During my youth, it was a special treat to travel to downtown Indianapolis with my parents and shop at the L.S. Ayres or William H. Block department stores. As a kid, I was fascinated by the immense size of the stores, their large window displays, and the multi-floor escalators. But most of all, it was those vacuum tube air cylinders flying small items and messages between departments that caught my attention and whimsy. How very cool!
Today, our iconic image of the vibrant downtown department store is regularly reinforced by holiday movies like Miracle on 34th Street, A Christmas Story, and Elf. Sadly, like many classic images, most 21st century American cities lack any sort of downtown department store, particularly a unique, homegrown flagship. Instead, commercial brand standardization and bland uniformity have replaced individuality leaving most cities with boxy carbon copies of each other along suburban commercial corridors.
Probably saddest of all the losses to this urban planner, was when Chicago’s Marshall Field’s became just another Macy’s. Nothing against Macy’s, but Marshall Field’s was a Midwestern icon that we all knew and loved. It exemplified Chicago almost like no other icon, except Wrigley Field. It’s just not the same without Marshall Field.
Here in Greater Lansing, both Knapp’s and Arbaugh’s department stores have long since closed their Washington Square locales. Fortunately, both of these historic edifices have been (or are being) painstakingly and lovingly adapted to modern era uses.
Perhaps I am being a tad wishful, but as our nation’s urban core densities increase, energy costs rise, walkability/bikeability improves, transit grows in popularity, and city centers are rediscovered and re-energized, I wonder if there isn’t some potential for a downtown department store revival of sorts? Granted, we may never again see the legions of locally owned stores in cities and towns dotting the landscape, but there must be some slivers of a silver lining in those clouds above. Let’s hope for all our sakes, that downtown will also be re-discovered by the retail industry as well.
In 2008, I greatly enjoyed my visit to Harrod’s in London, UK. All I could think of while wandering amid the aisles of this immense showplace was, “wouldn’t it be great if department stores in major American cities were such an enjoyable destination.” And therein fact lies the problem. In our endless quest to homogenize, pasteurize, sanitize, and uniformly brand our stores to all be boring copycats of each other, we in North America have lost what matters most about the downtown department store – the destination!
Like all forms of placemaking, there has to be a “there” there for placemaking to work. If you can shop anywhere in the country, including at home, and find the exact same thing as your downtown department store, then what is the point in making a special trip downtown? Been there, done that. That is one reason why Harrod’s works – they make shopping a unique and enjoyable adventure and certainly not a burden. Perhaps, some retailers in the United States need to be reminded of that.
By the way – when I was there, Harrod’s actually had posted letters of apology to customers on some of its streetside windows. Why? Because, the window displays were in the process of being updated and the store was apologizing for the fact they were incomplete. That lone example clearly depicts the difference between a store that is a “destination” and one that is run of the mill.
Personally, I do not see chain-oriented “run of the mill” department stores succeeding for the long haul in our central cities. There is nothing to set them apart for everywhere else or from the internet. But, a “destination” department store is another matter. A store that strictly caters to customer service; that prides itself on product quality; that offers a mixed selection of truly unique items and a wide-array of basic goods; that is a pleasure to visit; that enhances the shopping experience with non-retail services and/or entertainment; and that gives back to the community, could and should succeed in this era of the downtown revival. The larger question is whether there are enough entrepreneurs and/or investors out there who are willing to take on the level of risk necessary to trek toward downtown destinations yet unknown.
Below is a link to the 1980s video of “Destination Unknown” by Missing Persons.