Marshall Fields ~ A Story Not A Store


When old retail shoppers from my generation think of Christmastime, we reflexively think of Marshall Fields. For 154 years, the two of us were joined at the economic and emotional hip of Chicago’s Loop. Then, as the local myth has it, it was a dark menacing day in 2006 when New York’s shark-of-a-store, Macy, swallowed up our whale-of-a-store right before our blinking eyes.

Shakespeare had Mark Antony say to his city’s mourners, “I come to bury Caesar, not praise him.” Perhaps the Tribune will allow me to play the same little deceit on its readers, for in reporting the ignominious death of Marshall Fields, my peers and I have very much to praise.

Perhaps foremost was its enduring physical presence on State Street. Surviving the ravages of fire, age and competition, there was always something fixed and sure to our Loop on that block. Not unlike dad’s weekly paychecks, mom’s daily kitchen, or the neighbors’ regular sightings, we knew down deeper than logic some things in a changing world just wouldn’t.

But of course they did when Fields started to lose its way in an age which discourteously discarded our most sacred convictions. Convictions that were really a lattice-work of personal experiences deliciously unique to each of us. The dazzling spectacle of products from around the world…the elegance of tailored floorwalkers and salespeople….the uniformed attendants servicing our needs at elevators and escalators….the special amenities like babysitters, writing rooms, and eateries from the simplest [Buffet] to the grandest [Walnut Room].

When our generation thought Marshall Fields, we thought not Store. Story. The all-day story of strolling an international bazaar of sweaters to jewels, rugs to toys, lawnmowers to grand pianos. No wonder national celebrities traveling by rail from Coast to Coast saw to it their lay-over at Union Station would be spent in the undisputed emporium-of-emporiums. And if they were especially lucky, it would be at Christmastime when the display windows burst with beauty, drama, and magic that made oohing and aawing children of us all.

Re-burying Marshall Fields here is, of course, more than an urban romance. It is also the tale of urban retail, and how it is changing the game of life in which we all play. Only a few short years after burying Fields, Macy itself faces burial. As they say on Wall Street, Macy will need another Miracle on 34th Street.

This time the enemies are of a different and digital nature, like Amazon, Apple, and Everlane. Over the past three years, Macy revenues across the nation have fallen from $27.5 billion to $24.6 billion. Some of their executives look back and consider “buying failing stores” to be a major mistake. Fields aficionados might think it-serves-them-right. Fields veterans might think we-got-out-in-time. Either way, my generation thinks, thank-goodness-for-memory.

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