessories, and so on. Now, even online where we ought to be able to find an even more vast assortment, we find much much much (I could write a few more muches here) less. It’s even worse in stores than on the internet. Every time my husband and I shop for anything at the brick and mortar, we are dismayed by the lack of choice–and in fact usually leave empty handed and resign ourselves to ordering online. You are right about the changing ways of shopping. Everything does change, and this is a movement in time. And that’s ok. But where is the community we are creating to make up for its loss? At the sports arena? Where else do more and more people mass to these days? Even teens don’t go to malls any more, I’ve heard!

  15. Super post, Luanne. There is always Neiman Marcus (Thank heavens)

    • Thanks, John! LOL. Neiman Marcus. Not even sure that’s a department store ;)! We also have a Barney’s now in Scottsdale. That’s another one. Fancy-schmancy! On a serious note, I heard something the other day about financial woes of some kind for Neiman Marcus. I just did a little Google search and there are several articles about the subject :(.

  16. Your memories and family history are beautiful. I felt your poignant tone was so touching. Thank you for sharing about your grandmother’s special profession as the head fitter of the 28 Shop.
    I am missing those grand, big city downtown stores, Luanne. I am happy little hometown shops still exist. We have an olive oil shop (“Olivinia”), wine shop, cheese and unique food items shop (“It’s a Gouda Life” shop), ceramic painting shop, homemade Ohio handicrafts, two bakeries and lots of coffee shops.
    The man I date has parents who came from Italy as tailors, their shop was in downtown Columbus. They retired from their shop but now help out in a famous CEO of a local company’s home. It is interesting how change keeps our society becoming less personal. Not very progressive, is it? hugs xo

    • That is so interesting about your current interest ;)’s parents being tailors. I have an affinity toward that profession because of my grandmother, of course. I’m glad you have some nice specialty shops in your town! They are becoming harder and harder to find. When I was a little kid, some of those smaller town department stores were already getting a little worn around the edges, so to speak. But they sure had a magic to them.

      • Calisto rarely talks about their past lives as tailor and seamstress. I have a photograph of C. on our very first date in a hand tailored (I call it pink, he calls it coral) dress shirt.
        I have met his boys who are close to my own oldest grandkids’ ages. He’s 49 and I’m 61. My brothers both feel, “Go with the flow.” No use in rushing but we made it one year now.
        When I moved to Delaware in 1986, there was a two story building which was Nordstrom’s department store. In the middle of town there was also, what was called the People’s Department Store. I purchased nice ties for my brothers, a great suit jacket for one brother and a nice tweed jacket for the other one. We still have an independent sports store which sells shoes, t-shirts, soccer outfits, and gym clothing lines. I usually don’t go in but once every summer we have a street sale, which means racks and shelves of discounted “wares!”

  17. The times are ever-changing, but is the change for the better? Not always…

  18. I liked reading about Dreamland and the history. The Christmas Picture is Beautiful.Thanks for sharing.

  19. I enjoyed reading about your history in retail Luanne, as someone who has no history of retail in my family at all – as far as I know! It is a shame that retail has become so homogenised and there are few stores with character left.

  20. Beautifully written! 17 years career with Jaeger, from 1986 -2003. They are now in receivership. No one has a passion for the theatre in retail any more :(. Thank you!

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