Thursday, September 14, 2023

Through Charley's Door by Emily Kimbrough

This summer, I travelled to Oxford UK to participate in an adult study program of Irish and Scottish literature post WWI. The program was fairly structured over the two-week period. We attended class every morning and most afternoons, excursions were planned. On the bus one afternoon, a woman in the group asked to sit by me. She said to me- I heard that you worked at Marshall Field's? Why yes, I did. And we fell into an excited conversation about our experiences of what was the empress of empresses of retail. She and I became bus buddies for the rest of the trip. And now home, we are friends (two Marshall Field's gals pictured below). 
On one of the trips, she asked if I had ever read the novel, "Through Charley's Door," written by a woman who had worked in the store upon graduating college. I hadn't ever even heard of the book. I was given a copy of "Give the Lady What She Wants" upon graduating from Marshall Field's Internal Management Program ... in paperback form. I own a hardcover copy of it that an elder cousin gifted to me. She had worked at Marshall Field's as a young woman during the 1950's. By the time that I returned home from the trip, I had forgotten about the book mention. And then the mailman delivered a copy of "Through Charley's Door." My friend sent me a copy of the book. 

The book brought back many memories of Marshall Field's and the beauty of it, particularly of the flagship store on State Street where I worked as a manager for eight years. I began my retail career at a suburban branch of Field's as a part-time sales associate. I had just left college and did not have a clue as to which direction that I should take. I had spent more time at college involved in campus activities as a student organizer than I did at class. I had gone to college with the idea that I would go into some sort of journalism. I had self-published one edition of a newsletter for my Girl Scout troop. I wrote a rock music column for the junior high school newspaper. And I became editor of the high school newspaper. But the journalism classes were boring. And I really had more of an aptitude for Science and Math if you can imagine. My favorite science was Chemistry, for its experimentation. I loved my lab book for that class.

Marshall Field's holds special memories for me. As a child, my grandfather would take us to the State Street store on Christmas Eve for a look at the display windows that attracted visitors from across the Midwest. We would spend some time in the toy department for a look around, which seemed to be a whole floor. We would pay a visit to Santa, naturally. And then we would lunch at the Walnut Room, which was very fancy indeed. It was there that we always looked most forward to a slice of Frango Mint ice cream pie. My grandfather moved out of state, so that tradition faded, but my grandmother, who visited us every Saturday from the city, would take us as a special treat to the little restaurant inside of the suburban Field's store near our house for a slice of the heavenly Frango Mint pie. 

It wasn't just the allure of pie that made Field's so magnificent. It was a palace of beautiful things that I had never seen before. The air was perfumed. And the bustle of the people shopping was very exciting. My memories are particularly keen for the visits during winter months. To step in to the warmth of the store after the bite of the cold made the trip worthwhile. We would stomp our boots on the weather mats and enter a sparkly, enchanted palace. I couldn't tell you what specifically was so wonderful, except the feeling of it was. It is fair to say that it has been so hard to let go of  the memory of Marshall Field's after Macy's bought it for so many people because the connection was emotional. Losing it to Macy's was like losing a friend. I have not found anyone like her (Bloomingdale's at 59th Street in NYC has a hint of it now).

Reading "Through Charley's Door" was a tonic. Though set in the 20's, it reminded me so much of the time that I spent in the store in the '80's. I began working at the State Street store four or five years after it had been acquired by BAT (British American Tobacco). My start date was at the first of December. I can recall that month so well. The store was dusty and in need of some loving care, but it was beautiful just as she was. The wood floors creaked and bounced under my heels. Peeks behind false walls showed evidence of what it may have looked in Kimbrough's time at the store. The air was perfumed, the bustle was active, and there was no end to the receipt of interesting merchandise  that came up from the dock.

Charley's door is the porter/doorman who mans the 28 W. Washington Street door, which led quickly to what would become the 28 Shop that showcased all of the latest, most exquisite ladies' fashions. Kimbrough travels through the store for her job as the content creator for the "Little Things Noticed on a Walk through the Store" column. As she carried out her duties across the store, I recognized many of the departments as they hadn't changed that much to my first couple of months working in the store. She would have to talk to the buyers of that department to discuss what she saw as things worth noticing because if they appeared in print, they would sell fast. When I started at State Street, our buyers were still on the floor. If something was selling quickly, all that I had to do was pop my head in a door and tell the buyer that we needed more. 

