11.30.2010

Flagships of New York: A Self-Guided Holiday Walk to New York's Department Stores

Somewhere the other day in a New York department store - where was I? - stopping to chat with a cosmetic representative and to try a whiff of perfume, riding the escalator to the store's main restaurant, examining the selection of leather wallets, asking directions from an elegant worker in black, searching for the holiday decorations on whatever floor, locating the women's room, trying on a trench coat, gazing upward at the vaulted main floor lit up in bright white lights - can't remember - the exterior world dissolved. Suddenly there was only the world of the store, a certain kind of place with its own life and culture. Without a view of the outside, the inner world of the artificially lit universe collapsed on itself. Time and place were suspended.

walking by a window at Bergdorf Goodman

While recalling some of the department stores of New York holidays past - Gimbels, Bonwit Teller or B. Altman, there's the realization that the stores operate within a larger economy and could vanish. Owners can sell off the failing stores or shutter them. That's happened many times. But what's striking about the remaining department stores in New York, especially the historic ones that grew with the city, is their resilience, their ability to emerge stronger after refinancing, acquisition, or rebranding.

strolling Fifth Avenue
Importantly, department stores represent an ideal of cosmopolitanism, and for those who grew up in less than cosmopolitan places, the large department store can provide a way of learning about the world and a path to a larger universe. The fantasies presented in some of the great department stores invites those with wanderlust to connect to the great cities - New York, Paris, Milan, even if it's only through window shopping. On the other hand, there's nothing more depressing and alienating than strolling through the aisles of a department store that is failing, doesn't care, or is situated as an anchor in a forgotten mall in a struggling town in a collapsing economy.

For New York, its historic stores and specialty stores such as Tiffany and Co. and FAO Schwartz have functioned as an important part of the society and economy, generating income from tourists and locals. The successful stores have exported the idea of the city itself, an alluring beacon or a chimera of opulence and wealth. Truman Capote's Holly Golightly, a poor Texas child of the Great Depression, feels better at Tiffany's.


New York's decorated store windows of the holidays transform the street into an outdoor museum. Walking the avenues to see the special lights and decorations for the holiday season elevates the city into the space of musical theater. Arm in arm, in their waistcoats and top hats, bustles and trains, the flâneur spirits of seasons past stroll the streets again.

a window at Macy's

The self-guided walk on the map includes the major department stores as well as many other famous points of interest - St. Patrick's Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall, MoMA, The New York Public Library, Bryant Park, and the Empire State Building.


View Favorite Stops for the Holidays in New York: A Walk in a larger map

Read all the posts in this series, Flagships of New York:

The Great Department Stores (introduction)

Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue

Macy's on the Home Front, Photographs by Marjorie Collins for the FSA/OWI

Bloomie's and Barneys

Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel

A Self-Guided Holiday Walk to New York's Department Stores.

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple.

No comments: