You Must Remember This: The Glamorous Department Store Lives On

Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The glorious department stores of old offered a fantastical window onto the world of glamour. But hold on! Reports of their demise may be greatly exaggerated.

For the past few years, I’ve bought practically everything online. It’s easy, convenient, and when I open the beautiful box, with its multiple layers of tissue paper, I can pretend a secret admirer has sent me a present. Recently, though I’ve been yearning for something more authentic.

I’m tired of zooming in on clothes I can’t touch and having online chats with invisible people. I miss the sights, the sounds, and, yes, the whole thrilling, frustrating, magical experience of department-store shopping.

Despite dire predictions that e-commerce would turn department stores into the equivalent of ghostly movie palaces, we’re in the midst of a retail explosion. In
 2018 both Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom are scheduled to open their first Manhattan flagships, with Neiman heading to Hudson Yards on 10th Avenue and Nordstrom to West 57th Street. Barneys is opening a second store at its original location on Seventh Avenue and 17th Street, while Saks Fifth Avenue is launching a second retail outlet in Battery Park City at Brookfield Place. Bergdorf Goodman and Macy’s are in the process of undergoing extensive renovations.

While many of America’s 
indoor suburban malls are suffering unprecedented vacancy
rates, the booming luxury market in Manhattan and other key tourist destinations is fueling the department-store renaissance. People have money and they want to spend it. They can easily do it online, but there’s still something romantic about department stores. In the past few years, ITV has created Mr. Selfridge, and the BBC, The Paradise: two miniseries set in London’s grand emporiums. In between buying buttons and bows, the characters fall in love with each other and with the stores.

I remember my first time well. I was seven, and my mother was testing every fragrance at the enormous perfume counter. To someone whose retail experience had been limited to the small shops in my Massachusetts hometown, everything was oversize, from the maze of merchandise to the massive blueberry muffins in the bakery. While my mother was debating Shalimar, I slipped away in search of the toy department. Following people into the elevator, I heard a boy scream, “Davy Crockett” so I knew where to get off. Immediately I spotted the doll of my dreams: Ideal’s Miss Revlon. She was wearing a pink satin dress and diamond teardrop earrings. I must have been staring at her for a long time because a saleswoman asked, “Is something wrong, dear?”

She immediately brought me to the store manager, who gave me a Tootsie pop before announcing my plight over the paging system: “I have a lost girl here. She has brown hair, blue eyes...”— I pointed to the gap in my mouth—“and a missing tooth.”

Minutes later, my mother arrived in a dense cloud of Guerlain. “Can I get Miss Revlon?” I asked.
 “Are you crazy?” she said. “You could have been kidnapped! You could have been strangled and killed!” 
“Strangled and killed?” the manager said. “Madame, this is Jordan Marsh.”
 Jordan’s, along with its rival Filene’s, anchored the North shore Shopping Center, one of the earliest suburban malls in New England. Jordan’s was “our” place. As a teenager, I subscribed to all the fashion magazines and came prepared with tear sheets. Since I wore a school uniform, my mother didn’t understand my desperate “need” for a pink suede trench coat. The saleswoman urged me to try it on and then brought me over to a full-length mirror, where she tied the belt just so and pulled up the collar.

“There,” she said. “You look like a glamorous spy.”

My mother rolled her eyes and then whispered, “You are not getting that coat.”

Using all the spy craft available to me, I twisted my mother’s arm until she gave in. I was so thrilled, I wore the coat out of the store, borrowing my mother’s sunglasses for the full effect.

When I arrived in New York in the mid-’70s, the coat didn’t make the cut. Jordan’s seemed downright dowdy when compared to Henri Bendel, where Buster the doorman greeted the city’s chicest Upper East Siders. Geraldine Stutz, Bendel’s president, rarely stocked sizes larger than 10, but judging from the female customers, most fell in the 2 to 4 range. In addition to introducing new talent, such as Stephen Burrows, Perry Ellis, Jean Muir, and Sonia Rykiel, Stutz created a template for “lifestyle” shopping, turning the main floor into a “Street of Shops.” These small boutiques sold stationery, bitter-orange potpourri, fresh flowers, and exotic items from foreign bazaars.

