Retail Remembered

“It’s sad,” I complained.

“Shopping in London now is just like shopping in New York. The same fashionable stores parade on the fashionable streets in the same way they do here.

“It’s all Gucci, Vuitton, Armani, Prada, and Hermès. One or the other seems to pop up on every other corner. There are no more special little places that sell Guernsey sweaters or Irish linen sheets or things that aren’t readily available here. There’s nothing unique, nothing reminds you that you’re in the UK. Harrods and Harvey Nichols showcase the same things you see at Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s in every American mall.”

It’s certainly true that retail shopping has been globalized and that localized panache has gone the way of the manual typewriter. The re-born but essentially American Abercrombie & Fitch now flaunts itself on Savile Row. Of course it’s not the real Abercrombie & Fitch, the one that was on Madison Avenue and 45th Street and that sold fishing tackle with as much reverence as Tiffany sells diamonds. That Abercrombie & Fitch boasted a shooting range in the basement and outfitted Charles Lindbergh for his flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

But thinking about this change in the retail world a little more, I realize that visitors here in New York could complain in much the same way I do on my travels.

Where have all the stores gone? All those places that I knew growing up like the real Abercrombie & Fitch? What happened to them?

For example, B. Altman & Co. was a glorious emporium that stretched from 34th Street to 35th, from Fifth Avenue to Madison. It was the place to find linen tea napkins and decent Chinese antiques, Shetland sweaters and tasteful old prints. Several well-known interior designers got their start in Altman’s home decorating department–a part of the furniture showrooms. There was a men’s department, a woman’s department, a toy department, and a nice restaurant called “The Charleston Garden.” But the store closed in 1989.

In the same part of town was Arnold Constable at Fifth Avenue and 40th Street. Founded in 1825, it was at one point the oldest department store in America. Stern Brothers was at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street next to Bryant Park. Oppenheim Collins was at 35 West 34th Street and their somewhat upmarket sibling, Franklin Simon, was at 414 Fifth Avenue at 38th Street. That establishment promoted itself as the first retailer using the “collection of specialty shops” concept as opposed to a more traditional department store. I remember it being cheerful and interesting with a particularly nice staff.

When Franklin Simon closed in 1977, the building became the flagship store for W. and J. Sloane, an extraordinary and influential furniture and rug retailer that had moved uptown from Broadway and 19th Street. This was in an area known as the “Ladies’ Mile,” but that’s a whole other topic. Sloane’s sold all kinds of tasteful things to make a home out of a house and, like Altman’s, provided decorating services as well. The firm filed for bankruptcy in 1985.

Further uptown, at 645 Fifth Avenue at 51st Street, was Best and Company, a well-respected survivor of late-Victorian times famous for its children’s wear. It closed in 1971. De Pinna, at 52nd Street and Fifth Avenue, was a high-end men’s and women’s clothier where the very walls seemed to exude tasteful luxury. Once, at about age twelve, I spotted the Hollywood actor James Stewart shopping there in a camel hair coat. I was very impressed. Wow! The man who starred  in Rear Window with Grace Kelly and in Bell, Book and Candle  with Kim Novak was shopping in the same place where I’d found a jacket for Easter Sunday. Alas, in 1969, after an amazing liquidation sale, it too closed.

There was Ohrbach’s on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue, across from the Empire State Building, which I remember as providing line for line copies of the then-top French and Italian couture:  Dior, Balenciaga, and the like. S. Klein at Union Square did more or less the same thing but more cheaply. Gimbels and Saks 34th Street were across the street from Macy’s at Herald Square and were connected to each other by an indoor bridge spanning the street. John Wanamaker, the Philadelphia mainstay was downtown, at Broadway and 9th Street.

Throughout midtown there were fancy women’s stores and specialty shops.

On the northwest corner of 57th Street and Fifth Avenue was Tailored Woman. In his 1988 New York Times obituary, Eugene K. Denton, its founder, was quoted as having said about his customers, “There are those who like simple, lovely clothes and there are clotheshorses. We don’t cater to clotheshorses. I am opposed to the tackers-on-of-trifles, doodads, furbelows, sequins and beads.”

Just down 57th Street, at number 24, was Jay Thorpe where the clothes were slightly more trendy but equally chic. And in close proximity was Milgrim, credited with introducing couture quality to off-the-rack clothes.

