Wrought-iron staircases. An ornate clock that drops from the ceiling. Shiny floors. Counter after counter of sparkling rings, necklaces, earrings, and bracelets, beckoning passersby to slip something on. This was the scene inside the Harris' in San Bernardino, California — a department store built in a bygone era, since shuttered, and now just etched in my memory.
Department stores are dwindling, thanks to online retailers like Amazon and big-box stores offering cheaper prices. It bums me out. I have always been a shopper. Regardless of what I'm looking for — a pair of sandals for the summer, a gift for a baby shower, a new necklace because hey, it's a Monday, I might as well get the week off to a good start — I deeply enjoy the experience. I like perusing racks, feeling materials, figuring out the sale price. Looking at pretty things is a stress reliever and mood booster, and even if your bank account prohibits you from buying that sweater you've had your eye on, window shopping is always free.
And there really is no better place to browse than a department store.
I understand buying boring stuff like a phone charger, Swiffer refills, and plain soap online. But the fun things, like bridesmaid dresses or a china tea set for a grandchild, are special. And the experience of purchasing them should be special, too.
When your best friend ultimately gets divorced, you'll at least be able to look back fondly on the afternoon you spent trying on dress after dress at Macy's, with a friendly sales associate who brought you the right size and suggested shoes to match. Who wants to remember picking some random dress on Amazon, with no idea how it will fit, and then finding it a few days later in a banged-up box that had been flung at your front door?
When I was a budding young shopper in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was the tail end of the original, grand department store's heyday. Stores like Harris' were anchors for downtown shopping districts, the place to go to take care of all your shopping needs at once. People made a day out of going to the department store, and would bring out-of-town guests to look at the window displays and dine in the fine restaurants.
What I loved most about these old stores was how elegant the decor was and how many niche departments they could cram under one roof. I thought it was so cool that across multiple floors, you could purchase the typical items like blouses and purses, but also eat at a restaurant, have your shoes shined, visit a beauty salon, stop by a candy store, have your picture taken in a professional studio, leave your packages to be beautifully gift-wrapped, and purchase concert tickets. It was like a bustling mini-city. As a preschooler, there was no need for me to visit all of these departments, but I could almost always talk my mom into letting us eat lunch at the cafe on the mezzanine (a word that most 4-year-olds never learn, proof that shopping can be educational) and then trying on all of the fancy hats waiting for me on a rack by the staircase.
Above all else, these department stores were known for exceptional customer service. Need another size? They'll grab it for you. Not sure about the length of those pants? They'll hem it. Have a random question about an item? They'll answer it, and with a smile to boot. Back then, people actually wanted to interact with one another, and shoppers valued the opinion and feedback of the sales associates.
Great customer service has always resonated with me. I was recently looking through an old box of letters and found an envelope addressed to me at my childhood address. It was from Nordstrom, and written on official letterhead was a message from the manager of the store at the Galleria at Tyler, a heartfelt thank you to Miss Garcia for her kind comments regarding the employees I encountered and service received.
You see, in the '90s, you were supposed to use comment boxes set up next to every register. I would often take it upon myself to let the managers know how nice the salespeople were and how much I loved the dulcet tones of the piano player by the escalator. Beats anonymous comments online, no?
Even today, department stores remain necessary in towns big and small because you just never know when you might need something. How many times have you been certain that you have an item of clothing — say, a suit jacket perfect for a job interview — only to realize that you can't find it in your closet, or it doesn't fit anymore? If you live in a more rural area, you can't order it online at 9 a.m. and have it delivered to your home in time for an interview at noon. If you have a department store nearby, at least you have a fighting chance, and can race down and ask a salesperson to help you find the right size and color.
While the old department stores I remember visiting as a child have long been shuttered — Harris', Buffums', The Broadway, Bullocks, all gone — we still have Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Macy's, Neiman Marcus, and other stalwarts. The Macy's in Pasadena, California, feels like a throwback, with its wooden elevators, vintage wallpaper, and artifacts from the early days of the city, and the Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's in midtown Manhattan do have a more modern vibe but still retain their grandeur. Their existence is the last remaining link to the grand old era.
Shopping shouldn't be mundane and joyless, and even if you're looking for something as boring as white crew socks, it needn't feel like a chore. If I ever remember to purchase a Powerball ticket, and that ticket is a winner and I find myself flush with millions, after paying off all my bills and flying to China so I can fulfill my lifelong dream of hugging a panda cub, I am going to open my very own old-school department store. It will be dripping with chandeliers, and as you walk through the entrance, gliding along the marble floor, dapper sales clerks will fall over themselves asking how they can be of assistance. You'll smile, and ask them to point you in the direction of the restaurant on the mezzanine, because you know I'll have one of those.