My boyfriend’s mother once bought an incredible Stephen Burrows silver tunic and flared pants at the store. I thought her very sophisticated because she knew gay men in the theater. Once when I mispronounced the store’s name, she said, “You must say Bendel as in Mendel. Otherwise people will think you’re from Dubuque.”

At Bloomingdale’s, I didn’t have to worry about pronunciation. The store was so accessible, it even had a nickname, “Bloomies.” The young trendsetting customers were known as “Saturday’s Generation,” which spawned an eponymous boutique on the metro level. With its espresso bar, hair salon, and edgy clothing, Saturday’s Generation was a prime pickup spot. Once, after eating a frozen yogurt at Forty Carrots, Bloomingdale’s ersatz health-food café, I was searching for my boyfriend when a man tapped me on the shoulder.

“Hey,” he said, “you’re wearing jeans tucked into boots.”

“Yeah?” I replied.

“I’m wearing jeans tucked into boots, too. We could be the jeans-tucked-into-boots couple.”

That was Bloomingdale’s, but with Marvin Traub at the helm, 
the store was also great retail theater. If customers couldn’t travel
 to foreign countries, he brought
 the countries to them, inventing
 extravagant promotions and invit
ing dignitaries for the equivalent of state dinners. In 1978 Bloomingdale’s created “India: The Ultimate Fantasy,” filling every department with Indian-themed merchandise. I’d always wanted to go to India, but on a writer’s budget, it wasn’t likely to happen. So I kept returning to Bloomingdale’s, admiring the women in their bright saris and gleaming bangles, marveling at the gigantic papier-mâché elephants standing sentry on each floor. I bought a batik bedspread, carrying it home in the store’s iconic Big Brown Bag, and a silver Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. Decades later, when I did go to India, one of the guides said, “You must buy a Ganesha. He will bring you good luck.” But I’d already bought one—at Bloomingdale’s.

In 1985 Barneys opened its women’s store in Chelsea, and suddenly everybody headed downtown. It was adjacent to its successful men’s store, where Barney Pressman had started out selling discount suits and his son, Fred, pushed the business forward by introducing Giorgio Armani and other European designers. Fred Pressman’s children pioneered the women’s store with son Gene as the wild visionary. At the time, I’d never seen such an exquisitely beautiful retail space, and I doubt I ever will again.

Gene Pressman collaborated with some of the best architects and designers in the world—Andrée Putman created the witty shoe department—and mixed furnishings by such Art Deco masters as Ruhlmann with Viennese Wiener Werkstätte carpets. Jewelry was suspended in fish tanks alongside real tropical fish. The store’s most remarkable architectural feature was its Art Deco spiral staircase that led to a skylight atrium above the sixth floor. To walk down that staircase was to feel like Ginger Rogers on the arm of Fred Astaire.

With Bendel’s sale to the Limited, Barneys’ women’s store now attracted the style-setters. Its windows by the brilliant Simon Doonan were reason enough to go down- town, especially at Christmas, when he could always be expected to do something outrageous, such as creating a plaster version of Tammy Faye Bakker in front of a tree shaped like a mascara wand or the conservative Senator Jesse Helms as “Censor Clause” looking at a Robert Mapplethorpe book.

From Chelsea Passage on the first floor, where customers could buy antique Cartier jewelry and Moustiers faience, to Chanel and Valentino on the sixth floor, everything was carefully geared to the Barneys woman. Unlike other department stores, Barneys recognized that many women had jobs, so it stayed open until 9 p.m. on weekdays. There, I bought my wedding suit and my first—and only—Chanel strapless gown. I wore it to a black-tie party for Drexel Burnham Lambert right before the investment firm was forced into bankruptcy. The original Barneys, too, eventually disappeared with the Pressman family, after 73 years of ownership, losing control of the company.

From then on, whenever I pulled out my original black Barneys charge card at the Madison Avenue store, I felt a twinge of sadness. I felt even worse when a young salesperson would inevitably remark, “Wow, I’ve never seen a card with numbers this low,” and then examine it as if presented with a remnant of the Dead Sea Scrolls. But one day a salesman in the shoe department gave me a big smile when he saw it.

“Those were the days,” he said. Yes, they certainly were.