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An Ode to a Forgotten Shopping Frontier: The Department Store

Lord & Taylor department store nyc man repeller

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or some years now, I’ve kept a Little Golden Book called Mickey Mouse Goes Christmas Shopping on my night table. I’m not a Disney aficionado (Looney Tunes is much more my speed) and I’m not sentimental about childhood, least of all my own. But still, I’ve always treasured this book. And when I heard that Lord & Taylor would be closing its ten-story Fifth Avenue location by the end of 2019, I realized why.

In the book, Mickey and Minnie and their favorite nephews, Mortie and Ferdie, go Christmas shopping at a big downtown department store. Everything from the clothes for the adults to the toys for the kids offers a promise of attainable joy. The story is, like Lord & Taylor itself, a love letter to the almost-vanished American department store.

I know, I know. New York will still have department stores when Lord & Taylor goes. Bergdorf’s, Saks, Barney’s and Bloomie’s will still exist for those who can afford them. New Yorkers will continue to look down on the gaudy, oversized and wonderful Macy’s as a tourist destination. (I say: More treasures for those of who know how to find them.) But a department store that provides the middle class (or what remains of it) with a vision of affordable luxury? That, in New York City, is Lord & Taylor. Just as, at one time, it was Gimbel’s. In Boston, where I grew up, it was Filene’s. In Syracuse, it was Addis & Dey’s. In Cincinnati, it was Pogue’s.

In countless American cities, the now-empty downtown department store wasn’t just a place you schlepped out to on the spur of the moment. You planned an outing downtown. You dressed in nice clothes and a good coat — just like Mickey and Minnie did. Since it was likely to be an all-day outing, shopping downtown often involved lunch, especially if the department store had a tea room or a restaurant (and they usually did). You didn’t have to just shop for clothes, either. At Boston’s Jordan Marsh, you also could buy furniture, appliances, even visit their well-stocked books and records departments.

It wasn’t uncommon for customers to build relationships with sales people, too. At the end of every summer, my friend Garry and his mother went to New York’s De Pinna (at Fifth and 52nd, closed 1969) for his back-to-school wardrobe. Each year, he was greeted by the same saleswoman who knew why he was there. Garry still talks about her all these years later.

Lord & Taylor, in its glorious Fifth Avenue location, also just looks, feels and sounds like a department store should. The first thing that hits you, as you enter through the revolving doors, is the soft white space stretching out above and in front of you. The ceilings are high and hung with chandeliers. Counters of cosmetics and jewelry and scarves and gloves extend all the way to the elevators at the back. The effect is big but not overwhelming, and it is mercifully quiet.

Lord & Taylor department store nyc man repeller

Walk into many big stores (even my beloved Macy’s) and you’ll be met with an almost physical force of lights, displays and shopper noise. The atmosphere at Lord & Taylor, on the other hand, encourages you to slow down, breathe and shop. You don’t need to dash through to buy what grabs you in the moment and will seem utterly unsuitable when you get home. Instead you can look, consider and ask how this or that garment will fit in your life. This means that you’re in charge. Sure, there are sales people in front of the cosmetics counters ready to give you a spritz of this or that. But no one insists that you partake; employees are present but not hovering. You’re free to roam, knowing they’ll be there if you need them.

An impressive and welcoming main floor is essential for any good department store. But the heart of your shopping experience at Lord & Taylor lies in the even quieter enclaves of the floors above. The ceilings are lower, garments are sectioned off by designer, and carpeted sections lie within a tiled path that takes you in a circle back to where you began. These are paths made to wander off, to draw you to what you didn’t know you were looking for. I know the day I went to Lord & Taylor looking for navy flannel trousers, I didn’t mean to come home with a pair of Donald J. Pliner blue suede cap-toe shoes with bright red laces, but I did. And the peace of the store told me it wasn’t a rash decision. It told told me that I was going to be wearing those cap toes for years to come. I still am.

An article on the CNBC website announcing the closure of the Fifth Avenue branch of Lord & Taylor says that the store holds little appeal to younger shoppers. I’ll bite my tongue on the aesthetic implications of that and instead speak, briefly, to how shopping has changed in general, with online replacing the in-person experience. Some would argue that shopping online offers the same kind of solitude and time to consider which I’ve been extolling here. But if clothing is an outward manifestation of the self, and dressing well is a form of manners towards your fellow citizens, then, apart from the tactile experience that online shopping doesn’t allow, there’s a logic to shopping as a public exercise.

I’d also argue that shopping at stores like Lord & Taylor is a form of hope. Those new school clothes, your new suit, and the pair of shoes you weren’t expecting to buy are an expression of faith in the future. You can still get those things online, of course. But without the downtown department store, you cannot get those items at places that were an occasion to visit. It will be harder to find places that make you feel like you’re being catered to without being hovered over, places that sell calm instead of assault, that welcome you instead of making you feel like a mark.

Long before its closure was announced, Lord & Taylor was a relic of the past, and only partly because of the economics of running a ten-story department store in the era of online retail. I plan to return a few more times before it closes, if only to fully face the feeling of being a premature ghost in a not-quite vanished world.

Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You.

Illustrations by Joanne Ho

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This byline is used for stories that involved several Repeller team members, and company announcements.

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