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Exclusive Interview with Department Store Historian Bruce Kopytek – High Low Vintage

pasadena bullocks FINAL

Bruce, where did your interest in Department Stores start? You have such a breadth of knowledge.
My interest in department stores is really due to one of my family’s specialties, which was traveling.  Every summer, my parents packed us in the car and we went off on vacations which I remember very fondly. We often visited big department stores in some of the cities we explored.  Also, in Detroit, we frequented the enormous store of the J. L. Hudson Co. which was a place of great variety, from bargain basement to top-floor restaurant.  A visit to Chicago in the 1970s introduced me to the wonders of that city’s great Marshall Field & Company store.  Its breadth and atmosphere made a deep impression on me.  Later, when visiting different cities, I always made sure I saw the downtown department stores wherever I was – and kept copies of their logos (traced from newspaper ads) and notes on the layout of the buildings, or bits of memorabilia that I found.  All of this remained in a box until the creation of The Department Store Museum in 2010.

When was the Golden Era of Department Stores?
In reality, I believe that the golden era of department stores was a long one, and encompassed much of the first half of the 20th century.  The great department store buildings reached their ultimate form in the early part of this era, and the stores themselves, along with the great metropolitan hotels, railroad stations, and public institutions formed the core of the great American cities, drawing citizens for business and leisure.  The stores themselves, like the people that patronized them, made it through a terrible depression sandwiched between a pair of devastating wars, to remain during this period as true community institutions. 
What made a Great Department Store great?
The great stores had style, and endeared themselves to the communities they served.  For example, Rich’s was practically synonymous with Atlanta, Bamberger’s with Newark, and so on.  They participated in their home communities and people literally lived their lives in these stores – shopping, visiting, eating, etc. The stores were very diverse in the wide varieties of merchandise they carried, and operated with a great deal of style, becoming arbiters of fashion, quality and value for their patrons.
Name a few of your favorites and why.
A list of favorite department stores would have to have Chicago’s Marshall Field & Company at the top.  The store was aristocratic, authoritative, and was housed in one of America’s most beautiful retail buildings.  It maintained its distinctive traditions longer than most, and attained a status which approached being “beloved” of the citizens of Chicago.  John Wanamaker, B. Altman & Co. of New York, Woodward & Lothrop of Washington DC, L.S. Ayres of Indianapolis, Higbee’s of Cleveland, Bullock’s of Los Angeles and Frederick & Nelson of Seattle were similarly unique in the way they were appreciated, but in reality there is a long, long list of stores which were highly regarded by patrons, employees, and even other retailers.

Could you describe a typical afternoon of shopping at one of these Department Stores?
The greatest difference between today’s concept of shopping, and an afternoon of shopping in the past, is that it was certainly more of an experience, than a necessity.  Typically, a family or group of friends would plan a shopping excursion, dressing for the occasion, and most often including lunch and/or a movie. They might travel downtown on a bus – but they wouldn’t necessarily worry about dragging packages back home because most stores maintained extensive delivery services and guaranteed delivery of parcels on the next day.  Later, when branch stores were built, families might have shopped locally on one of the evenings they were open, but for a special occasion, people still went downtown, where selections were broader due to the size of the main store.  This was especially true at Christmas-time when a trip downtown to shop, see Santa Claus, and to have lunch in a beautifully-decorated environment was a cherished family event.

Since High Low Vintage is in Pasadena, CA could you speak to Bullock’s Pasadena and what made the Bullock’s stores so wonderful.
A little-known fact about Bullock’s is that it was one of few major department stores founded by another retailer.  Arthur Letts, who founded The Broadway, acquired the lease to a department store under construction in downtown Los Angeles, and backed his employee John Bullock in the creation of a new store. Bullock’s catered to a wealthier clientele than the Broadway from the start, and did so throughout its life.  Bullock’s was a pioneer in branch-store development, beginning with its landmark Wilshire store (which later became a separate entity) and was even unique in its organizational structure – each branch was managed and stocked differently than the main store, and given an autonomy that was rare among most stores.  Until the policy was changed in the 1960s, the branch stores had their own management, buyers and even logos, which can be seen at The Department Store Museum.  The ravishing Pasadena store came along in 1947, and for a war-weary nation recovering from years of sacrifice and uncertainty, pointed the way to a future that was bright, modern and positive.  In an era when retail is centered around the ambiguity of the “big box,” the Bullock’s Pasadena store still stands out as a landmark and watershed in terms of its architecture, and its warm, welcoming interior of luxurious materials and rich colors. Perhaps that is one of the defining traits of the great department stores – that they combined many aspects, including architecture, fashion, business, and gastronomy – into a well-appreciated institution which effortlessly bound itself to its customers through good will, style and value in a very endearing way, which is still remembered long after they have passed into history.

Thanks so much!  And to all HLV’rs, be sure to check out Bruce’s website
The Department Store Museum.