Back at Bloomingdale's
This week I did something I haven’t done in years. I visited a department store. If all of us can be said to have a personal landscape, Bloomingdale's looms large on mine. Sort of like the Matterhorn. My mother sometimes dropped by several times a week, usually with one of her four children in tow. She bought anything and everything for us there. Sneakers. Tennis racquets. Winter coats. Even imported frais des bois for herself, from their basement gourmet shop when the berries were in season.
The store’s “Big Brown Bag” designed by Massimo Vignelli, was a ubiquitous sight on city streets. But my mother wasn’t devoted to Bloomingdale's alone. Saks Fifth Avenue was another touchstone. As was Best & Company further down the avenue. My recollection of our visits was not wholly affirmative since my mother sometimes dragged several of us along to try on clothes. While one of us was being fitted the others had to wait around, bored.
An otherwise shy and non-confrontational woman, she could be a killer when it came to dressing us. In my later life, without the benefit of therapy, I’ve come to realize she used us as substitutes for the childhood dolls she was forced to sacrifice when she grew up. She brooked no dissention. Every night she laid out the clothes we were expected to wear to school the next morning. If I’m damaged one reason is likely that I was forced to wear short pants suits long after my classmates graduated to trousers.
This process reached its logical and dramatic apogee one late spring afternoon during the 1960’s when my mother schlepped all four of us to Barney’s on 7th Avenue and 17th street. I recall the address because, before it went fabulous and moved uptown, the discount department store advertised relentlessly on local TV and radio.
Our salesman on that occasion was so stressed by the pressure my mother exerted on him that he keeled over with a heart attack. I’m not exaggerating. Fellow Barney’s staffers rushed to his aid, pulling shirts and sweaters off nearby shelves to prop up his head and feet until an ambulance arrived. An otherwise compassionate person, my mother kept right on shopping.
My relationship with department stores has generally been beneficial. New York wouldn’t be the same without them. Bergdorf’s, Saks, Henri Bendel, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, Gimbels served as anchors; they were suns around which the rest of retail revolved. A few still manage to survive but as shadows of their former selves with so much of shopping having moved online.
What have we lost? A lot I realized as I entered Bloomingdale's one afternoon this week. The store wasn’t empty but it wasn’t crowded either. Then again, that might just be the typical post-holidays slump.
If the employees felt their careers imperiled by larger societal forces they didn’t let it show. The fashionistas staffing the main floor cosmetics counters appeared as enthusiastic to share the good news about their perfumes and facial creams as ever. I had to keep my head down and avoid eye contact to prevent being spritzed with free scent, just like in the old days.
It’s been observed that many people get their job satisfaction not from their work but from their work colleagues; the camaraderie and complaining, the banter and gossip. Nowhere is that more apparent than at a department store. I’d hate to be cooped up all day, politely asking shopping whether they need assistance.
But customers seem almost superfluous. I spotted cosmetics counter workers swaying to the music being piped over the store’s sound system. Two ancient customer service representatives stood at the bottom of the ground floor escalator kibitzing like old friends and probably were. I actually thought I recognized them from over the decades.
In the end I purchased nothing but decided to descend back to the lobby from the top floor using the escalator rather than the elevator. I wanted to absorb the vibe or what was left of it – the sights and smells of all that attractively lighted stuff, the art of merchandizing. Department stores, at least those with a pulse, possess a little magic. They’re fantasy spaces that market the heady promise of self-improvement, whether you can afford to shop or just window shop.
I visited the men’s department for old time’s sake. My history with Bloomingdale's store brands, from socks to sweaters, goes back generations. But even they have become too pricey, or at least my wallet.
Still, I don’t understand how you can buy stuff online without first touching and trying on the merchandise. The subtleties of size, shape and texture, not to mention the idiosyncrasies of the human body, is too much to ask of even the most user-friendly website.
As I returned to the street I was suffused with a peculiar kind of department store energy. The experience quickens the pulse; it rewards you with an adrenalin rush similar to stepping off an amusement park ride. I hope Bloomingdale's manages to survive a while longer.
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found be found on Substack.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.