Lamenting the loss of the independent department store

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.

San Francisco was a veritable treasure trove of department stores. O'Connor and Moffett, which became The White House, and Capwell's, which became The Emporium, and the elegant City of Paris, with opportunity for the exotic babas au rhum in Normandy Lane.

Portland's Meyer & Frank is more big box than department now, and the exception that proves the rule is Nordstrom's, which has come far afield from Seattle.

I TAKE this seriously because my family is shrouded in department store mystique. I may even owe my very existence to Hale Brothers in Sacramento.

My parents met there. My mother began her love affair with merchandising as a teen-age "cash girl" at Hale's and progressed through "Gloves and Lace Collars" to become a personal shopper - filling orders for the wealthy farm wives who lived in the big houses in the orchards along the Sacramento River.

My father was a full-time barber and part-time artist, working in the barber shop at Hale's when he met my mother and took her up the new Redwood Highway to live a more Bohemian life.

Shopping, for my mother, was an art form. It was less about buying things than it was about quality, price, display, and above all, service. The depth of her commitment - whether it was on infrequent visits to Sacramento, to Hale's or Weinstock-Lubin, or the more frequent excursions, back-to-school and others, to Daly's in Eureka, with me trailing reluctantly behind - is undoubtedly the reason I don't "shop." I go and buy things when I absolutely have to have them.

And that's why I miss Rosenberg's so much, why I jump on that memory train when I read these stories. I knew where things were at Rosenberg's. And who would wait on me. I could count on it.

We all have our Rosenberg's stories. You may have heard mine. It's about the cherry-red suede jacket I bought in my junior year of high school (that would be 1951-52, if you must know). I spent most of my summer soda-fountain earnings on that jacket. What is more remarkable is that the woman who sold it to me, Margaret Hargis, remembered. For all the 37 more years I was her customer, she recalled selling that jacket to an excited 15-year-old kid who had ridden a Greyhound from the Sonoma Valley to make the purchase.

And she was just one of a whole store full of clerks - Jane Lau, who dealt the Levis-of-the-month to my rapidly growing son; Mae Fitchie in sportswear; Gypsy Stewart, the epitome of glamour, in cosmetics; Mary Oliver in the bridal shop and, of course, Dave Rosenberg in men's clothing, part of the original family, who wore a tape measure around his neck but could tell a sleeve length at 50 paces.

BUSINESS writers can offer a smorgasbord of reasons for the demise of these stores. They start with decentralization, the decline of the downtown and move on to the advent of the shopping mall, which tended to rely on the chain stores. One letter writer, in 1990, thought it was the growth of factory outlets.

Now, we blame Wal-Mart and its kind.

Technically, we still have department stores, of course. Right here there's not one Macy's but two, and there's Gottschalk's, and Sears and Penney.

But they don't garner the loyalty and affection of those old independents, where you could buy kitchenware or shoes or nightgowns or picture frames or "sundries," which included everything from hair nets to - well, never mind.

Where you could get your hair permed or have your baby's photo taken. Where, if the owner didn't wait on you, one of his daughter's did. Where your teenagers worked at Christmas and returns were accepted with a smile.

Where there was a real, live elevator operator who would call out "Mezzanine!" as if it was one of 22 floors from which to chose. Where your children begged to come along so they could watch the money whoosh up to the cashier's office in the receipt carrier, which was a pneumatic tube (or at The White House, a container clipped on a cord that rattled the coins as it traveled.)

Every generation creates its own memories. The merger news reminded us of ours.

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