End of an era

What happens when a city loses its heart?

The Boston Store, Milwaukee’s last great department store and the last link to the past greatness of Milwaukee’s once bustling and vibrant downtown, is gone.

Bon Ton, the owner of Boston Store, Yonkers Carsons, and other retail stores, is liquidating.

It is still hoped that someone will buy their inventory and save the once great Milwaukee landmark, The Boston Store, unfortunately however, that is the merest breath of a hope.

The city of Milwaukee had thrown millions of dollars at The Boston Store to help it survive and keep it downtown, but that was just wishful thinking.

This is most likely the death nell of not only The Boston Store, but of department stores everywhere. Once, like the proud bison of the American plains, they were everywhere, thundering across our consciousness.

You couldn’t throw a snowball in downtown Milwaukee without hitting one of these majestic giants. They were Amazon before there ever was an Internet.

Our downtown thrived because of these flagship retail stores. Beautiful edifices dedicated to Gimbel’s, T.A. Chapman’s, Schusters, Epenhains, J.C. Penny, Woolworths and more graced the streets all veying for our shopping dollars.

And they were all successful. Milwaukee’s downtown was bustling with humanity. Well-dressed people strolled up and down the Grand Avenue, now Wisconsin Avenue, shopping. The streets were filled with cars looking for a space to park.

Now the streets are deserted in comparison to those days of the mid-twentieth century.

But downtown isn’t the only place experiencing this hole in its economy due to the loss of the department store, malls everywhere also are losing their anchor stores that once drew hordes of shoppers.

Sears recently closed here, and now soon The Boston Store will be gone, leaving vacant buildings filled only with the echoes of memories while mall managements everywhere scramble to fill these large empty spaces at the ends of their malls.

Just a few weeks ago I blogged about how The Boston Store downtown had shrunk from owning a massive many-storied building covering nearly an entire city block to becoming just a tiny tenant within it.

I didn’t think I’d be writing their obituary so soon.

Good bye, The Boston Store. We had some grand times, didn’t we?

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Shadows of downtown

I walked through the downtown Boston Store yesterday, to get some gift ideas, and I was shocked to realize they had cut it in half.

The street level store area used to extend from Wisconsin Avenue all the way back to Michigan Avenue and the second floor extended for the same length.

But now they’ve walled up the store halfway. I believe I read the other part will be office space and condos or something.

It makes me sad because the downtown Boston Store is all that remains of downtown’s glory days as the city’s primary shopping area and the place to go.

The Boston Store, as well as the former Gimbel’s, were the Taj Mahal’s of department stores and coexisted along side J.C. Penny, T.A. Chapman’s, and others throughout the 20th century.

Sure, all those stores had other locations at Capital Court mall, Mayfair mall, and other malls, but the downtown stores were special. They were a delight to visit. Mall stores were small in comparison, maybe two floors and at best 260,000 square feet for the Capital Court Gimbel’s.

But downtown? The Gimbel’s and the Boston Store occupied an entire city block and were 7 or 8 stories of shopping adventure.

Shopping at these stores was an event. You didn’t just run in, grab something, and run out. No. You spent the day there. Gimbel’s had a Tasty Town grill type restaurant, as well as a delicatessen, a bakery, candy shoppe, flowers and so on. And that was just the street level.

Each floor was like visiting a completely different store. The second floor had rainwear, coats, custom wigs, lingerie, and robes. The third level had men’s clothing, men’s hats, kid’s clothing, sporting goods, and toys.

The fourth floor had housewares, appliances, oriental rugs, small electrics. The fifth floor had furniture, bedding, televisions, stereos. The sixth had lamps, mirrors, china, glassware, a gift shop, import bazaar. The 7th floor was offices, but the eighth floor had a Forum Restaurant for fine dining.

And the Boston Store was very similar. Seven floors of anything and everything you could possibly need. These were the Amazon.com of their day. Whatever you could possibly need, or imagine, could be found at these downtown department stores.

But the short-sighted removal of the trollies, the growing number of malls and white flight to the suburbs slowly killed the glamour and adventure of going downtown and visiting the department stores.

Now, the downtown Boston Store, once a glorious seven story monument to shopping adventure, has been reduced to just a shadow of it’s former magnificence, an oddity in a world where people shop online or drive to a strip mall

If you never visited one of these shopping megaliths, it’s probably hard to imagine the hustle and bustle as crowds of people moved excitedly within to the roar of conversation. The elevators were always full as they moved up and down, floor to floor, while the elevator operator chimed, “Fourth Floor. Lamps. Paintings. Mirrors. Occasional furniture.”

Sadly, the only way for someone today to get a small idea of what downtown department stores were like is by watching old Christmas movies, like “Miracle on 34th Street” or “Holiday Affair.” Unfortunately, they’re in black and white, so they give no sense of how colorful and well-lit these stores were.

The buildings still stand, but they’re mere shadows harkening back to a past when downtown was the place to see and be seen.

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