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from main street to mall

14 june 2015

I grew up thinking that the downtown department store was the great immovable object of American culture. In the 1960s, my mother took me on her shopping trips to Carson Pirie Scott in Chicago's Loop. Lunch at the Tartan Tray cafeteria was the highlight for me (browsing displays of purses was not). In the 1970s, after we moved to South Jersey, the malls at Cherry Hill and Moorestown (and later Echelon and Deptford) were attractive, but there was nothing quite like a trip to Center City and the vast atrium of Wanamaker's. In college I took the bus to Detroit and walked out Woodward Avenue to the Institute of Arts, stopping to melt the slush off my boots on the fabulous warmed sidewalk outside Hudson's. All changed, changed utterly. A terrible sameness is born.

Although, except for their different names, were these anchors of metropolitan America really the special emblems of local culture that they seem in retrospect? One of Vicki Howard's themes in From Main Street to Mall is that the great urban emporia of the late 19th century were the big-box stores of their day. They may have been single-outlet family businesses, but they dominated the retail scene and killed every category in sight.

Howard's book spans the "long 20th century," from the construction of the downtown retail palaces like Carson's (1899), Wanamaker's and Hudson's (both 1911), to the current (and assuredly temporary) status quo where the department store seems an anachronism and discount giants like Wal-Mart and Target supply every American need except relief from crushing sameness. Her working principle is that the history of American shopping could have gone differently. We are used to hearing apologists for the decisions made in legislatures and boardrooms tell us that the processes of commerce are organic and inevitable. But they aren't, Howard argues. Replay the tape a little differently, and we could still be shopping downtown instead of in malls or big-boxes – or indeed we might have ended up in some harder-to-imagine, completely alternative reality.

Howard's introduction promises a look at the transition from main-street anchors to more dispersed suburban retail, with an emphasis on legal battles and the role of the state. Her book turns out to be a little more ambitious than this, but that's OK; it has elements of social history and a nod toward memory studies, and it ranges widely over economics and urban affairs. As a result, though From Main Street to Mall is wider-ranging than David Smiley's Pedestrian Modern (2013) – a look at the same swath of history via its architecture – Howard's book is more focused and informative than Smiley's. And her promised core is indeed there, a fascinating look at how Congress and state governments tried to influence the course of retailing in 20th-century America: sometimes without much success, and sometimes with unintended consequences.

Even when it was ineffectual, government was never neutral. Proponents of free markets rarely acknowledge the infrastucture that government provides to foster those markets, or the regulation that must frequently be exerted to keep them free. One theme throughout Howard's work is the century-old, and still evolving, relationship between manufacturers' desires to set prices at profitable levels, and retailers' desires to slash those prices, especially when stock does not move fast enough. Complete separation of manufacturers' prices from retailers' did not become federal law except between 1975 and 2007, but those dates are not entirely the great landmarks in American business history that they might seem; states have frequently prevented manufacturers from setting prices, and enforcement of "fair trade" regulations, Howard shows, was always weak.

Department stores were perhaps never statistically dominant on the American retail scene, but they epitomized shopping and occupied a huge place in our imagination. Howard draws not only from the major cities but from all kinds of smaller cities and towns, each of which, in the early 20th century, could boast of its own main-street emporium. Google "Bresee's of Oneonta," one of Howard's prime examples, and you'll see a range of styles that that venerable store has seen over the years, including a recent renovation that restores it to something like its old-timey appearance after decades of tacky modernism that will probably evoke its own nostalgia in time.

But department stores, from Bresee's to Marshall Field's, shared customers with general and speciality stores and primeval discounters. Rich as Gimbels and B. Altman's were in their day, it was Woolworth that built the tallest building in New York as its "cathedral of commerce"; and richer still were the mail-order titans Sears and Montgomery Ward. And so it is today, when the big stores seem to have reduced to small-town Wal-Marts and mall-anchor Macy's everywhere. Phenomena like IKEA and the inconceivably gigantic Nebraska Furniture Mart compete for consumer attention; apparel and gifts flow through the mails, some still ordered from old-school hardcopy catalogues; and in the aether, waiting to take over the world unseen, is the greatest contemporary retail player, Amazon.

Howard can take a critical view of the stores she celebrates. Wal-Mart may have sent wages plunging along with prices, and set women's roles in retail management back nearly a century. But back in the day, the big stores were bastions of segregation and not exactly labor paradises themselves. There were exceptions (Howard cites Edward Filene of Boston and to a lesser extent Stanley Marcus of Dallas), but most department-store magnates were stone conservatives with predatory instincts. They too had run Mom and Pop off of Main Street, except they'd done it one city and one family at a time.

Department stores have decades of healthy sales ahead, even if only as what Howard calls "glorified apparel stores" (202). I wouldn't buy my underwear anywhere but the local Dillard's, after all, and fortunately there are hundreds of local Dillard's to choose from in malls wherever I go. But surviving downtown anchors are few and far between. Howard cites Weaver's in Lawrence, Kansas, as an independent that has stayed open since 1857 on pretty much its original terms. Neiman Marcus is still in downtown Dallas, and Macy's, Saks, Bloomingdale's, and Bergdorf's are still where they've always been (at least in my lifetime) in midtown Manhattan. So is Lord & Taylor's, which at one point I was sure was a goner. They're no longer independent (even Bergdorf's is currently a division of Neiman's), but they're still operating.

Yet the department-store map of New York has changed mightily even since I first lived there in the 1980s. I shopped for dress clothes at B. Altman's, 34th and Fifth; the building now houses a branch of the New York Public Library, among other things. The massive Gimbel's near Penn Station is now a mall of sorts, and the contents of many of the great upscale stores seem to have been scattered around small funky warehouses and tenements in Soho to create the world's toniest open-air impromptu department store.

And much of the real-estate fabric of lower Manhattan consists of abandoned department stores from an even earlier era, repurposed as office space and often retail once more, at least on the ground floors. The great-grandfather of all department stores, A.T. Stewart's Marble Palace, still stands at Broadway and Chambers streets across from City Hall, and houses pharmacy, coffee, sandwich, and sporting goods shops as of this writing. Stewart's later Iron Palace further up Broadway burned down long ago, but its "annex," John Wanamaker's New York store, is still massively indestructible – and now home to a K-Mart. On Sixth Avenue between 13th and 23rd Streets, you can see the splendid shells of organisms long since moved on or deceased: Siegel & Cooper, Adams, Ehrich, and the older locations of Lord & Taylor and Altman's – even of Macy's itself, if you know where to look. These buildings were saved by preservationists, but they earn their keep by selling things to passers-by, as they were originally meant to.

Vicki Howard's argument, in her later chapters, is that they might have been able to do so continuously under something like their original management – if only the American business climate hadn't shifted in the late 20th-century toward a doctrine of massive mergers and upheavals, insane short-term ROI at the expense of stability, and a culture of waste and expendability. It might be worth taking stock of her arguments as we plan for whatever the 21st century has in store.

Howard, Vicki. From Main Street to Mall: The rise and fall of the American department store. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.