This week two long-time symbols of a bygone era passed away—Barbara Bush and The Bon-Ton, a department store chain that was founded in the town where I live. Not that I would compare the life of Barbara Bush with the demise of a retail business, but they both represent a way of living and looking at the world that has changed radically in the last few decades.
I was never a huge fan of the Bon-Ton, especially in recent years, but I did my share of shopping there. The store was an institution, a stalwart anchor, first in downtown business districts and then later in the malls that sprang up in the 1970’s. But with the growth of online shopping, the Bon-Ton along with several of its competitors, foundered and never quite achieved acceptable hip-ness. As the wolves at the door grew closer, cost-cutting in the form of shoddy merchandise and minimal staffing took its toll. On my last few visits, I left frustrated because I could not find clothing that was stylish and appropriate for my age, or because I couldn’t find someone staffing a cash register so I could pay for it.
When we remodeled our bathroom, (which naturally required new towels,) I didn’t even consider buying them at a department store. I researched the best towels on-line, bought several sets from various recommended websites, noting that every site offered a pleasant chat person to assist me. I’m an aging baby-boomer and yet that was the way I approached a purchase that ten years ago would have sent me scurrying straight to the Bon-Ton or JCPenney. The old order changeth.
I can’t say that I agreed with everything George Bush did as president, but he and Barbara conducted themselves with the grace and humility fitting for the leader and first lady of the free world. George and Barbara Bush personified the meaning of service to country and family in every aspect of their lives. They were decent people who deserved, and I think for the most part, received the respect and gratitude of an entire nation. I miss having a President who I can admire, whether or not I agree with his or her politics, and who doesn’t make me cringe with embarrassment every time they open their mouth. The Bushes were a class act, as were the grand old department stores in their heyday.
I shopped at the Bon-Ton today for what I suspect may be the last time. It was sad to see the garish “Total Liquidation, Everything Must Go” banners associated with fly-by-night furniture stores pasted over windows that always displayed the latest fashions. The high-end merchandise appeared to have already been removed from the store, and what remained was hurriedly thrown together, with racks of clothing in the aisles and minimal price reductions. The sales clerks put up a good front, but behind their pleasant demeanor, they looked shell-shocked and devastated. Probably the way a lot of government employees feel these days.
I suppose it will all sort itself out, as the British would say. Our retail world is changing just like it did when we moved from buying items at dry goods stores and ordering everything from the Sears catalog. Downtowns are coming back, and small businesses are still selling wonderful things, and the almighty internet helps us find those people who have just what we’re looking for. Today our sheets, towels and toilet paper may be dropped off by a drone, but it wasn’t so long ago that our milk and even bread and fresh meats were delivered to our home by a local merchant driving his own truck. Some of the old ways are coming back, just in a faster and more efficient way.
But it’s still hard to say good-by to the store where we bought our prom dress or sat at the Clinique counter for our first make-up lesson or where we had lunch with our grandmother in the tea room of the downtown flagship store. It’s even harder to say good-by to a woman who was truly a First Lady, another stalwart anchor from a time when the folks who occupied the White House were kind and good and cared first and foremost about our country. I hope and pray that those old ways are going to come back some day, too.