Elegy From The Department Store

Department Stores

Entrance to the old Eaton’s College Street store, Toronto, ca. 1930. Photo: Hum Images/Alamy Stock Photo

I never expected one of my favourite places for lunch would be in the men’s department at Nordstrom in Toronto. I don’t know how its American owners got the idea of planting a smart café on the second floor of the Eaton Centre store, within spilling distance of high-end men’s garments, but it was a unique place for ladies to lunch. There was a bar and banquettes, a friendly waiter and good food and drink. If the conversation flagged, you could turn your attention to the suits, sweaters and bathing trunks that surrounded you. 

Usually over the fish tacos or burrata and tomatoes, I would say, “Nordstrom never got the memo that department stores were finished.” By that I meant that we were in a place of broad aisles, knowledgeable staff and thoughtfully curated merchandise. It reminded me of the department stores of my childhood.   

Obviously, I was wrong about Nordstrom and the memo, at least in Canada. By the end of June 2023, Nordstrom had closed all 13 of its Canadian stores. It wouldn’t have made much difference to its bottom line, but I’m sorry I didn’t eat there more often.

Department Stores
Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic/Trunk Archive

 

Ironically, although the department store at its best brimmed with life, it arose from death. One of the little-known facts I learned while writing a book about mourning customs is that department stores sprang from the 19th-century conviction that mourners had to immerse themselves in black immediately after a death. In the 1840s, the Grande Maison de Noir, in Paris’s most fashionable neighbourhood, introduced something new under the sun: one-stop shopping for the bereaved, beginning with the hearse and descending to black-bordered stationery. In London, mourning warehouses, as they were called, followed suit, providing ready-to-wear black clothes and everything else mourners needed. Before long, people who weren’t in mourning saw the advantage: Instead of going to one shop for your umbrella, another for gloves, another for boots and another for clothes, you could do it all under one convenient roof. The department store was born.

And now, less than 200 years later, the sun is setting on those big, permanent-looking buildings. In Canada alone, we have lost Eaton’s, Simpsons, Woodward’s and Morgan’s, among many others. Of their prominent peers, only The Bay, Holt Renfrew, Saks and Simon’s remain standing. The department store’s demise has been traced most recently to the pandemic and before that to the growth of online shopping and the financial squeeze experienced by the middle class. At least since the recession of 2007, the decreased buying power of the middle classes has made discount chains like Winners more appealing than full-price department stores.

Department Stores
A 1934 ad for one of the few department stores still standing in Canada. Photo: Hum Images/Alamy Stock Photo

 

But in their heyday, department stores were worlds unto themselves, grand emporiums, bazaars and meeting places. Now, people shop online on their laptops, wearing pajamas. When department stores were king, you had to look as presentable as possible when going shopping because you were guaranteed to meet people you knew. Or people you might want to know, as in the case of the 2015 movie Carol, where a beautifully dressed, wealthy woman in the 1950s begins a romance with a sales clerk in the toy department. 

The opportunities for department store staff were not only romantic. Bartocci’s, the 1950s New York store in Brooklyn, teaches its young Irish sales clerk some valuable New World lessons in the 2015 film. Not only is the store elegant (shot mostly in Birks’ flagship Montreal store), but it also shows the heroine the freedom that a big city and anonymity can bring, and the democracy of capitalism. No matter what your budget or ethnicity, if you can pay for the item of your choice, it’s yours. That was an important message for the store’s customers as well as its staff.

For many women, department stores had a lot to do with their mothers. I remember mine hoisting me up on the tall chairs in the pattern department. While she selected patterns to sew, I perused the catalogues, which were almost as big as I was, making up stories about the children and their mothers who modelled the finished clothes in their pages.

Following my mother around from department to department, I learned how she shopped, always with her hands first, fingering the fabric before she went further, and always starting with the sale racks. No one in my family has ever understood why you would look at the regular-price racks before checking out the sales.

Beyond the goods for sale, the stores prided themselves on their educational and artistic values. Woodward’s in Vancouver, also famous for its massive food floor and $1.49 days, had a test kitchen that supplied cooking advice and recipes for its customers. Sibley, and Lyndsay & Curr, in my hometown of Rochester, N.Y., opened shoppers’ eyes to the wide world by presenting “festivals” that showcased products from faraway places like India or Mexico. Sibley’s also put on fashion shows in its top-floor restaurant. It was there, as a teenage model and not very stellar member of the “teen board,” that I had my brief experience on the runway. 

