Saturday, November 5, 2011
Shopping Trip Down Memory Lane
Warning: This is an exercise in nostalgia. You may have no knowledge of the lost and nearly forgotten era of the department store. I invite you to experience the thrill of the agora, Cleveland-style. If you do remember department stores fondly, your stores will not be my stores but our stories may be the same. Like Proust and his madelines, the most pungent memories come in little bites, not always full sentences:
> Getting dressed up to go downtown to go shopping. Your mother wore her good clothes and so did you, topped off with your overcoat, hat, mittens, galoshes, and maybe snowpants because the stores were not in a mall, and it was a long way from Higbees on Public Square to Halle's on 12th Street.
> Department store dining rooms. Higbee's Silver Grille had the Special Lunch. It was served on tea party sized dishes in a wooden china cupboard. There would be creamed chicken in a white milk glass casserole shaped like a hen, mashed potatoes and peas. Dessert was something with a sparkler or an ice cream "doll". Her skirt was the ice cream and the little doll torso was wax or plastic (choking hazard!!!). Sometimes there would be models walking around the tables wearing lovely suits and dresses.
> Charge-a-plate. This was a metal plate the size and shape of an army dog tag. It had your mother's name on it and various notches around the perimeter. Each notch represented a department store where your family had an account. The thing fit into an apparatus where the notch for that particular store would correspond. Like a well-used Colt 45, my mother's charge-a-plate had lots of notches.
> Each store had its own delivery van. If it was a large package, you had your purchase "sent". It arrived the next day.
> All purchases were wrapped in tissue AND boxed. The box closed with a gummed paper tape that turned into a handle. Bags were for little things, like greeting cards or socks. You didn't get a box AND a bag.
> Sale racks were not permanent fixtures. There weren't always things "on sale". Sales were held at specified times, the biggest being after Christmas and 4th of July.
> People weren't always shopping. You would go clothes shopping twice a year— fall for school clothes and a winter coat (every other year) and a party dress, spring for summer clothes. If you needed something for a special occasion it threw your father into a tizzy.
> Stores closed at 6 PM, except Thursday night when they were open till 9. Only drug stores were open on Sunday. Department stores did stay open six days a week till 9 from Thanksgiving to Christmas. They never opened at 4AM the day after Thanksgiving.
> You shopped with Miss Alice at Halle's in the children's department. Even though you only saw her twice a year, she always remembered you. Miss Alice probably deserved an Oscar. Miss Alice knew to step away when you and your mother had that fight about the red car coat and the lime green fluffy one.
> Shopping was always shopping. You didn't combine it with a movie or a doctor's appointment. You were never "just looking".
> Christmas time was the exception. You went downtown to visit Santa Claus even if you were Jewish. You saw every store's windows and wished you could have all those toys. You wanted to see the Easter Bunny in the spring too, but your mother drew the line. NB Higbee's and Public Square were used as the location sets for the 1983 movie "A Christmas Story". It takes place in the late 1940s in an unnamed Midwestern city. If you imagine really hard, I am the little girl, third from the left, eyeing the dolls in Higbee's window.
> Your line of march was: Higbee's through lunch, then May Company, Taylor's (for bargains and to cash in the "Eagle Stamp" books), Halle's, across the street to Sterling Lindner then back to Halle's to catch the free bus back down to Public Square and the Rapid Transit home. You had to stand if the bus were crowded. You once reached into a man's overcoat pocket because the flap was half-in-half-out. It was at your eye level and driving you nuts. Your mother was horrified as it looked like you were picking his pocket.
> The last stop would be the Frosty Malt stand in Higbee's basement. If you've never had a Frosty Malt I don't think I can do it justice. Imagine a glass of cold, thick faintly chocolate mush that you kind of ate but mostly drank. I can't describe what malt tastes like, but it's hard to find in anything these days besides beer. The Frosty Malt always left a moustache. It cost 15 cents.
> At this point your mother is fairly dragging you to the train. You are sweating inside your galoshes. It's a good thing your mittens are on a string because they would have been long gone. Somewhere along the way you stopped in the 5 & 10 and got a new paper doll book. You are very happy.