Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Creating a Christmas Window as an Homage to...Christmas Windows

So many holiday memories revolve around the old downtown department stores, and I’m sad that this tradition has pretty much disappeared. Start up a conversation with a person of a certain age (it's a different age, depending on the city, as the traditions disappeared at a different times for different stores) and they will tell you about:
a. visiting the holiday windows
b. a holiday tea at the restaurant, probably with a beautifully decorated tree
c. visiting Santa, most likely in toyland
d. riding a holiday train, also in said toyland.

By the time the malls stores dominated, the traditions were different. The Santas moved to center court, the restaurants turned into snack bars, and then disappeared, the window tableaus did too, as who walks by a show window in a shopping mall parking lot?

Growing up in Queens, the only old-fashioned store based in the borough was Gertz, already in decline. I'm sure there were windows at Abraham and Strauss in downtown Brooklyn, but we tended to head for Manhattan, where even into the 1980's, Lord and Taylor, Saks, and B. Altman vied for the best. I know that Macy's dumped holiday windows early; I'm less certain about Gimbels and the other stores.

I was rather obsessed with department stores from a young age, and once I hit adulthood, I spent about 15 years of my life, crisscrossing the country, trying to see as many of the great old stores that I could. I knew they were going fast, and I wanted a piece of them. For some reason, the shopping bag didn't immediately click as my souvenir. I also have a collection of credit cards (and yes, I had to apply for the credit)and for a while, I amassed private label oxford cloth shirts. The problem with those were that most department store groups (Federated, Allied, May, Mercantile, May, Carter Hawley Hale) kept discrete names for their stores but for the most part, kept the individual names off everything but the bags, in order to save money.

Once I went to a city and a store, the only reason to go back would be if a bag changed. While some cities liked issuing limited-time bags (I have one from Horne's in Pittsburgh that celebrates the 4th of July), Christmas was the only period where you could depend on a separate bag, though in later years, that might just be issuing your everyday bag in red. Sigh.

I continued to visit Marshall Field's well into the aughts, looking at the windows, the first-floor decorations, the tree in the Walnut Room, what special Frango flavor their might be. I have this very intense memory of my first visit to the 3rd floor Toyland in the 1980's. There were these enormous stuffed animals, I mean too big to buy, and darned if I didn't leave the store with a small tiger with a Marshall Field's nametage sewn into it, tucked into that year's Christmas bag.

Our holiday window is an homage to the old department store traditions, filled with shopping bags from retired nameplates, which I left out Carson Pirie Scott and Boston Store, both of which exist in name, and a particularly gorgeous series of Bloomingdale's bags from the late 1980's. We've got Gimbels and Chapman's from Milwaukee, Hudson's from Detroit, Horne's from Pittsburgh, Filene's from Boston, and of course several Marshall Field's bags.

Since Jason knows my interest in this stuff, he found a wonderful book for our bargain table called Holidays on Display, by William L. Reid. Originally published by Princeton Architectural Press, we've got a limited supply at $9.99. (It actually seems like a pretty good deal at $24.95 too. PAP does a nice book.) We don't have our bargain titles in our website database, but you can pick up a copy at Boswell!

And of course you'll be stopping by to take a peek at our window. Sit down with a cup of coffee and browse for the perfect gifts for your family and friends, and maybe something for yourself. One of the most wonderful things I heard over Thanksgiving was several people telling me that visiting our store was one of highlights of coming home for the holidays.

Old traditions sometimes go away but new ones can take their place. Maybe we can be one of your new ones. I can hope, right?

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