Retail nostalgia, shelved by online shopping

Lee Siegel / New York Times News Service /

Published Nov 28, 2012 at 04:00AM

For all the feverish talk this last campaign season about taxes, immigration, taxes, Benghazi, taxes, Medicare, taxes, Iran, taxes, etc., there was one topic whose absence left me disappointed: department stores.

Yes, department stores. They are vital to the future of the middle class. They are essential to the preservation of American democracy.

Among civilized people, it is part of Christmas tradition to deplore the coarse commercialization of Christmas tradition. Stores putting up their holiday decorations earlier and earlier every year? The retail equivalent of the melting Arctic ice cap. Black Friday? An annual violation of human rights. But when the Founding Fathers penned those immortal words, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, they were thinking of Bloomingdale’s.

You might say that department stores run in my blood. I grew up in northern New Jersey, and Northern New Jerseyans do department-store retail the way 15th-century Florentines did painting and sculpture. As a boy, I was the Botticelli of Bamberger’s.

That bygone house of treasures was where my friends and I first discovered the alchemy that lay in purchasable things. Racing up and down the magic-beanstalk escalators, we played hide-and-seek, taking refuge on the different floors. It was the height of the Cold War. We were steeped in Bond and spy movies. Our parents might have been screaming at each other at home (it was also the time of countercultural temptation and crumbling marriages), but moving among the dark suits and somber raincoats of the Men’s Department, as if on secret business in East Germany, you had a special destiny that made you invulnerable to mere domestic strife. Missoni Impossible.

Each floor was a world unto itself. In the Women’s Department, you could slip into an oversized Anne Klein coat and barely suppress your giggles as your pursuing friends walked right by you. From there, you sneaked up to the furniture floors, where you could reign over principalities of things that were off limits at home.

My parents had, it seemed, spent years talking about buying a fancy upholstered sofa the way the Allies had planned D-Day. Yet when the item arrived with the ceremony of a lifetime’s crowning achievement, my mother immediately entombed it in a thick plastic sheet and made touching it a taboo on the order of incest.

Among the furniture for sale, however, I could loll on the sofas like the man of the house, sit behind mahogany desks with an air of my father’s (waning) authority. I could be physically intimate with unattainable things. That was how eros first entered my life.

An atmosphere of eros surrounded the environment of items for sale. The realms of floors, of different departments. Passing through Housewares, and Electronics, and Dining Room Furniture, and Bedding, and Sporting Goods and Toys, it was as if you were passing through the seasons and the cycles of life. And though so many of these experiences — the men’s suits, the grownup furniture — lay in the future, you knew that as time went on, they could be acquired. The fact that these things could be yours, and that therefore life seemed under your control, gave you a sense of power.

It was almost inevitable that I had my first jobs in department stores. And it was just as inevitable that I had my first romantic and sexual experiences with the girls who worked there beside me.

Maybe the energy of purchasable goods that was transferred to the potential of winnable women was not the healthiest of associations. But what I learned was that, in order to successfully gain a woman’s favor, you had to give her things. And to get the things, you had to work among the things. When I was a child, I played among Toys and Electronics. But when I grew up, I put away childish things and found work in Men’s Furnishings. What can I say? Hemingway had the First World War. I had Gimbels.

I grew older, and the lessons turned into blessings. As an impoverished graduate student living on the Upper West Side, I discovered that precious gift to upward mobility: the Barneys warehouse sale. One day, I was surrounded by the pedigreed scions of wealth, my frayed sleeves and cheap shoes betraying my humble origins and straitened circumstances. The next I was an Armani-clad, Prada-shod prince.

There is nothing like the melting pot of the final feverish minutes of the warehouse sale, when prices are slashed by 80 percent and you can pick up a Calvin Klein sport jacket for the price of a bag of organic potatoes. Kids from the South Bronx are plowing bins of Brioni shirts alongside bankers and movie producers. Refugees who have fled from some of the most tragic places on Earth are slipping their feet into Varvatos boots in preparation for a new life.

It is like those moments in Homer when a god casts a protective glow over a favored mortal. For a moment, the iron laws of economics surrender to the idea of equality. If the custodians of public order knew what depths of anarchy lurked in such moments of retail grace, they might not allow them.

But there is nostalgia clinging to department stores now, if not outright pathos, as online shopping approaches its final triumph. No more poor kids jostling with financial titans over Armani sweaters. No more stealing your first kiss in a stockroom among boxes of shoes like smitten actors smooching in the wings between acts. No more warehouse sales or Macy’s one-day sales, in which capitalism lowers its fences and teeming humanity rushes in, like Walt Whitman’s masses, in hopes of achieving through appearance what seems less and less attainable by merit alone.

So in this twilight of the department-store behemoths, bring on the holiday sanctums of retail. Say what you will about the many virtues of online convenience, without the tutelary symbolism of fitting rooms and escalators, the middle class will have one less inspiration on the road to fulfillment. Prada boots, start walking.