My new article on the downtown department store, and its inevitable decline, is in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe. Here's a taste:
It’s looking like Christmas in Boston’s Downtown Crossing, thanks to the wreaths, the colored lights, and the 60-foot tree at Macy’s, but the holiday decorations can’t hide a ghost at the center of it all: the cheerless facade and huge hole in the ground that used to be Filene’s.
Today, Christmas shopping for most of us means going online or driving out to a mall. But not too long ago, it was a different kind of experience. In Boston, it meant a trip downtown to Filene’s or Jordan Marsh, the department stores that would try to outdo each other in winter-themed window displays and oversized wreaths. It meant riding escalators up and down as you tried to decide between a scarf and a punch bowl for your sister or between a sweater and a camera for your dad.
For a century, department stores — real department stores, the ones built by local families, that dominated city centers and could take up entire blocks — ruled downtowns the way they ruled the holiday season. They felt like part of a city’s infrastructure, as much a part of the urban fabric as the parks and the libraries.
If you're a present or former resident of the Hub, check out Shopping Days in Retro Boston for a fantastic gallery of photos and ads from the Golden Age of department stores (mostly the 1950s).