- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 11, 2010


By Richard Longstreth
Yale University Press, $60, 352 pages, illustrated

This thoughtful, erudite, profoundly knowledgeable and insightful book by a professor of American studies and director of the graduate program in historic preservation at George Washington University looks at the four decades that saw department stores expand beyond the heart of downtown. As Richard Longstreth writes in his introduction:

“During the decades between 1920 and 1960, the department store in the United States became a wholly different phenomenon from what it had been in the early twentieth century. The changes that contributed to this transformation at once reflected and had a decisive impact on business practices, shopping patterns, design approaches and, ultimately, urban structure.”

That’s the crucial point - the thesis, if you will - of this handsomely illustrated volume: The American department store was a dynamic and proactive part of an astonishing economic expansion that enabled its continuing evolution and to which that very process also contributed. In a healthy, vibrant, developing consumer market with an ever more prosperous and growing middle class, the department store fulfilled a vital need and provided a crucial spur to economic growth.

Those picking up this book should not be put off by the author’s erudition, his ease with the terminology of multiple disciplines and his use on occasion of words and terms more hospitable to the academy than to the common reader. On the whole, it is accessible, not only because of the copious and evocative photographs that illustrate the text, but because what he is saying will resonate with his audience. Writing about the postwar expansion surrounding the District, Mr. Longstreth notes:

“Silver Spring, Maryland attracted national attention as a commercial boomtown that, seemingly overnight, had become the second largest business center in the state and a second ‘downtown’ for metropolitan Washington. Recent rezoning aimed at spurring such development, coupled with a much-touted public parking program, contributed to the phenomenon, but the most important trigger for growth was the Hecht Company’s large branch, which opened in November 1947.

“Silver Spring was as strategically poised to draw middle-income households as Clayton [Missouri] and Chevy Chase were for more affluent ones. Hecht’s store changed Silver Spring’s localized trade orientation, attracting large numbers of patrons from Washington neighborhoods to the south and fast-growing Montgomery County communities all around. Within five years an array of branches of downtown Washington and chain stores had opened or were under construction nearby.”

This is the story of a consumer-driven process that enabled department stores to expand beyond the palatial edifices along the grand thoroughfares of America’s cities to follow their population farther afield. The appearance of department stores such as Hecht’s in Silver Spring mirrored the prewar construction of the so-called Miracle Mile along Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, where the pivotal May Company Department Store and the still grander Bullock’s Wilshire created in effect a midtown nexus away from the old downtown hub.

Cutting-edge architecture and riffs on the modernist designs followed these burgeoning markets, creating, as so often before, symbiosis between commerce and art. Technological innovations such as air conditioning helped make department stores more hospitable to customers year-round.

So as the population moved increasingly into the suburbs, it was natural that the emporiums would follow, and thus were born not merely the great malls that eventually would be built around department stores but what Mr. Longstreth pithily terms “Station Wagon Stores,” like Hutzler’s in Towson, Md., and the beautiful, spacious Bullock’s in my hometown of Pasadena, Calif. Like Hecht’s in Silver Spring, Bullock’s Pasadena opened in 1947, but in what Mr. Longstreth rightly terms “an established urban district.”

Conceived on a much grander scale, at “nearly 300,000 square feet, the store was also one of the largest of its generation.” The photograph of its exterior conveys its spaciousness, which makes it seem more like a club or hotel; its interior was streamlined and separated distinct merchandising groups to an unusual extent; terraces capitalized on the salubrious climate. In the heart of downtown Pasadena, it was a world apart, a shopper’s paradise.

Close the book, fast-forward half a century and cry for this paradise lost. The spacious approaches and open parking lots that made Bullock’s Pasadena seem an island of tranquillity are gone, replaced by concession stores, which also have encroached on what was once part of Bullock’s itself. Gone are so many of those distinctive merchandising nooks and crannies and the vast tearoom/restaurant, with its mannequin parades and single seating along the walls for shoppers out on their own, opening out onto those now-deserted spacious terraces. Further remodeling has chipped off more of the main building to make room for still more outside merchants, and there is talk of condominium apartments in the offing. O tempora. O mores.

For the great lesson one takes away from this evocative and stimulating book is that in those four decades, department stores knew they had to adapt or die. So adjust they did - triumphantly - which enabled them to innovate and flourish. Not for them the defeatism of today that has left these once-great emporiums offering less and less that is distinctive and watching customers drift off in search of lower prices. What their owners and managers used to know was that it was vital to create the unique experience that kept folk coming back to places that had so much to offer. You can’t freeze things as they were, but you can re-create an environment that will bring people in and hold them there to spend their money.

Hotels charge good prices for lavish afternoon teas. Why should department stores not offer the same - with the added advantage of luring customers to buy things on their way to and from them? At the other end of the spectrum, Internet cafes draw large numbers of consumers; as department stores once offered writing rooms and bookshops for browsing, they all should now contain this contemporary staple, the better to lure shoppers. Department stores once made money hand over fist. If only we could see the same determination to adjust to new realities, rather than a defeatist attitude that is making them die on the vine, their great age could indeed begin anew.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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