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!