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Going Out of Business

What is lost when department stores face extinction? A chapter of American Jewish history.

Jenna Weissman Joselit
June 30, 2020
A man walks past a store going out of business in Brooklyn, on May 5, 2020 ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images
A man walks past a store going out of business in Brooklyn, on May 5, 2020 ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images

What will life after COVID-19 look like? Will most of us simply pick up where we left off and continue on our merry way, or will the virus leave a permanent imprint upon us as well as on the body politic, redefining its contours? I wish I had a crystal ball, but even in its absence, one thing is already clear: Shopping has been transformed into an almost exclusively digital phenomenon and the fate of department stores, already in parlous shape pre-COVID-19, hangs in the balance. The social distancing and quarantining occasioned by the virulent menace has left these former “cathedrals of commerce” high and dry, beached like a whale.

Yes, all things have their day, a limited shelf life, and department stores are no exception. They’ve been around since the mid-19th century and have had a good run. How many institutions, especially in the United States, can make that claim? Maybe it’s high time, then, to bid them a fond adieu?

Or maybe not. There’s something about the all-too-imminent passing of the department store that gives me pause. I, for one, will rue the consequences of a world bereft of its presence: For me, the enduring appeal of the department store rested as much, if not more, on its symbolic freight—the allure of the city and the embrace of modernity—than on the quotidian act of shopping, which, come to think of it, might not be so quotidian, after all.

Rooted in the urban fabric, the department store gave rise to transactions that were as much cultural as they were economic. When novelists, sociologists, and cultural critics speak of the public square and of a sense of place, of urbanism and urbanity, they have the department store in mind.

A purveyor of abundance and possibility, a destination in its own right, the department store translated the humdrum business of shopping it into an occasion. The grand scale of the building; the presence of newfangled amenities such as escalators, elevators, and huge plate-glass windows; the dazzling profusion of goods, a rising tide of gloves and hats and shoes and dresses and suits and shirts and ties and jewelry and rugs and furniture, expanded shoppers’ sense of the world, generated visual delight and excitement and heightened the meaning—and value—of sociability.

Once upon a time, the department store “defined a world, little duchies of commerce, with their faith in literal display,” noted Adam Gopnick of The New Yorker in a celebrated 2003 article titled “Under One Roof.” Where else might people “stride in with pleasure?” The notion of striding in, a physical gesture bound up with energy and expectation, strikes just the right note, underscoring the department store’s tug on our imagination.

Not everyone was a fan. Small shopkeepers, who could not keep up with rising demands for novelty and variety, railed against the economic juggernaut, often banding together, ineffectually, to curtail its power; they succeeded only in nipping at its heels. Clergymen, too, demonized the department store for preaching the gospel of want rather than discipline and lamented its seductive hold over their female congregants who, in the face of so much abundance, reportedly went weak in the knees.

More damning, and persuasive, by far was the critique leveled by members of the African American community for whom the department store was a citadel to be breached rather than a welcome port in the storm. Shadowed and surveilled while taking in the sights; denied store credit; discouraged, and in some instances actively prevented, from trying things on or returning them; ignored at the sales counter or refused service altogether, banished to the bargain basement, consumers of color were made to feel more like interlopers than guests or, for that matter, valued customers.

Still, it was not for nothing that the NAACP and other civil rights groups such as the National Urban League made a point of singling out these formidable institutions for desegregation. What guided their efforts, from public protests to lobbying behind the scenes, was the moral conviction that unfettered access to the department store—that anchor of the civic square—should be within everyone’s reach. At stake, explains historian Traci Parker in her eye-opening book, Department Stores and the Black Freedom Movement, was the “right to freely experience all that … American consumer culture offered.”

Central to the smooth functioning of the social order, the department store was also a central component of the history of the Jews in America, dozens of whose names—think Abraham & Strauss, Macy’s and Gimbels, Neiman Marcus, I. Magnin, Bloomingdale’s, Filene’s, Bamberger’s, Hutzler’s, Rich’s, Hecht’s—proudly adorned its exterior. Some observers were inclined to Judaize the department store, characterizing it as a Jewish phenomenon, through and through. They were right—but for the wrong reasons. The ring of the cash register wasn’t a Jewish sound per se, nor was the fast-paced, jangly rhythm of the selling floor a particularly Jewish rhythm. The presence of so many Jews at the helm of the department store was a consequence of history, of marginalization, rather than a function of biology, or an organic predisposition toward the restless pursuit of money-making.

For starters, it was the age-old economic segregation of the Jews that led to their trafficking in commodities in the first place, instead of their taking up craftsmanship or agriculture. Couple that with their newfound belief in the beneficence of modernity, the blessings of change, and the vitality of the city, and you can more readily understand how it came to pass that Jews in the United States and abroad took to urban retailing on a grand scale.

Consider the career of Louis Bamberger, the founder and presiding marketing genius of L. Bamberger & Co, the “always busy store” in Newark, N.J., whose logo was emblazoned on a fleet of green and gold delivery trucks. Born in 1855 into a Baltimore Jewish family who would go on to establish Hutzler Brothers, one of that city’s leading department stores, Bamberger opened his own establishment in 1892 in Newark, then a leading manufacturing center and a city on the rise, entwining his success with that of the emerging metropolis. Bamberger’s, an observer noted at the time of its first major building expansion, in 1912, “has cast its spell over New Jersey—admiration runs riot,” adding that the store should be commended for its “usefulness as a public institution.” Later still, in 1944, in the wake of Bamberger’s death, The New York Times went so far as to liken the New Jersey department store to a “public utility,” highlighting its relationship to the commonweal.

In his salute to department stores such as L. Bamberger & Co. and Bloomingdale’s, Gopnick predicted that their “diminishment leaves us with one less place to go and to hope in.” We’ve gone way beyond that now and, in confronting the prospect of their impending demise, what lies ahead is their erasure from history.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.