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Dad was late to work that morning. It was Wednesday, Dec. 13, 1950 when he and my mom got up early to take my brother and me over to New York so we could sit on Santa’s lap at Macy’s Herald Square and tell him what we wanted for Christmas. The setting was straight out of “Miracle on 34th Street,” and it was one of my earliest recollections of Manhattan. The metropolis was all aglow with Christmas. A few weeks earlier, I had gone over to a neighbor’s house — we still didn’t have television — to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, followed by Ben Grauer’s description, on WNBT, of the huge Christmas tree in the middle of Rockefeller Center.
It took a while for the Macy’s brand to reach Columbia, but its arrival a few years ago was rather anti-climatic, coming as the successor to Famous-Barr, which itself seemed somewhat tardy in arriving. Until the Columbia Mall opened in 1985, the Columbia retail market wasn’t large enough to attract anything beyond the B-level branches of major retail stores. The J.C. Penney Company was first to break the ice on April 23, 1927, with a chain store in the Hetzler Building at 708 E. Broadway. On Oct. 29, 1928, Montgomery-Ward opened a 20,000 square foot store on several floors at the north end of the Virginia Building at Ninth and Cherry. Sears, Roebuck and Company followed with a catalog store in the Stephens Endowment Building at Tenth and Broadway.
At the time, we were being lectured about “the menace of the chain store,” this including a vigorous campaign waged by MFA president William C. Hirth. Shoppers craving the excitement, variety and selection of a multi-level, escalator-equipped department store always had to venture out-of-town. In downtown St. Louis, that meant visiting Stix, Baer and Fuller, Famous-Barr or Scruggs-Vandervort-Barney, housed in multi-level buildings downtown. The Jones Store Company and Macy’s dominated the department store field in Kansas City, but the Macy’s location there was the lineal branch of the New York flagship, way before consolidation and buy-outs in more recent times had forever altered the department store business.
Rumors flew during the 1970s about Famous-Barr — an affiliate of The May Company, of St. Louis — opening a branch in Columbia. There were whispers of plans to build a huge regional shopping center on the city’s southeast edge, though many thought such a gargantuan enterprise would scotch downtown retail activity. More recently, a Macy’s branch was vetted as the anchor of a proposed shopping center at the northwest corner of I-70 and Stadium Boulevard. But that was trumped when the Biscayne Mall was torn down and replaced by The Shoppes at Stadium, where Famous-Barr was housed in a standalone building. Now it has come to this — a 140,000-square-foot building bedecked with the Macy’s logo that will close because the entire pattern of retail merchandising is being turned on its head, supplanted by competition from online sales, merchandise distributed from huge warehouses, in addition to a specialized assortment of big-box, category-killer stores.
Some will be disappointed as Macy’s takes its curtain call. Others have noted — and this is purely subjective — that Macy’s, née Famous-Barr, never exuded the golden glow and novelty such a store might have presented at another time. In early 1984, Dillard’s department stores, of Little Rock, Arkansas, acquired the 12-store, St. Louis-based Stix, Baer and Fuller chain. As one of the original anchors of the Columbia Mall, Dillard’s has been considered a mid-level retailer on par with Famous-Barr and the Macy’s brand in what was a rather seamless transition.
Nearly $170,000 in property taxes will diminish on the soon-to-be vacant building at 204 N. Stadium Blvd, while sales taxes and receipts from the one percent TDD fee will evaporate for the time being. Wish lists abound for possible retail replacements, but the bigger question has to be the future of brick-and-mortar retailing. Thirty years ago, the region was all fired up about the Columbia Mall, the long anticipated, 800,000 square foot super-sized regional shopping venue that seemed to take forever to get here. Earlier venues that pecked away the city’s conglomeration of downtown retailers included the Broadway Shopping Center, Parkade Plaza, the Forum Shopping Center and the Biscayne Mall, but they always paled when compared to what was available in Missouri’s two largest metropolitan areas. Stop and consider how many of the Columbia Mall’s original tenants still are there, other than Dillard’s, Sears and Target. With Macy’s decision to fold its Columbia tent, it will be interesting to see what will occupy this two-story, escalator-equipped building.
For years, visionaries have prognosticated about the potential impact of computers, the vehicle to interconnect them and how all this excitement will alter our lives. While Internet sales gallop along, brick-and-mortar retailing will always be with us because of the experience it presents. Macy’s is gone. But our lives will go on because other stores will come along. For now, the biggest loss will be the receipts from sales and TDD taxes.
Christmas, 1950 – Santa came through with the American Flyer “Talking Railroad Station” I asked him to bring.