When Emily visits the book department are probably my favorite stories. The buyer was a demanding and bombastic Irish woman, who nearly every one in the store was intimidated by. But through her talent and skill, she built up a business that focused on the writer and poet. She was the first to form relationships with the creatives and developed an audience for some who may not have ever sold more than a few copies. She would invite the authors in to the store to meet the public and sign copies of their books. This was in the 1920's! And she was a woman who created this opportunity. Emily describes the tea parties that this buyer would have with the authors and invited guests to stay after the store closed to drink tea and eat sandwiches and treats that she would order in house. Wouldn't that have been a magnificent experience. Even when I was working there, the best events were ones that happened after the store closed. My favorite office holiday party that I have attended was that first year at State Street. Holiday parties were always scheduled after the New Year when the business of the store got back to normal. The manager's party was held in the Walnut Room, which was the first retail store in-house restaurant. I believe that the walnut paneling is still original. A small jazz band played and the food & drink were great, but it was being in the store after closing hours that was so wonderful. I believe that the building holds all of the past in it. With the light turned off except where managers had to travel to and from off, all of that past came out and chatted. And did they have a lot to say.

Back to my copy of "Give the Lady What She Wants!" it is signed by Hurston M. McBain. I didn't realize it at the time that the book came into my possession, but Emily reminded me that he began his career as a bill adjuster and moved to become John G. Shedd's, President and Chairman, office boy. Emily encounters him in the book. And later, Mr. McBain, would become the youngest President and Chairman ever when he was 40 in 1943. He remained in that position until 1958. For me, I started as part-time sales associate and definitely got even more of the bug. I loved being in the store. After reading Kimbrough's book, I realized that I am part of the Field's dream. Let me explain. According the Kimbrough book, Field's was a first in hiring woman to its salesforce. It was considered an appropriate form of employment. Kimbrough also suggests that they were a first in carving out careers for woman returning from colleges as early as the '20's, for those who may or may not desire to take the traditional move after college- marriage. And finally, the book verifies that from the time that the story is set to my tenure, it was possible to rise in the ranks.  Like Kimbrough, Field's gave me a chance to figure it out after I left college. And it also recognized my skill and talent and gave me the opportunity to move from sales force to management. 

What a gem of a book!

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin

Once off of the Interstate, the Wisconsin River Valley showed itself in all of its beauty. Rolling hills, broad valleys, small lakes, and impressive farms rolled past as I drove toward Taliesin, Welsh for shining brow, Frank Lloyd Wright's home there and the area to which he was born (picture left of a view of the environs from the house).

Wright’s home, studio, and garden sanctuary was a laboratory for architecture and design. In its three iterations, Taliesin embodies Wright’s ideas of organic architecture, expanded and refined from his earlier Prairie School works. From the courtyards and gardens to the Living Room, Loggia, and Birdwalk, Taliesin offers a commanding view of the valley, settled by Wright’s Welsh ancestors. Using natural local limestone and Wisconsin River sand, Taliesin stands as “shining brow” on Wright’s favorite boyhood hill.  (

Not a Frank Lloyd Wright fan specifically, I decided to drive up to Wisconsin with it as a destination and for the opportunity to get away to the country and, hopefully, run into a few antique/vintage stores along the way. I booked a 2-hour tour of the house and school, opened by Wright's spinster aunts who instituted a school in the original building found on the land, which was to become Taliesin and later Wright's own school of architecture and eventual home.

The tour began in the school. Apparently, students came to board at it from as far away as Chicago, which is, nowadays, a three hour drive. When the sisters closed the school after 30 years, Wright tore down the original building and built up the existing buildings. I was immediately taken by the beautiful stone used, a local quarry supplied the smooth, porous stone used inside and out. I couldn't help but run my hand along it as we climbed the steps into the main building. There, the ghosts of students past were in attendance, and it wasn't hard to imagine the children attending the Hillside Home School or the men that would travel to work with Wright. The wood floors had a life of their own and the creak and groans reverberated. The floors reminded me of the ones that I walked across early in my career at Marshall Field's State Street store before the big renovation that moved out most of the old charm of the storied department store in the early '90's. The floors in the Ukrainian Village vintage apartment that I lived in for 24 years were much the same. At Taliesin, I walked in circles across them, kicking up the dust in celebration of old, creaky wooden floors.

