Monday, 28 June 2004

Requiem for the Department Store

I suppose that my generation, beyond those youngsters living in larger cities, may be one of the last to remember department stores. For those of you too young to remember them or even know what one is, The American Heritage Dictionary defines a department store as "A large retail store offering a variety of merchandise and services and organized in separate departments." Macy's is then a "department store," as it is large. offers a variety of merchandise and services, and is organised in separate departments. WalMart is not a department store. While WalMart stores can be large, while WalMart stores do offer a variety of merchandise, and while WalMart stores are also organised into departments, they do not offer the variety of services that Macy's and other department stores do.

It is not known what the first department store was. Some claim that it was the Hudson Bay Company of Canada, which was founded in 1670. Unfortunately, no one seems to know at one point it may have become a department store. Regardless, in the United States department stores started springing up in the 1800s. In New York, Macy's opened its doors in 1858. It moved to its current location at Herald Square in 1902. And while it is still New York's largest department store, it was by no means its first (both McCreary's and Abraham and Strauss pre-date it). Marshall Field's in Chicago is even older. It was founded in 1852.

Growing up, I can only remember two department stores in Moberly. One was Montgomery Ward (popularly known as "Monkey Ward"). I remember as a child that the Montgomery Ward store seemed absolutely huge. It also seemed very elegant. It had a tiled floor and a spiral staircase that went up to the second floor, complete with a brass railing. It also seemed to have a little bit of everything. I remember that on the first floor the store had bicycles, lawn mowers, electronics, and so on. The upper floor was dedicated mostly to clothing. Unfortunately, the fortunes of Montgomery Ward began to decline in the Sixties. I suppose it was because of this and the railroad leaving Moberly that our Montgomery Ward store closed in the Seventies. Montgomery Ward itself went out of existence in 2000.

The other department store in Moberly was J. C. Penney. In fact, it was the oldest J. C. Penney store in all of Missouri, having opened its doors in 1918. The J. C. Penney store was smaller than the Montgomery Ward store, although no less impressive to a child. The main floor was where one could find clothing and shoes. The lower floor was where one could find such other goods as electronics, toys, lawn mowers, and bicycles. Unfortunately, as the years wore on, the J. C. Penney store seemed to shrink. It had stopped carrying everything except clothing by the end of the Seventies. By April of last year it disappeared entirely.

I suppose that the disappearance of Montgomery Ward and J. C. Penney from Moberly are nothing unusual. Since the Seventies, department stores have been in decline. They have disappeared from small towns everywhere in America. The larger cities have fewer department stores than they once had. Even the giant of department stores, Macy's, filed for bankruptcy several years ago. Thankfully, they managed to survive. By the Sixties, dicount chains such as WalMart and K-Mart came to dominate America's shopping habits. Unable to compete, department stores started closing their doors everywhere.

I must admit that I miss the department stores of old, particularly the Montgomery Ward store. They had an elegance that the modern day discount stores such as WalMart and Target lack. There is something to be said for shopping in a store with spiral staircases and brass fittings.

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