Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Visiting Worcester, Massachusetts Leads Me to Yet Another Old Department Store Post, This One About Denholm's.

As you may know, I have a special interest in retail, and while I am fascinated by everything from supermarket and drug chains to independent bookstores (of course), I am particularly drawn to the old regional department stores of yore. After all, I not so long ago did a post on Something for Everyone: Memories of Lauerman Brothers Department Store So as I was visiting my mom and sister for a few days, I thought it would be appropriate to read Denholms: The Story of Worcester’s Premier Department Store (History Press).

My sister Claudia has always shared my interest in the grand dames of retailing. Like me, she took a short shift at a department store in her youth (at the old Stern’s on New York’s 42nd Street). As a grad student, she rented from a buyer at Muehlig’s, a Ann Arbor Dry Goods Store. When she lived in Ithaca, we went to Rothschild’s and when she moved to West Lafayette, we took short trips to Loeb’s in Lafayette and longer pilgrimages to L.S. Ayres and Block’s in Indianapolis.

When she arrived in Worcester in 1987, we went to the now defunct Worcester Galleria, featuring a Filene’s in existence since 1920 and a Jordan Marsh that opened with the mall in 1971. What we couldn’t figure out was where the home grown store was. A little research led us to Denholm and McKay (known commonly as Denholms) and that led to a visit to the original building, which still has a bit of signage and the escalators.(I'm hoping to have a couple of photos of the Denholms building, but for now, I'm decorating the blog post with other department store book jackets. I should note that I have visited the site of every one of these stores, though most had closed long before I got there.)

I now know from reading Christopher Sawyer and Patricia Wolf’s history that this was in fact an Escal-aire, and was installed by Otis Elevator in 1964, later than I would have suspected. Like many stores, it was very emotionally connected to the town with fashion shows, exhibits, truck delivery, and a return policy that was strict in writing but very loose in practice.

There are always things I want to know about an old department store. What was the name of its special boutique for high end women’s goods? The Salisbury Shop. What was the name of the restaurant? It acutally didn’t seem to have a special name. It was on six and then moved to the basement, when it became a leased operation. Yes, there was a special company that ran department store tea rooms, just like operations specialized in operating department store jewelry and book departments. Did you know that Waldenbooks started that way?

The downtown store closed in 1973 with the Auburn branch store following several months later. The seeds of its closer were likely the likely suspects of expanding suburban retail as well as the opening of the downtown mall, which Denholms chose to not be part of. They would have had to build a new store, so it’s likely the result would have been the same. The controlling families, seeing the writing on the wall, sold out to an outside operator who seemingly siphoned off cash and then sold the stores to a liquidator. This is still pretty common in retailing, alas.

I was sad to learn that the beautiful fractured script typeface was only in use for the last few years before the store closed. Boy would I love one of their gold and white striped shopping bags. I told my sister to ask around to her friends whose parents and other relatives are cleaning out their attics and basements.

It was all great fun, with a touch of melancholy. Do I have some beefs about the book? Yes, I would have liked more packaging, a little more about their marketing to kids (there had to be some sort of Billie the Brownie like character at Christmas), and no indication of the specific dish or snack item whose smell permeated the store. I'd love to see some packaging too--hot boxes, bags, more contemporary charge cards. Did they make up private labels or was everything just "Denholms" or "Denholm and McKay?" Sawyer has a Denholms blog, which I'm hoping will answer some of my questions.

I guess I’m sort of catching up on my department store reading. The Denholms book came out in 2011, and another book I just bought, L.S. Ayres & Company: The Store at the Crossroads of America (Indiana University Press), by Kenneth L. Turchi, was published in 2012. Just to keep me up to date, 2013 releases Woodward & Lothrop: A Store Worthy of the Nation's Capital (History Press), by Michael Lisicky, who wrote one of the Gimbels books, and Toledo's Three Ls: Lamson's, the Lion Store & Lasalle's (also History Press), by Bruce Alan Copytek, and 2014 promises a History Press book on Canada’s Eaton’s and an Arcadia Publishing volume on Richmond’s Thalhimers.

1 comment:

Denholms said...

Thank you so much for writing this about my book. I do agree with you about some of the things that were missing from the book, and would love to elaborate more in the future.
The unearthing of information was a long process, but one that I enjoyed every minute of. Denholms was the grande dame of Worcester, and the legacy of the store continues to this day.
Please do visit my blog as I have photos of the bags, boxes as well as the old charge cards (Denholms closed before plastic cards were introduced).
Thank you again for reading and reviewing a subject I care deeply about.