One of the artifacts highlighted by the guide are pictured here. Wright was of the mind that in order to create, one has to play. Our tour guide said that he would give students, like children, the challenge of taking ordinary objects or unlike ones to play with in order to build something new. Interestingly, Jeff Tweedy, of the band Wilco, wrote in his book essentially the same. In writing about songwriting, Tweedy said that most adults have lost their sense of play. And if adults played more, they would create more of whatever they have the need or desire to do. When I was in college, I took a popular general studies class offered- The Fundamentals of Design.  The professor was a known designer, Harold Grosowski, Weird Harold, who designed the shape of Dove soap of all things, and was a peculiar, entertaining teacher. In his class, most assignments centered on  taking ordinary, varied objects to create something new. For one assignment I was given two elements, nails and paper, and was challenged to make a Christmas ornament. I really connected to the class. I didn't have the desire to create objects in the end, but the thinking process appealed to me as it allowed me to entertain different ideas and consider how together they could be the genesis of another idea altogether. 

As we walked outside to the beautiful grounds, I captured the picture of the outdoor chairs scattered under the shade of trees and had a strong sense of my own college campus, which sprawled across an equally green landscape. My campus had been a hippy haven in its day, which I could imagine as I wandered across the naturalscaped lawns and through dusty buildings. The Taliesin School of Architecture began in the 1930's well before the time that I attended college, but the sense of it was overwhelming for me. I transcended to a space and time where the possibility of imagining how different things, natural things, could come together to create something new was possible. The ghosts of the place have free reign in that Wisconsin river valley, and they've stories to tell.

I won't go through each detail of the house. As I have established, I'm not necessarily a fan of Wright's plans. The house itself was one always in progress with the first two having burnt down and the third, never quite completed. I appreciate Wright's idea that a building should become a part of the landscape, not the tower over it. The wide windows allowed for breathtaking views, but the compressed hallways were claustrophobic. I fully understand how his third wife insisted on buying comfortable chairs at Marshall Fields in Chicago as anything that Wright made was hard and unforgiving. But I'm glad that I took the jaunt up to see it for myself, for I determined that it is not thing itself that is the beauty of it; rather, the ideas and inspiration that were the founding of it.

Monday, July 18, 2022

Antiquing: Toby Character Mugs


Toby Character Mugs

It's summer! What better time to spend wandering around local Antique stores to stir up the dust and take advantage of summer sales. In each of my three forays last week, I have benefitted from a summer sale. I imagine that sellers are happy to move slow moving inventory so that they can restock their rented stalls in preparation of the Autumn season, which, I imagine, is the busy season for these shops. I may be wrong, but in my experience, the shops, no matter how small, decorate for the holidays and host celebratory events.

This shop, Three Sisters in Blue Island IL, is one that I had never visited. When I first walked in, I thought to to myself, there's nothing here for me. But that feeling never deters me from the browse. I usually have something in mind that I'm looking for like a shelf for some curiosities that I purchased at another shop. I went to the basement first, my least favorite level of a shop typically, but I found something. And a shop worker happily took it off my hands to put up at the check out desk. On the main floor, I found that the shop was buzzing. It had a great vibe, the employees were friendly, and I found that they had to keep taking things from me so that I could continue shopping hands free.

At the end of the visit, I found the Toby Character Mugs. I didn't know that is what they are called, even though I have seen them before, until I checked out and the woman at the register told me that she had a collection of them in excess of 500. Goodness! What does she do with all of them? I have many collections, but I never stay with one too long as too much of a good thing can indeed be too much. And these little mugs aren't something that I would ever have looked at before. I've encountered them plenty in my travels, particularly in Great Britain. They just haven't been my thing. But then I thought ... a recent trend that I have resisted are the women's head planters. They are everywhere ... from Home Depot to Anthropology. And I've had my hand on one or two, but no!  I don't need one.