In these days of yore there was also Russeks (coats, suits and furs);  Hattie Carnegie (hats and various other garments deluxe); Peck and Peck (the ne plus ultra of the understated and tailored country club look); Martha (with locations on Park Avenue and 58th Street and in Palm Beach, it managed to exemplify both locales); Mr. John (more hats);  and Chez Ninon. Chez Ninon, at 480 Park Avenue, was where First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy could buy clothes that were legitimately made in America. (They were usually designed in Paris and created out of French fabrics.)

And of course for very stylish and well-off ladies there was the lushly glamorous Bonwit Teller on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street with its signature logo of violet nosegays. At one time, Bonwit’s was the only place in New York where you could buy Hermès scarves. When you entered the store, automatic spray guns spritzed the space to enhance the opulent ambience. This was not always pleasant.

Gentlemen had lots of choices as well.

Generally for older, very rich males who enjoyed being upholstered in heavy silks and not-so-subtle tweeds, there were Finchley at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street, F. R. Tripler & Co. at 366 Madison Avenue, and Sulka on Park Avenue and 55th Street. It was said that Winston Churchill, Clark Gable, and the Duke of Windsor all shopped at Sulka.

For those with more conservative taste, there was Chipp, and for traditionally minded gentlemen with more limited clothing allowances, there was Rogers Peet at 485 Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street.That store’s reputation was strong enough to merit a lyric in Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls. Adelaide, the ever-optimistic and slightly over-the-hill showgirl is discussing ways to improve men with Sarah, the Salvation Army missionary:

(Adelaide): Slowly introduce him to the better things; respectable, conservative, and clean.
(Sarah): Readers Digest!
(Adelaide): Guy Lombardo!
(Sarah): Rogers Peet!
(Adelaide): Golf!
(Sarah): Galoshes!
(Adelaide): Ovaltine!

Browning King & Co.; Broadstreet’s;  and Wallachs were less-expensive versions of the same thing.

Mark Cross at 655 Fifth Avenue, the shop famous because its owners, Gerald and Sara Murphy, were immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald, offered the most beautiful leather goods. For riding equipage and everything to do with horses, there was the very posh M. J. Knoud at 63rd Street and Madison Avenue as well as Miller’s and Kaufman’s on East 24th Street (a block described  by the New York Times in 1975 as “the equine epicenter of New York”). Lewis and Conger at 45th Street and Sixth Avenue was the place to go for smart house presents, barware, and the like. At one time it boasted that it was the only place in Manhattan where you could find beer mugs. And if you happened to be looking for a place to send over a bon voyage basket to one of the trans-Atlantic steamship lines, Charles and Company at 340 Madison Avenue was just the ticket.

Yes, they’re all gone, all the smart shops that boasted of being “purveyors to the carriage trade” and would have blanched at the sight of tattoos or body piercings. But it is somewhat encouraging to know that some old-timers, albeit changed, are still around.

Macy’s is still Macy’s and so is Saks Fifth Avenue still Saks. In the sixties, Bloomingdale’s reinvented itself and changed from a rather frumpy and bland place into the height of hip. Similarly Barneys, which used to be at 17th Street and Seventh Avenue, moved uptown, had several face lifts and became too chic for words. Alas, in the process, “Barney’s Boys Town,” a place where hard-to-fit youngsters could feel right at home, disappeared.

Lord & Taylor is still, more or less, Lord & Taylor and Brooks Brothers, although far more with it than it ever was, seems to retain its audience of people most comfortable in classic clothes. It may have once inspired Ralph Lauren but now Ralph Lauren seems to inspire it.

And there’s still Elizabeth Arden on Fifth Avenue. It is not quite the template for Claire Boothe Luce’s The Women that it once was, but it’s still vogueing there behind its red door. Similarly Henri Bendel is not quite the ultra-smart emporium of days gone by, but it does retain some of its prestige and style. Hammacher Schlemmer at 147 East 57th Street has now become a catalogue showcase store, but the things it stocks–gadgets, hardware, and real Turkish towels–are very much in keeping with a tradition that goes back to 1848. Bergdorf Goodman, that temple of high-end retailing at its very best, is, thank heaven, still very much Bergdorf Goodman and it is bigger and better than ever. Somehow, this store has managed to adapt to the times but still maintain its standards.

Then there’s Abercrombie & Fitch.

Well, as discussed, Abercrombie & Fitch is a whole different ball game. The name may be the same, but customers seeking the hushed and lush citadel of sporting country gentlemen would be more than a little surprised to find nearly naked male models promoting logo-emblazoned tee shirts and tank tops.

Do things really stay the same the more that they change?

Issue Twenty Two