Department Stores

Back when I was a young child growing up in Melbourne my father used to take me on special outings to the Myer department store, usually around the time of my birthday or Christmas. We’d park outside the hospital where Dad taught and walk into the city. The smell of warm nuts would welcome me into the store, then we’d go up past the clothes, the sports and camping gear, up to the toy section where I would chose a Star Wars or Lego toy for my present and dream about getting another model train from their wall of them.

The Myer Flagship store in Melbourne

Later we moved to the city of Rockhampton in Central Queensland. We had a couple of father and son shopping days there too, where we’d wander around the city, looking for a present. Again, I longed for a department store like Myer. There was Stewarts, an old building with multiple levels. It had that sense of age about it, but it only sold clothes and soft furnishings, nothing of interest to a kid. That was disappointing.

Nearby, Milroys sold more, but I don’t recall anything of interest there until its closing down sale when the shelves were filled with an strange selection of odds and ends: Racing car tracks without racing cars, a stack of Bib Fortuna Star Wars figurines.

And that was it for department stores in Rocky. There was the K-Mart, the BigW, but they are one storey, modern affairs, full of cheaper goods and no atmosphere.

To me a city isn’t a real city unless it has a proper department store.

The Takashimaya department store in Matusyama, Japan.

But, according to the sales figures, the department stores are dying now. Their eclectic selections work against them in this consumerist society with all the world’s goods at their fingertips. We all want the biggest ranges and the cheapest prices and too time poor to wander aimlessly we’ll order it online and send it directly home.

As a consequence the department store has streamlined and reduced what it sells. I go into a Myer now and the toy section is often tiny and not just shrunk by adult eyes. No wall of Star Wars or model trains, just a few choices hanging on a rack (Lego might be the exception, with all their different options now). Computers reduced to a couple of small tables, maybe three brands in all.

I love the old fashioned department stores. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because they are not like a regular shop that sells a single type of good, where you enter with a single defined purpose. There’s the mystery, never knowing what you will find on each level as you wander through the maze of aisles, through islands of goods in a sea of paths, at each opening of the lift or the top of each escalator new discoveries to be made. There is something tangible about shopping in a real department store that online shopping can’t match.

And it seems that I am not alone in believing this.

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