Sunday, February 5, 2012

Another great review

This review is from Steve Eide who is the Senior Research Associate for the Research Bureau in Worcester.  I was so happy with this review, and we were able to chat on the phone regarding the Denholms building present day.

Research Bureau Angle 1-23-12

Hi, this is Steve Eide for the Research Bureau Angle. Today I want to talk about a fascinating book on Worcester’s history that came out last year, called Denholms: The Story of Worcester’s Premier Department Store.

Anyone with a passing familiarity with Worcester’s industrial history knows about the city’s proud tradition of technological innovation. This book’s contribution consists in showing what a glamorous and exciting place Worcester used to be, especially downtown Worcester.

Denholm and McKay’s opened in 1870. Branded by its owners as “The Boston Store,” Denholms prided itself on being on the cutting edge of retail and department store fashion. It had seven floors and 450 employees, 600 at Christmastime. Like America’s other grand department stores, Denholms was a distinctly middle class institution. In modern times, retailers are strictly divided between high end specialty stores like Neiman Marcus and low end discounters like Wal-Mart.

Denholms was both: it had something for everyone, but it was also classy and elegant.

The authors of this book about Denholms are relatives of longtime and high ranking former employees, and they provide an impressively detailed account of Denholms operations.

This is one of the best books of Worcester history ever written and easily the best book about downtown. It vividly captures the connection between commercial and civic life that characterized downtown in its heyday. People had to go downtown because it was the most convenient place to buy most goods and services, but they also wanted to go downtown, because of the spectacle and excitement. And Denholms was responsible for much of that spectacle and excitement. In addition to its legendary Christmas decorations, Denholms hosted fashion shows and cutest baby contests; for several months in 1968, it ran store-wide a promotion with the Italian Trade Commission; and it had an entire department just devoted to its interior and window displays. Indeed, at times the book reads like a love letter to the dying art of window dressing.

But nothing good ever lasts. Shortly after its centennial celebration in 1970, Denholms was overwhelmed by a perfect storm. Suburbanization and the construction of the Worcester Center Galleria in 1971 both cut into sales. A series of rapid ownership changes between non-local companies then delivered the death blow, by diverting profits and corporate expenditures away from Denholms to other, less profitable entities. In 1973, Denholms closed its doors and was forced into liquidation. For the next ten years, the city had possession of the property, until it was bought by a Boston-based property manager and converted into its current form of office space condominiums.

Aside from stores in big wealthy cities like Boston and New York, retailing in general has lost most of its glamor. Denholms thrived in the old retail economy, wherein people believed in a close connection between showmanship and sales. In modern times Wal-Mart sets the agenda, with its relentless focus on providing the lowest prices to the consumer, period. Denholms defined “customer service” in a much broader, and, from Wal-Mart’s perspective, vaguer, sense. Denholms was extravagant and probably also wasteful. We must admit that the public has benefited in many ways from the decline of stores like Denholms. It’s never been easier to buy things, and many consumer goods have become cheaper over time. But there has also been a loss, in terms of charm and, I would argue, civic life. Depicting what was lost is what this valuable new book accomplishes.

This has been Steve Eide for The Research Bureau Angle on AM 830 WCRN.

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