The day of the department store may be over.
What amounts to the official declaration of the demise of this American institution came early this month with the announcement that Federated Department Stores, which owns Macy's and Bloomingdale's, has purchased, for a cool $11 billion, May Department Stores, which owns Lord & Taylor and Marshall Field's.
These were the giants of the industry. If you follow the trends you know that they aren't the giants anymore. As a New York Times business writer put it, "Department stores are no longer the queens of the shopping malls."
Wal-Mart is the new giant. And Target. And Costco. The discounters. The big box stores. The warehouses.
The news of the merger was enough to make some experienced shoppers weep. There will be closures. The options, already slender, are narrowing even more.
Some of these names, so familiar in merchandising, will join those that have gone before - Gimbel's in New York, Garfinkel's in Washington, Wanamaker's in Philly, Goldwater's in Phoenix - and the very thought of them is a trip down memory lane.
Department stores, like drug store soda fountains, barber shops and corner groceries, evoke fond memories.
Letitia Baldridge, who must be a certain age because she was the White House social secretary for Jacqueline Kennedy, read the same stories I did about the fateful marriage of these stores we once felt were ours and ours alone.
She was moved to write an essay for the New York Times op-ed page about department stores she had known - the aforementioned Wanamaker's, Brandeis & Sons in Omaha, where she had her first summer job at age 14, and Bonwit Teller and B. Altman in her college years.
BILL MCNEANY knows how department store memories linger. He's reminded of it all the time.
Bill, whose family bought Rosenberg's, Santa Rosa's established "downtown" department store in 1951 and ran it until it closed in 1988, can hardly walk down the street without running into a Rosenberg's memory.
Just the other day - now 17 years and counting since the doors closed - Bill was in the check-out line at Long's when the woman next to him, gesturing toward the man who was with her, said: "Mr. McNeany, just look at my husband. He's threadbare! Nobody will wait on him in any of these new stores. Come back! We miss you!"
Things like this happen often, Bill said. People want to show him the Rosenberg's credit card they still carry in their wallets. Or tell him how that card was the first plastic they ever had. Or about their favorite clerk. Or about the distinctive Rosenberg box, or bag they still have at home, carefully stored among their keepsakes.
FOR SOME, Bill McNeany himself is a happy memory. Bernice Relyea Bertolone, who has stored up more Rosenberg's memories than any of us, talks about how good he was to work for; how he was always there to greet the customers, to take them to the department they were looking for, to see that things were running smoothly.
Bernice is in a position to judge. She started her 50 years at Rosenberg's as a teenager, helping over Christmas in the jewelry department. She soon advanced to work for Max Rosenberg himself "as a go-fer," she recalls.
The store where Bernice began her half-century was at Fourth and B streets, directly across from its main competitor, the Carithers family's White House.
When Rosenberg's burned in 1936, there was a year in temporary quarters, which Bernice remembers as "the Whoopee Store, because we had so much fun there."
Then, in 1937, the same year that Max died, his son, Fred Rosenberg, built the art-moderne building at Fourth and D (along with the elaborate Tower Theater next door). It was a bold statement of faith in Santa Rosa commerce at the height of the Depression.
Bernice advanced to office manager, staying on in that position when the McNeanys came from Wisconsin to buy the business in 1951. She retired, with great reluctance, in 1980, after a leg injury in an automobile accident.
CUSTOMERS tend to remember the "firsts." John and Marta Koehne, who own Hot Couture, the vintage clothing store near Railroad Square, bought "tons" of Rosenberg's bags when the store closed and used them for four years or more.
In 1994, Marta told customer Ann DuBell that she heard "so many 'first bra' stories when people see these bags."
Yes, there were lots of "firsts." First charge account. (It was my first - before there were credit cards.) First prom dress. First high heels. First tuxedo. First wedding dress, perhaps?
Rosenberg's was not unique. The independent department store is a universal for people who were young in the middle of the 20th century. Hart's in San Jose, Holman's in Pacific Grove, Hink's in Berkeley. Every city had one and they were an important part of people's lives.