And then I saw these little guys. The shop keeper who owns 500 of them told me that they originated in the 18th Century. In a cursory search, I found that they were named for a man,Toby Fillpot, for he drank 2,000 pints of ale. Goodness. I imagine that some of these hold tremendous value, but the ones I picked up, on sale for 20% off, ran from $5-10. And it occurred to me that they would make perfect succulent planters. I've been working on my plant game. It's not been easy as my home tends to the dark, so I have to find plants that can tolerate low-light. In the kitchen, at the window, I have had success in planting succulents. The arrangement of this and that on the window sill probably needed some attention as I looked at these jugs and so bought them.

I wasn't wrong. The Toby Mugs make for perfect 'head' planters that are different than norm. And I'm happy with the purchase and the repurpose of these little treasures.

Toby Mugs with succulent plants.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Antiquing: Someone Else's Treasures Make for Great Finds

For as long as I can remember, I have been an avid antiquer. My first experiences of going into a store to peruse a collection of someone else's things may have been when we would drive to Sioux City, Iowa to visit my grandmother and also to my Aunt's in Nebraska, who lived on a farm. These ladies loved to visit the local Goodwill Stores to pick up affordable household items and books. I found in my first forays into those stores that I could afford to buy a few of the treasures with my very limited budget of a couple of bucks. 

Another event in my life that very well may have contributed to this hobby was the death of my paternal grandmother, Anne. Where I grew up in a suburb of Chicago, my grandmother lived, alone, in the heart of it. We didn't visit here there often, but when we did, the setting was very exotic to my younger self. The apartment was only a studio, but the furnishings were some that I hadn't ever seen before. She had gold metal shelves that were lined with mostly hardcover books that I imagined that I would like to read. Her bed, which was in the main room, was made to look like a sofa. And in a corner of that same room, an easel stood and canvases leaned against the wall that she herself had painted. Grandma Anne died when I was 17 years old. I'm not so sure that her life had become what it was meant to have in her estimation. Her death, I think, was of disappointment more than the cancer that spread through her body. My father was her only child, so her possessions were all dutifully packed up by my mother and brought to our house. Each box held a new treasure to behold. Most of the clothing, my mother put in her closet and used for a new job that she had started as we went off to college. But one wouldn't have been appropriate for the workplace, a pale blue satin dressing gown. When I would put it on, it would transport me back to a time when I suppose that she herself wore it in a glamorous setting. At 17, I didn't have any glamours occasions to wear it, so I would wear it to the local teen disco night. I loved to dance and the disco gave me the floor to live out my love of beats and movement. The gown knew how to move as well. We made a great pair. To this day, I still have a lot of the jewelry that she had left behind. Most of it was costume, but good costume that was made in an earlier time. I visited an antique store in California a few years ago and saw that the shop keeper has used vintage, costume jewelry to decorate a tree shaped styrofoam cone. I borrowed that idea and at Christmas bring out several trees bedazzled with Grandma Anne's jewelry to decorate for the holiday. 

In college, I was great friends with someone who also loved to spend the day browsing through other people's cast offs. When he left the Midwest to return to his home in the East, I would visit. There, the antique shops were full of items different from what I was used to discovering. He collected all sorts of sea fearing items like boat flags, buoys, and light house remnants. We spent hours and days going from one warehouse to the next along the water. Then he made some serious money in software design and bought a beautiful house. For the first time, we would crawl through serious antique stores looking at French antique chairs and tables. These items were all well beyond my budget, even now, but it was wonderful imagining who owned them a century before.

Now what to call what it is that I like do. I've always called it antiquing. I expect to find stores or markets full of 'things' that are old. Anymore, the term 'vintage' is used and that they are, however, I'm not inclined to say 'vintaging.' Another term bandied about is 'thrift.' But when I think of a thrift store, I'm more inclined to think of clothing not household items. And as much I love to buy a trinket, I'm not one for buying clothing second hand. For one, I find the sizing to be small. And another, as I worked in retail for ten years at an high end department store, I like my clothing fresh off of the rack ... the clearance rack of course, but brand new none the same. But that is for another sort of post. I'm going to stick with antiquing. And in a new vain of posts, I'll talk to what I've found out on that road. As I look around my house, I have many collections of items and some furniture that I've found in my search. And now that I've been doing this for a few decades, I'm beginning to find a story of what is to be found and what has gone away.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses

While putting away Christmas things, I moved a stack of books that I had hidden from view. It was a stack as many who 'decorate' use as a focal point of interest on the shelves of side tables or displayed on coffee tables. I'm not sure if anyone who visits the house ever opens up one of the books on display, but this time, I took the time to sort and look through the books that are used mostly as dust collectors. Robert Louis Stevenson's "A Child's Garden of Verses," I remember very clearly from my childhood. I am not certain how it came to the house. I do remember reading it when I was young. 

