Philadelphia's loss reminds us of our own


It's not hard to see why so many old-time Philadelphians are wincing at the expected loss of the name of John Wanamaker on their landmark department store.

Last week came the announcement that the great JW name would disappear from the Quaker City's retailing giant at 13th and Market streets.

Here in Baltimore, we have suffered similar indignity. We have lost both Hutzler Brothers and Hochschild-Kohn, to say nothing of the old Stewart's and Brager-Gutman. And that's only in the last decade or so. Howard Street, once the pride of the city, is today its shame.

I know the sports crowd tends to equate the worth of a city in terms of its professional teams, their stars, their win-loss record and the home town spirit. But there are other forms of city worth.

I nominate the affection and pride that went with the huge department store cathedrals built in the century that is now slipping away.

One day some 40 years ago, my grandfather packed me on a dark red Pennsylvania Railroad coach and said, "Now I'm going to show you a real city." As a native-born Pennsylvanian, he meant Philadelphia.

In the morning he took me to Independence Hall and dutifully showed me the Liberty Bell. He saw to it that I stuck my finger in its crack. For lunch he instructed me in the ways of the Horn & Hardart Automat, but was careful not to make any slaps at Baltimore's quasi-version thereof, the old Horn & Horn on Baltimore Street, one of his favorite local eating addresses.

Then, in the afternoon, we had a tour of the great John Wanamaker store.

As a rule, my grandfather had no use for department stores. He left that side of the family operation to his wife. But not when he came to Philadelphia. He showed me -- or rather showed off -- the elevator cabs, the massive escalators, the bronze eagle on the main floor where generations of Philadelphians have gathered to meet their friends. He showed me the big oil paintings, the marble floors and made me listen to John Philip Sousa marches played on the pipe organ.

But he reserved his special delight for the basement.

Trained as a civil engineer, he was absolutely prideful at the way the Frankford-Market El (short for elevated, although very much a subway) cars deposited shoppers at the store's basement level. There were (and are) also five streetcar lines that run underground here, too.

Pop E.J. Monaghan thought this was the way to run a department store and indoctrinated me early. I never forgot that day.

I recall all this Wanamaker greatness in the same way that I still suffer from a case of Hutzler Brothers withdrawal.

Baltimore's Hutzler's and Hochschild's never went in for the eagles and organs and the retailing pomposities of a Wanamaker. These were Philadelphia icons.

But the Baltimore versions could hold their own in the reliability and quality departments, as well as the hometown sentiments.

Old city department stores became linked with the communities they served. To those who knew the old, locally owned and supported retailing palaces, there was a distinct connection.

I think of Richmond's Miller & Rhoads and Thalhimer Brothers; Washington's Julius Garfinkle and Woodward & Lothrop (which appears to be gobbled up in this Wanamaker deal as well); Wilmington had its quirky Wilmington Dry Goods; New York, with so many department stores, nevertheless lost its B. Altman and Gimbel Brothers.

Each of these masonry piles had a connection with its host city. Repeat customers knew the buyers and floor walkers. Sales people worked there all their lives.

These department stores were big and cautious, but they were also comforting in their permanence. And they bristled with little touches, pluses and minuses that gave them personality.

That is, of course, until they began to fall to the huge retail consolidators. It's not the same as when your local bank merges into some corporate entity controlled in a far-away Rochester or Houston.

No, the loss of a department store is more personal, more what you grew up with. Call it community standard or just a part of your life.

And no matter what, I still miss the vegetable soup, cheese bread and coffee chiffon pie at Hutzler's, Howard and Clay streets.

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