Time seems to have gotten away from me this week, so enjoy this tasty leftover from 2014.
Once upon a time, every city had a grand, family-owned department store and Rochester, New York was no different. In fact, we had several of them. McCurdy’s, Sibley’s, The National, Edward’s and B. Forman’s were the places where Rochesterian’s filled their shopping bags, and the crown jewels of these fine stores were located downtown on Main Street. As the urban exodus began to take place in the 1960s, suburban versions of those stores opened in selected strip plazas and eventually, they anchored the cavernous new shopping malls.
It was 1973, and I had just graduated from high school with no plans, no money, and no direction. College wasn’t even on my radar at that time and although I tried, I couldn’t get one of the high-paying entry-level jobs at Kodak, so there wasn’t much left but retail. I applied for a job at McCurdy’s, in what was then Longridge Mall and I was hired and placed in the men’s suit department. On my first day, I was paired up with a gentleman named Jack Comber, who was probably the same age that I am now, and he trained me not only in the nuances of fine men’s clothing but in the art of the sale.
It didn’t take long before I was able to determine somebody’s suit size without even asking, and by the time the customer finished trying on the pants, I already had shirts, ties, belts and shoes fanned out on the table. Of course, I was padding the sale, but I was also being helpful because if a person was buying a suit, didn’t he need a new shirt, tie and maybe shoes to go with it? Jack told me that if I treated the customers well, they’d come back and he was right. Much to my surprise, I was earning a not-too-shabby living selling men’s clothing.
There was a distinct formality to the job too. All of the male employees in the store had to wear a suit, regardless of what department they worked in, and we had to leave the jacket on at all times when we were on the floor. If Mr. McCurdy paid a surprise visit and a man wasn’t wearing his jacket, McCurdy would personally explain why this was important. My goal was not to annoy Mr. McCurdy but rather to impress him because the flagship store wasn’t at Longridge Mall; it was downtown, and that’s where I wanted to be.
The downtown store had revolving brass entrance doors, six floors, elaborate displays and elevators that had an actual person who operated them. There were shiny marble floors, oak counters, fancy chandeliers and a quiet tearoom where mothers and daughters would go for lunch. The downtown McCurdy’s rivaled anything New York City had to offer.
This was also the store where businessmen bought Hart Schaffner & Marx and Hickey-Freeman suits on their lunch hour, so a transfer downtown would easily double my commissions, but those positions never opened up. Somebody had to die to get one of those jobs. I spent six months in “executive training” in the downtown location, but that’s as close as I would get to the big show.
McCurdy’s was across the street from Sibley’s, but there was more than enough business for two fancy department stores—that is until there wasn’t. McCurdy’s finally closed in 1994, a shell of what it used to be and long after I had moved on to something else. In 2010, they demolished Midtown Plaza and with it, any vestige of the ornate façade and elaborate cornices of the old McCurdy’s building. The new building that is replacing Midtown Plaza resembles one of those chunky, dismal structures that were built by the Soviets on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. It’s supposed to be a mixed-use building when it finally reopens in a few years, the exact mixture yet to be determined.
Shortly after McCurdy’s closed and once all the merchandise was gone, they started selling store fixtures at the old Longridge store. I made a trip back and bought some adjustable wooden shelving units from the stockroom of the men’s department for thirty-five dollars apiece. I didn’t really need them—I just wanted them. Some of the shelves still had the labels on the edges that showed the shirt sizes—16/32, 16½ /32, 16/33 and so on—and I remembered how many afternoons I spent stacking shirts collar to hem so they wouldn’t slide off the shelves. Everything had to be neat, even the back rooms.
I don’t think of McCurdy’s too often, but it was my first full-time job and I had a unique opportunity to learn a few things that have come in handy more than once over the almost forty years since I left the store. I learned from a master tailor how to properly iron a shirt and sew on a button, which is not as simple as one would think. I also know how to tie several different knots for a necktie and the names for each of those knots and which goes with what collar. I can still tell what size suit a person wears just by looking at them, and even though fashion has changed, I still know how things are supposed to fit, although these new shorter, tighter jackets have me a little off-balance.
