May No More
Department stores are on the outs, like the MSM.


Many years ago, press critic A. J. Liebling remarked that the news we receive is dependent on the whims of downtown dry-goods merchants. But what happens when the dry-goods merchants are no longer part of any particular metropolis’s civic life but mere outposts of a faceless corporation based on the other side of the country? For one thing, traditional media, in the form of big-city dailies, become less important as local department stores (and their heavily advertised seasonal sales) disappear–creating opportunities for niche marketing via new media, including bloggers like me.

So I suppose I shouldn’t be sad about Federated’s purchase of Robinson’s-May last week, although it will most likely obliterate the last two remaining names from L.A.’s distinct retail history–which were in any case hanging on by the thinnest of hyphenated threads. And certainly at this point, the department store as a practical institution is a dinosaur; it’s fun to visit Macy’s Herald Square around Christmas, not so fun to actually shop there, and the generic outposts across the country have little in common with the fabled mothership. Like most people, I’ve had better luck lately buying everything from underwear to sheets via catalogues or online.

Still, we’re losing something as the big stores fade from the scene, even if it’s less an efficient or agreeable shopping experience than a collective cultural memory. They’re now almost quaint relics; at this point the soul of the May Company lives on less in the Robinson’s-May stores than in the minds of old-time radio fans: Jack Benny famously encountered his wife-to-be, Mary Livingstone, at the May Company in L.A., where she was a lingerie salesgirl. (They’d met originally a few years earlier at her family’s home when she was 14; she showed up with a couple of friends to heckle his act the next night.) “Pardon me, Miss, but where’s the mens’ room?” Benny asked loudly, probably just to be obnoxious. “Ask the floorwalker!” she snapped back.

People naturally feel personal attachments to department stores in their own little corners of the world, sometimes exceptionally so: Halle Berry, for instance, was named after Halle’s in Cleveland. In my case, I’m old enough to sentimentally recall not only the days when department stores really had many distinct departments, including books and toys, but that southern California was once home base to four different big names: Bullock’s, Robinson’s, the Broadway, and the May Company. The first two were upper-middle-class, the latter decidedly mass market–but I think what I miss about all of them is less what they actually sold than the experience of shopping there, especially in the older jewels in the crown. Say just two words–”Bullocks Tearoom”–to L.A. women of a certain age, and you’ll conjure up more nostalgia than Proust’s madeleine.

Robinson’s in Beverly Hills was a comfortably bourgeois bastion against overpriced and touristy Rodeo Drive; Bullock’s in Pasadena (now a Macy’s), an enclave of white-gloved, postwar suburban shopping refinement. (The chain’s luxury spin-off, Bullocks Wilshire, closed years ago; the glittering, late ’20s flagship where Greta Garbo used to shop for men’s suits is now a law school surrounded by Koreatown.) The May Company was always dowdy inside as long as I can remember and probably even before–emphasizing the humiliation of Bette Davis’s down-on-her-luck screen goddess in The Star, forced to work at the landmark Mid-Wilshire store’s makeup counter–but the shell remains an art-deco treasure. The Broadway never had as much personality, architecturally or otherwise as the other three stores, but was for years southern California’s biggest retailer and the Los Angeles Times’s biggest advertiser. Subscribers have had to be satisfied with a thinner product since its demise.

Movies set in department stores typically featured comfortably recognizable archetypes: the shopgirl as striver (Ginger Rogers in Bachelor Mother) or conniver (Joan Crawford in The Women); the effeminate floorwalker (Edward Everett Horton in anything.) These characters, once as much a part of modern folklore as ogres and enchanted princesses were in older stories, have been archaic for years–even by the ’90s, the Gap Girls on Saturday Night Live were a more familiar, and thus funnier, version of floorwalkers. But I still miss Edward Everett Horton et al.

I also mourn the passing of department-store mannequins, which for years have been something an endangered species. Few things are as gratifyingly spooky to a child than the weird old-fashioned kind, complete with wigs and kitschily realistic painted faces; my mother once told me that when she was small, she assumed they were shoppers who didn’t get out before closing time. But they’re expensive and antiquated and now comparatively rare. What do people think now, I wonder, when they see that eerie old Marsha the Mannequin Twilight Zone episode? It’s such a perfectly bleak, Our Town-ish metaphor for life and death. But with the passing of the big stores, does it still make any sense?

Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.