BETHESDA -- A neutron bomb of niceness exploded here yesterday as Nordstrom came to Maryland.
Shoppers walked around Montgomery Mall glowing. Salespeople radiated smiles so broad and constant they could have sprained their faces. Perfectly normal people walked up to complete strangers and gushed out statements like, "This is gorgeous!" and, "It's Christmas in October!"
It was enough to make a Grinch lose his lunch.
The Nordstrom opening was, by all accounts, a most successful debut for the 64th cathedral opened by the Seattle-based cult of customer service, which will bring its gospel to Towson Town Center next year and to Annapolis Mall in 1993.
A crowd of shoppers started gathering outside the 225,000-square-foot store's entrances about a half-hour before it opened. By the time the doors were flung open at 10 a.m., the crowd outside one of the entrances swelled to a couple of hundred people.
Many of the waiting shoppers expressed relief that they no longer would have to cross the Potomac to get their Nordstrom fix at Tysons Corner or Pentagon City in Virginia.
"It's like Virginia always had it up on us in shopping, and it's a shame because we really have some good shoppers in Maryland," said Beth Pascal of North Potomac as she waited outside the store.
Then the doors opened and the customers started pouring in as the salespeople applauded them.
"This is a big event," said Winnie Holbrooke, a shopper from Silver Spring. "I really don't like department stores. I really do like Nordstrom."
In fact, while most people would call Nordstrom a department store, the company prefers the designation "fashion specialty retailer" because it doesn't carry "hard goods" -- products such as electronics or furniture.
Whatever you call it, Nordstrom is like nothing shoppers have seen before in Maryland. It's nice. Relentlessly nice. Fanatically nice. So nice it'll probably make you depressed about where you work.
Consider these touches:
* At the front of the store is a concierge who will call you a cab or make a restaurant reservation for you at no charge.
* There are padded baby-changing tables, with a vending machine that sells you a packet that contains a disposable diaper, wipes and a plastic disposal bag -- and this is in the men's room.
* Buy a pair of shoes and you get a free shine.
* The food in the cafe actually tastes like food -- not department store food.
* A customer went to the cosmetics counter and asked for something in the Bath Accessories department. The counter manager, Liz Dordal, actually came out from behind the counter -- an offense against nature at many department stores -- and led him to the right department.
But Nordstrom does have its lapses. A saleswoman in Bath Accessories, who prepared a personalized gift basket for a customer, actually forgot to give him the free rubber ducky offered with each purchase in the department. And even though Public Relations Director Christine L. Bridenbaugh says, "Our only rule is do whatever you have to do to keep the customer happy," a manager in Men's Shoes overruled salesman John B. Sadtler's offer of a free shoeshine for a customer's old shoes, too.
Oh, well, it was their first day.
Up on the third floor, presiding over the hurly-burly and directing customers, was Jack McMillan, one of four co-chairmen of the collegially run company.
"This is one of the best demographic markets that we've come across anywhere in the country," he enthused. Will there be more Nordstroms in Maryland beyond those already announced? always looking," he said.
One fact is inescapable: Nordstrom is no discount store. The merchandise is upscale and, in most cases, so are the prices.
That didn't bother Louise Hutchinson, who drove up from Alexandria, Va.
"I guess I would rather pay a little bit more and be comfortable and feel I've been well-served," she said.