Admittedly, these skills aren’t called into play all too often, but sometimes they’ll come rushing back when I least expect it.
A few weeks ago, my (future) son-in-law, a handful of his groomsmen and I all went out to buy our wedding suits. Finding nice suits that not only fit, but that also matched and were readily available for almost a dozen men of disparate sizes and ages was no easy feat, but they were found at Macy’s.
As is typical of the current retail trend, there was one person per department (if that) and that person was shackled behind the cash register. I truly believe store employees aren’t allowed to step from behind the register lest they burst into flames, so when a group of guys came in all at once to buy suits; that register shackle got inexplicably shorter. We all managed to find what we needed on our own and those that didn’t could order what they needed. After we tried on the various sizes in the dressing rooms, we went up one by one to pay for our suits.
The cashier rang up the first guy in our party without too much difficulty. He did have to call to reserve a jacket in a different size (the suits were sold as separates) in a different store, so in order to preserve the special pricing we received, a jacket in the wrong size was purchased and an exchange would be made the next day in the other store. This wasn’t as complicated as it sounds, but it took at least twenty minutes to get it set-up.
When the sale was done, the cashier took the pants and wadded them up around his forearms as if he was reeling in fifty feet of extension cord from a hedge trimmer and then he shoved them in a plastic bag. I watched in horror as he took the suit coat and did the same thing, twirling it around as if he were making taffy until finally cramming it in with the pants. He then held the overstuffed bag at arm’s length as if it were a sack of fetid diapers. “Here ya’ go!” he said.
I was next.
“I’d like the suit left on a hanger, not wadded up and shoved in a bag like dirty laundry,” I said as kindly as I could. He was not much older than I was when I started selling suits, but he didn’t have a Jack Comber to show him the ropes. Nobody does anymore, and one can’t blame anyone for doing something wrong if nobody ever showed them how to do it right.
“OK, that pole? The one with the notch on top? Just hang the suit on that,” I said. “Now see if you can find a big plastic bag with a slot in the top.”
He scrounged around and found one.
“OK, slip it over the suit, hang on to the hanger, step on that foot pedal to drop the pole and there you go. Now tie a knot in the bottom of the bag so that if the pants fall off the hanger, they won’t fall out of the bag.”
It was as if a lightbulb went on in is head and he just learned a new language. After that, the rest of the suits were properly dispensed, just as they should be. My (future) son-in-law had to show him how to put pants on a suit hanger, but that seemed to go well and by the end of the night, if he was paid on commission, he made a tidy buck and learned how to do his job a little better. Who knows if that salesclerk will someday leave the confines of the cash register and actually help somebody find a suit, but it is possible to make a decent living in retail—one just has to do more than stand behind a counter and scan UPC codes.
I miss the way things were in the old department stores. Even Macy’s, which is big, isn’t that grand. Maybe it is in Manhattan, but not anywhere else that I’ve seen. Nobody gets trained in anything other than how to point a laser scanner, nobody walks the floors asking if they can help and nobody cleans the pins and discards from the dressing rooms.
We’ve all gotten used to figuring it out by ourselves, often left alone to shuffle through the piles until we get frustrated and leave empty handed. It’s no longer McCurdy’s and the Garden Room for lunch; it’s Old Navy and the food court, and that’s a shame.
We constantly hear how the Internet killed brick and mortar stores, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. I think the lack of customer service drove the nails in the coffin as corners were cut in the wrong places. If I’m not going to get any help whatsoever, I can do that online, at home, in my pajamas, just by clicking the right radio buttons with my mouse pointer. If you give people something special with even an ounce of personal interaction, and if you make them feel as if the money they’re spending is appreciated, that’s what gets them through the doors—even if those doors don’t revolve anymore.