As a child, I loved the illustration on the cover. Even now, it captures the spirit of what I remember childhood to be for me. My mother would sew jumpers, a simple dress without sleeves that fell from shoulder to knee, often with two pockets on the front for me to wear to school. Underneath the jumper, I wore a white cotton, peter pan collared blouse. I typical wore scuffed, brown leather shoes that were bought new at the beginning of the school year to last the year and white socks. My favorite jumper was cranberry colored, wide wale corduroy. My mom would braid my long hair into plaits that were turned up in circles close to my ears. In the illustration, the girl leads the others in what appears to be an adventure. As young as third grade, maybe even earlier, I too would lead the younger kids in the neighborhood. Or coerce my younger sisters into playing at some planned activity, often centering on a song and a dance or, for one Christmas, a recitation of the "The Night Before Christmas."

My favorite poem in the book was "The Swing." Like many elementary schools, ours had a park nearby. Occasionally, we were allowed to run over to it during out recess. I loved the swings more than anything else in the park. Once I got going, I felt like I could fly so high and see the whole world. In my estimation, it was "the pleasantest thing/Ever a child can do?" Without being aware of it, the poems also taught me how to communicate using a different form than speaking or writing a sentence. Without understanding poetics, I sensed that if I wrote a poem about a subject, I could fully describe the feeling or emotion of the thing I was trying to describe in order to get closest to the heart of what it meant to me.  Technically, the poems taught me how to write a poem. All of the poems are written in stanza form and in a rhyme scheme. Sure, nursery rhymes and children's books are written using rhythm and rhyme and I would have had that earlier exposure, but for the most part, those devices were delivered in a sentence or two, not in an organized stanza format. 

In third grade, the teacher created in class clubs for us to join. I chose the poetry club, possibly because I wanted to write like Robert Louis Stevenson in "A Child's Garden of Verses." I don't know this for sure, but in examining this long ago book that I cherished, I can't help but think that it was the catalyst for my own poetry writing. As I look back on it, the teacher didn't teach poetry to class. Nor did she go over basic principals of what a poem looks like. Once in the club, I took it very seriously. I created my own book of poems using the techniques that I had picked up from Stevenson. How else would I have known to write in stanzas and develop a rhyme and meter scheme. 

For the Park School Third Grade Poetry club, the teacher introduced the idea of a prize for the student who wrote the most poems. I got to work. I was always a competitive student. I raced to get through the Math problems first. I never received a prize for getting through problems fast, but I was always satisfied that I had. I knew that I had a chance to write more poetry than the others in my class. I was motivated.

My First Book of Poetry circa 3rd Grade
 As you can see, my first book of poetry has seen better days. It is old! And I've kept it all of the years as a testament to my earliest work as a poet. Clearly, someone got a hold of it and wrote with crayon across it. I notice that I did not use a pen; rather, I wrote the title and my name, barely visible on the bottom, in pencil. Did third graders use pens? I did include illustrations, as you can see, with each poem. When I composed the poem and wrote the final draft, I did include those. The letter grades and corrections I may have done when I would play school. Good for me that I thought that the originals could do with an edit. The handwriting is so perfectly 'I just learned the Parker method of cursive writing.' The 'Ts' are stellar. 

"Remember the Wourld [sic]' was the epic poem that I wrote. I think about this poem sometimes and wonder if climate change was on mind. What about my eight year old self would think that I would have to remember blue skies, green grass, and all of nature that I had experienced up to that time. I would have been in Brownies as the time. I probably had made a sit upon and a dunking bag. Both would have been used for outdoor adventures. I had an awareness of nature.  Was something going to change it? Or was I aware of how I was changing. Would it be important for me to remember who I was at eight. 

