When I was a little girl in what, God forbid, might be called the “olden days,” I had a great many relationships with stores and the people in them. I went grocery shopping with my mother and with my grandmother and sometimes with my great aunt where Piggley-Wiggley was a regular, and See’s candy a treat. The milk and produce stores came to us, and were sometimes good for maybe an apple or a bunch of grapes. I remember butcher shops because you could write your name with your toe in the sawdust on the floor.
Knott’s Berry Farm, Buena Park, California 1920
We played store which was easy because all you needed was a board and something to balance it on like a couple of chairs, and a few cans from your mother’s pantry. I was caught in the act one day by my father coming home early to find me “selling” flowers off the front porch steps, flowers I had liberated from a neighbor’s garden. So I went out of the floral business.
Escher, maybe an idea of what early stores looked like in a crowded town.
As time went on, stores moved up and became multi storied.
The business of making all these stores attractive became important, as did the business of enticing people into them. The stores with the expensive merchandise were the most fun, and I once even considered the impossible desire to actually live in one.
Think of it: elevators to take you upstairs, restaurants, departments catering to all your needs. Everything to make life pleasant and all under one roof.
When we moved to Alameda, we often took the ferry to San Francisco where the really big stores were; The City of Paris, I. Magnin, the stuff of dreams. My mother and grandmother and I would sweep into the glove department at the White House and begin the ritual of buying a pair of gloves. You didn’t just point to a pair and say “I’ll take that one.” The saleslady would put your elbow on a a little velvet pillow and place her elbow alongside yours, as though poised for an Indian wrestle. She would turn and flip open several of the hundreds of little drawers that lined the wall. She then placed a number of small packets of gloves on the counter and then began the effort to try them on your hand. This was not something to take lightly, as it might take several tries to get just the right glove. It was almost as much fun as hats!
Years later, taking my daughters to these same stores, I confessed my early urge to dwell in these marble halls.
When we moved to Seattle, I found my dream in the Frederick & Nelson store in downtown Seattle.
Frederick & Nelson had their own dark green delivery vans, uniformed young women manning the elevators, a tearoom where my favorite lunch soon became a turkey sandwich on cranberry nutbread, introduced to me by my friend Katie Johnsen. There was a beauty shop, candy counters which sold Frango Mints, a melt in the mouth chocolate, and a monthly change of decor. Surely everything necessary to live “the Good Life”. All this without even mentioning Christmas. The window displays were spectacular, and the inside of the store fulfilled every child’s glowing Christmas fantasy.
Like so many of the fine old stores of the past, Frederick & Nelson has long gone out of business, succeeded by the Bon Marche, Macy’s and more. The fancy accoutrements have disappeared, supplanted by acres of clothing rounders and disinterested salespeople. Macy’s however, now sells Frango Mints which is a tiny touch with the past. Surely there is still something below the bottom line.