If you are over 50, you probably remember saying to a friend, "Meet you at (Burdines, Jacobson's, I. Magnin, Jordan Marsh, Marshall Field's)" and you'd spend the afternoon in a shopping haze.
We usually didn't have the cash for a department store lunch, decamping to the nearest Schraffts or Big Boy.
There would be The Girlfriend Purchase: two identical items– polka-dotted shower caps or Passionata nail polish. She swung her new belt in the trophy bag, you found a blouse on final markdown, down to the Magic Number, $14.49. (Anyone could spend $14.49 without feeling really bad.)
Now, we log on to Yoox or Lands End, surveying discount Prada or almost-trendy blue suede loafers. Click! and on the way from Italy or Arkansas. Nearly extinct is the glorious girlfriend-drifty, "Is this right for the Christmas party?" communion of real-time shopping. I see Nan's eyes glowing as I held a Donna Karan silk suit in front of her. "70% off!" No greater love than to offer an epic bargain to a friend.
Bow before the new queen in her moated castle, online shopping. No understaffed registers, no dressing room gulag, no endless returns process which requires another visit.
But I miss Carole, who reigned in the lingerie department and on the right slow afternoon would haul out her scrapbook of her days as a chorus girl. I miss the anonymous young saleswoman who said, "You have a beautiful figure" as I tried on a tight striped dress. Flatter the customer, yes–but also an intimate exchange.
They could put me in a dangerous state. Sitting in Bendel's tea room ca. 1988, I figured, What the hell, I just spent two weeks' wages on a single pair of shoes, what's $20 for a chicken salad sandwich? When department stores were good, they were little scented countries, each with its own culture.
From the first push of a heavy, brass-trimmed door, the monumental scale and cosseting weight of these buildings transmitted possibility. When in Paris, I return often to the Bon Marché, partly to worship its DVN boutique, but mostly to ride the escalator while ogling the Eiffel ceiling, a dinosaur riding a dinosaur.
Once radical, democratic challenges to restrictive, insular shops, now the remaining department stores are near-museums where the younger generation gather to check their sizes before buying on net-a-porter.
Every now and then, a chain announces their revival of the fabulous fashion floor; the latest in Canada was The Bay's relaunch of its tony The Room in three cities. While there are indeed exquisite clothes there (L'Wren Scott, Jason Wu, Erdem), I usually count the browsers on one hand, and no one is at the cash.
Recently, I read that tiki bars were endangered. The young crowd mounted Facebook campaigns to save pupu platters and Hurricanes (or any drink featuring pineapple and umbrellas) from extinction. Yes, yes, young 'uns!
And, save your local nice department store while you're at it. (Talbot's, you're on your own.)
Never mind that the sales staff are perfunctory at best– think of them as cranky docents. You're at an archeological site; make the most of your free tour.
Many of us go home, click and the box arrives from Bologna or Basingstoke in two days. No observable human hand at work, plenty of algorithms tracking what you consider, buy or return. Better? Yes, in many ways, but I miss the days of the girlfriend outing with its sociable scrutiny of the new season, a floor of Better Dresses flirting with you from the moment you stepped onto it.
Hail and farewell, chandeliers, revolving doors, Cobb salads, straight pins, perfume spritzers, three-way mirrors, the fizzy bustle of women gathered, looking at goods, at one another, engaged and alive.