I wrote about ten poems for my first poetry collection. I was very proud of them and was happy to turn them in for the contest. In addition to remembering the world, I also wrote about each of the seasons, rain, Valentine's Day. It is an auto biography in verse of how I saw the world. For the most part, the tone was optimistic, however, a small cloud sat across a few of my thoughts. I think that could be said for who I am now too. I didn't win the competition. Another girl in the club copied out poems of someone else's pen and was able to turn in many more than me. I didn't get it. Mine were original. I was happy to go back to the ease of getting the math problems done faster than any one else in the class. It was an immediate gratification. The long haul sense of accomplishment comes now as I look through the yellowed pages of my life then. It was definitely not a copy. It is a testimony of the original.


Thursday, April 22, 2021

Looking Forward


Me watching the sunset in Puerto Rico. Spring Break 2021

I have not consistently written for the pages of my own blog; I am well aware of this. I was inspired to begin one so many years ago by an acquaintance who has very consistently written every day on his own. Each year, he changes the theme of his writing focus, but he pounds out a post every day. It's dizzying. I didn't know him 'in person' for more than a month while we were both a part of a teacher exchange program in Japan, but we kept up a correspondence for many years and wrote to each other almost every day. At one point, I decided that I needed to see him 'in person' and sent him a plane ticket to visit. He declined. And so did our correspondence. I don't know how much longer that I could have kept it up every day without ever having a face to face conversation. Well, maybe I shouldn't have been so quick to cancel him because one of the things that I have learned during the pandemic is that it can work to not be in person or face to face. But with that being said, I may have gone bonkers emailing him everyday. Too much can be too much.

When I started writing this blog, I was deep into the enthrall of my magazine collections. I loved nothing better than to have a stack of them waiting for me on the table next to my reading chair to get to on a Saturday morning. I'd rip out the pages of articles or fashion and either write about them or tape them up around my desk in a sort of dreamy vision board of colors, beautiful clothes, faces and destinations. But a couple things happened that changed that particular habit that I cherished. 

First, I moved from the apartment that I had lived in for nearly 25 years in the heart of the city out to my mom's house. I moved in with her as her health had begun to deteriorate, and it seemed that as soon as I moved in, her health declined rapidly. Within six months, she died. And for those six months, I worked full time teaching during the day and  overnight caring for her. I didn't have much time for pursuing hobbies and definitely not for reading magazines. I have stayed on in her home and will continue to do so. Friends ask whether I miss living in my dusty, vintage apartment in the city now that I am living, in my view, the farm. There are not big things that I miss, but one habit that I miss is sitting on a Saturday morning in my chair, drinking a cup of coffee, looking out the window into the trees that lined the block, and leisurely thumbing through Vogue or Elle or Tatler. I suppose that I could pick up the habit again, but my lifestyle has changed. I don't look out of a window at trees as I am responsible for the trees and plants and flowers in a rather large yard. I do live on a farm after all. That takes up a lot of time. Plus, I'm not sure that I've even settled into particular habits just yet. Soon after my mother's death, we all walked into the pandemic. I began working from home, still do at this writing, and life at home has been unusual. I imagine as we move deeper into 2021, we'll all resume a more 'normal' life and habits will begin to build again.

But will I return to the magreads? I've already stopped subscriptions to some of them. I feel that I've grown out of them in some respects. They don't hold my attention as they once did.  This might be attributable to the rise in social media. Between email, Instagram, Twitter and the like, I see most of the content that would be published in the following month's pages. And magazines like Rolling Stone, one of my favorites, has become more of a political journal that rock and roll magazine. I don't need politics across all mediums. So much content can be found on the Internet now. I can understand how this point and the pandemic has punched magazines in the gut.

So here I sit. As I often say to my students, writers must continue to write regularly. It's good practice. I had come upon an excellent focus for my daily writing. But as that has become less of a priority for me, I have to consider other topics. We will  see how it goes. As I am more or less talking this out with myself, I suppose that I can make or change the rules as necessary. But I am looking forward to what will come next. 

Sidenote: Happy to be vaccinated, I was able to travel to visit my sister, who lives in Puerto Rico, during Spring Break. She took the snap of me above as we watched the sun set on the lovely Caribbean Sea. I think that it perfectly captures my mood and the sense that I'm reflective and looking forward to see what the view will be for what happens next.