The most lucrative season, of course, was Christmas, and the stores stretched themselves accordingly. I have a picture of myself, perhaps three years old, sitting on Santa’s knee at Sibley’s, resting my chubby hand on his while I told him what I hoped to find under the tree. Canadian stores rose to the occasion; Eaton’s even managed Toronto’s Santa Claus parade until the early 1980s. The stores’ most magical holiday gifts were their Christmas windows. Designers and artists across Canada spent months researching and crafting elaborate displays of moving figures, lights and music that recreated Renaissance Christmases, the Twelve Days of Christmas, fairy tales, skating parties and other wintry themes. Eaton’s, which was notorious for closing its curtains on Sunday (until 1968) to make sure that no one had the fun of window-shopping on the Sabbath, made no exception for their Christmas windows: They were hidden from Saturday night to Monday morning. Even so, the crowds were so large that in 1945 the city asked Eaton’s to shorten the viewing hours at their Queen Street store because they were stalling traffic. 

When it came to combining commerce and culture, very few places could match Eaton’s College Street store, also in Toronto. The Art Deco stylishness of the 1930 building itself, from its main door to the smallest fixtures, was an aesthetic pleasure. Inspired by Lady Flora McCrae Eaton, the daughter-in-law of Timothy Eaton, the seventh floor had a restaurant, the Round Room, a cafeteria and the 1,300-seat Eaton Auditorium. A 15-year-old pianist named Glenn Gould made his debut there in 1947.

In many ways, the department stores of my childhood reflected a certain openness to the world, as well as the prosperity and innocence of the 1950s. A family story involves an ad my parents read in the newspaper one morning at breakfast. B. Forman, Rochester’s most chic department store, had just received a shipment of calfskin purses from Italy, in four styles, for US$6.95. After my father left for work, my mother took me to Forman’s and chose one of the styles, a pouchy bag with a drawstring top. I can still remember the meaty smell of the calfskin. The saleswomen at Forman’s had to wear black dresses, a fact that impressed me mightily as a child. My mother gave her charge-a-plate, the forerunner of the credit card, to the black-clad saleswoman, who took it away. She returned with a big smile, saying, “Mrs. Ashenburg, I hope I’m not ruining a nice surprise, but your husband came in on his way to work and chose the very same style!” Neither she nor apparently my mother had any doubt that the purse was intended for his wife and not someone else. Thanking the friendly saleswoman, we left empty-handed. Luckily, my father returned home that day with the purse in a Forman’s bag.

Department Stores
Photo: Marcelo Krasilcic/Trunk Archive

 

Shopping is hungry work, and when I asked people about their memories of department stores, several mentioned the treat at the end of a morning or afternoon of hunting and gathering. For a friend from Ottawa, it was lunch as a child at the long-deceased Murphy-Gamble’s. A cup of soup and four dainty tea sandwiches arrived on a combination saucer/plate, and the presentation was as diverting as the food. For a Vancouverite, it was Woodward’s renowned strawberry shortcake. For Torontonians, the ultimate indulgence was the legendary Arcadian Court Restaurant in Simpsons. 

Rochester had a quartet of department stores close together at the main crossing of what we called “downtown.” McCurdy’s was by no means our favourite, but my mother and I concluded every shopping trip by going to the soda fountain on its first floor. We parked our bags on the floor between the stools and the counter and ordered their vanilla layer cake topped with whipped cream rosettes and piping. My mother had coffee with hers. I was sure there was no better cake in the world.

Which brings me back to eating in Nordstrom’s café. Like department stores in general, it was a place to see and be seen. Much as I would like to, I can’t deny that I am implicated in Nordstrom’s failure. In a telling piece of irony, my local Winners is housed in the classy premises of the former Eaton’s College Street, and I buy far more things at Winners than I ever did at Nordstrom. Since everything at a discount store is “on sale,” I could excuse myself by tracing it back to the family preference for the reduction rack. But I’m sorry things turned out as they did.

Never dreaming its days were numbered, I took my 19-year-old granddaughter to the Nordstrom café the last time she visited me, and she pronounced it “very cool.” I’m glad she had that experience, but I wish she could have known these impressive but lovable institutions in their glory days. 

A version of this article appeared in the April/May 2024 issue with the headline ‘Elegy From The Department Store’, p. 88.

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