Carsons Department Stores are Closing for Good, and I Care. Do you?


Carsons is closing. A logo from earlier days.

Because Bon-Ton, the bankrupt owner of Carson’s cannot find a buyer, all Carson’s stores will be closed. Except for Carson’s employees, this is probably a pretty ho-hum announcement for most Chicagoans. After all, Chicago is the city that was Marshall Fields.

Fields had the iconic State Street Clock. It had Frango Mints and it had The Walnut Room, scene of holiday celebrations “under the Tree” for many generations.

And Fields was my family too. My mother worked at Fields, and so did my sister, my wife, and my daughter. They sold Christmas lights and fabric and candy at stores stretching from the Loop, through Old Orchard and out to Vernon Hills. For many years I would have brunch in the Walnut Room with my aunt and uncle; my initiation to doughnut holes.  But Carsons was always there too, the Second Store for the Second City.

Fields had the clock, but Carsons had the fabulous Louis Sullivan designed State Street main store. It was part of Chicago’s rich architectural history, though it didn’t feel quite the same once the building housed a Target store. But I can’t say it was the architecture of the building that has the most memories for me. Rather, it is the many Saturdays that I spent as a young boy, holding my mother’s hand as we wandered through the merchandise. Even though she worked at various times for The Fair (a long-vanished Chicago department store,) as well as Fields, my mother’s favorite store to shop at was Carson’s.

We would take the EL downtown, boarding at Morse or Loyola, staring out the window, past Wrigley, and past Fullerton until the tracks angled down and we were in the bowels of the subway. We would get off somewhere along State Street and pop in and out of Fields and Wieboldt’s. We rarely made it to Sears or Montgomery Wards. But the day would always wind up at Carson’s. When Mom was done with her purchases there, laden with shopping bags, we would head to the basement and The Tartan Tray Cafeteria. It was here that we would get our nourishment before the Subway-EL ride home. Sliding our trays along, we would pick out a sweet treat, a glass beaker of coffee for Mom and some tea for me, before searching out a table in the crowded seating area. Since then, I have had many meals in department store restaurants such as Nordstrom’s Cafe and the Zodiac Room at Nieman’s, but they don’t hold a candle to those almost forgotten department store restaurant memories.

And remember the Carsons at Edens Plaza in Wilmette? If you got your ears pierced there in 1981 or 1982, and the right side doesn’t quite match the left, you may have me to blame. Yes, I was Carson’s ear-piercer back in the days when the state required a licensed physician to do the piercing. But I have to admit that as a pathology resident, I didn’t have quite the aesthetic eye of say, a plastic surgery resident. So if you have felt slightly lopsided for the last 35  years, I apologize. To make up for it, I’ll run your next blood test or read your next biopsy for free.

Goodbye Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company! I will miss you.
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