Departmentalized

What, if nothing else, is the fourth of July for if not shopping?

Oh, yeah. Independence. By which the founding fathers doubtless meant setting the cash in one’s wallet free from the ordinary restraints of folded leather. And good sense.

Ordinarily, the Wildenhain Blog focuses on things other than shilling for others.

The synchronicity of national holiday coupled with shopping excursions and the book I just finished reading explains if not legitimizes this week’s subject.

My hometown – Plainfield, NJ – located retailing along Front Street, anchoring each end with a department store: Bamberger’s and Tepper’s.

Tepper’s was the older of the two venues. One knew that because there were elevators, operated by a uniformed individual, who ushered customers from one floor to the next.

More modern, Bamberger’s featured escalators and customers fended for themselves, albeit across fewer floors than at Tepper’s.

Bamberger’s had plenty of free parking, all located behind the store. At Tepper’s one would have to compete for on-street spaces and feed a meter. Urban planning was a relatively new idea when Bam’s opened its Plainfield branch (or maybe it was a “twig”).

Longer established, Tepper’s was old-school and traditional. A less inviting space to ten year olds such as myself. Plus, the sales help at Bam’s seemed more tolerant of kids’ playing hide-and-seek in their store than the fuddy-duddies down the street.

Helpfully, near each were eating establishments for the all-day shopper. And the restaurants, too, reflected the time at which each store had opened for business.

Across the street from Tepper’s was “Clara Louise.” I recall describing it to a friend as “swanky” – I word I had to define for my less enlightened pal. I wasn’t then fully aware of an equally apt descriptor: Blue Hair.

The brand-spanking-new Frontier Diner was across the street from Bamberger’s. A place far more inviting to coffee-drinkers-in-training, such as myself. And later populated by some guy named “Snake” who’s distinguishing trait was really long dirty blond hair (well below his ears!).

All of which brings me to the shilling.

Vicki Howard’s “From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store” is a fascinating and most readable history of American commerce.

An associate professor at Hartwick College, Howard’s engaging, scholarly text examines stores from the late 19th century through the late 20th; from mom and pop general stores to the big boxes and from strip malls to shopping malls.

One interesting feature of the book is Howard’s discussion of traditional department stores’ responses to the intrusion and competition from “chain” stores. That history mirrors with near precision the retail environment and response to the intrusion of digital media and e-commerce at the close of the 20th century.

Howard’s book will surgically free up $34.95 from your overburdened wallet. It’s published by the University of Pennsylvania Press and is money well spent.