Bloomie's 'Legend,' from cheap to chic

January 05, 1994|By John Schmeltzer | John Schmeltzer,Chicago Tribune

When Marvin Traub began working for New York's Bloomingdale's department store in 1950, it was, as he tells it, "a place where Park Avenue maids shopped for their uniforms." When he left in 1991, Bloomie's was the chic store where the maids' employers shopped.

This is the story of one of the nation's great merchants and his involvement in transforming a dinosaur.

But more than that, it's the story of changing postwar preferences, the growth of Bloomie's influence in fashion and the rise of newly affluent consumers. It was merchants such as Mr. Traub, who started in the bargain basement and rose to the executive suite, who transformed shopping into entertainment.

Mr. Traub's ego seeps from the book. If name-dropping were a crime, he would be serving consecutive life sentences from now to eternity. But it was because of the acquaintanceships and friendships with such people as Queen Elizabeth II and designer Ralph Lauren that Mr. Traub was able to transform the store.

The book is peppered with anecdotes about meetings with Paris designers and buying trips to countries around the world as Bloomie's first became the fashionable home-furnishings store and then the fashionable fashion store.

Those chapters stand in stark contrast to the pages about the leveraged buyout that in 1990 drove Bloomingdale's and its parent company, Federated Department Stores Inc., into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. He reserves some of his harshest criticism for the investment bankers who cooked the books to enable Canadian developer Robert Campeau, whose company lost billions of dollars the previous year, to buy Federated with $6.6 billion, most of it borrowed.

But it is his discussion of his forced retirement as president and chairman of Bloomingdale's two years ago that has set tongues wagging in the retail industry.

Mr. Traub portrays Howard Goldfeder, Federated's chief executive during the buyout by Mr. Campeau, as interested only in selling his shares. He depicts Allen Questrom, Federated's current chairman, as a man who couldn't be trusted, and makes absolutely clear his disdain for Michael Gould, whom Mr. Questrom installed as Mr. Traub's successor.

The book is more than a recitation of his final days at the store on 59th Street in New York.

Mr. Traub takes credit for creating the charged atmosphere that made Bloomingdale's the place to be seen in New York, including the extravagant gala events showcasing merchandise from countries around the world -- events that in later years cost the store millions of dollars.

Rich detail is used to embellish recollections, such as the protocol and security measures necessary for Queen Elizabeth II's visit to the store in 1976.

But while Mr. Traub takes credit for expanding Bloomingdale's beyond New York, it's obvious he doesn't consider the stores in Florida, Washington or even Chicago to be in the same league. And he saddles Federated's Goldfeder with the blame for picking the wrong location for Bloomie's Dallas store. That store was abandoned during Federated's bankruptcy.

In the book, Mr. Traub fends off criticism that the 59th Street store was given too much attention at the expense of the branch stores. He maintains that was necessary for the financial health of the chain. But it is unclear how that could be justified in a book that purports to be a history of the store.

Mr. Traub says that when his agent was meeting with publishers, he was asked repeatedly if the Bloomingdale's chieftain would tell the truth.

Mr. Traub says that he has. Well, it's the truth as he saw it.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Like No Other Store: The Bloomingdale's Legend and the Revolution in American Marketing"

Author: Marvin Traub and Tom Teicholz

Publisher: Times Books

Length, price: 428 pages, $25

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