Big downtown stores fall victim to the times

July 30, 1995|By Alec Matthew Klein | Alec Matthew Klein,Sun Staff Writer

At 6:30 a.m., April 8, 1861, an obscure young man named John Wanamaker opened the doors to a modest clothing shop tucked in downtown Philadelphia, 94 hours before the first gunshot echo of the Civil War.

More than a century later, the fabled Wanamaker name, graced on a 12-story granite and steel department store, will vanish from the retailing universe before a parade of lawyers in Room 627 of U.S. Bankruptcy Court in New York City at 10 a.m. Aug. 8.

There goes another one.

Wanamaker's, once the largest retail store in America, is only the latest department store across the nation to fall prey to consolidations, bankruptcies and corporate takeovers. Like dinosaurs, the grand old behemoths of downtown retailing have fast become extinct in Baltimore and other urban centers, representing the demise of another way of life, a lost social milieu when shopping was a genteel outing, tea was served and cars were left unlocked.

"It was the thing of the day, you didn't go out unless you were properly dressed. Now you throw on your jeans and a sweat shirt," recalled 73-year-old Eleanor W. Wesley, an administrative employee since 1940 at Alexandria, Va.-based Woodward & Lothrop department stores, where she met and married a co-worker.

"It's a whole different time."

Steeped in history, Wanamaker's and Woodward & Lothrop, founded in 1880, survived the Spanish-American War, the Great Depression and two world wars. But like other department stores, neither could withstand the rise of the suburban mall or the onslaught of other retailers. Woodward & Lothrop, or "Woodies" as most people know it, is expected to be swallowed up by one of two giant corporations -- Federated Department Stores of Cincinnati or May Department Stores of St. Louis, which has teamed up with J. C. Penney of Plano, Texas. Wanamaker's, a Woodies subsidiary, is being swept up in the proposed deal as well.

Department stores "have been disappearing for the last 50 years," said Joseph Siegel, vice president of merchandising for the National Retail Federation in New York. "What really is the cause is we're over-stored. In 1965, we had 4 square feet of retail space per capita throughout the nation. In 1990, we had 18 square feet of space per capita. There's [only] so much [consumer] money out there."

And there's so much competition for it: discount giants like Wal-Mart, bulk-quantity stores like BJ's Wholesale Club, big-box retailers like Home Depot, mail-order operators, specialty chains -- not to mention the growing market in television and computer shopping.

Lost in the retailing evolution is a time when customers were greeted by uniformed doormen in white gloves who opened department store doors to plush velvet rugs, cascades of window draperies and a panoramic selection of goods and services. But in recent years, in a prelude to what was to come, department stores like Woodies began to scale back in a cost-cutting push, closing down whole floors of retail space and shedding products like appliances and televisions.

"I'll tell you something," said Dorothy Reese, a sales associate since 1968 at Woodies in downtown Washington, D.C. "I go home sometimes and I cry because things have changed."

Federated's plan

Under the changes being contemplated in bankruptcy court, Macy's parent company, Federated, would buy 10 of Woodies' 15 department stores, including three in the Baltimore area, one of its four furniture stores and the lease on its distribution center in Baltimore.

As part of the same deal, the Wanamaker chain would be pried apart, like a stripped-down Chevy repo, with six stores going to Strawbridge & Clothier of Philadelphia, two to Boscov's Department Stores Inc. of Reading, Pa., and five to the Rubin Organization, a Philadelphia-based real estate developer. Federated would acquire the flagship Wanamaker department store in downtown Philadelphia and convert it into a Macy's.

The store name notwithstanding, the permanence of the place is embodied in marble floors, arched passageways, vaulted ceilings, the pipe strains of a majestic organ and a bronze eagle of 5,000 hand-crafted feathers, a special landmark planted in the store's atrium-style Grand Court.

The lore of shopping still resonates with customers.

"We all used to meet under the eagle," said Diane R. Sklut, a dental hygienist from Wilmington, Del., reminiscing about the late 1950s when she shopped at Wanamaker's during her college days in Philadelphia. But now, she said, "the next generation will just think it's Macy's with an eagle."

Wanamaker's vision

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