As a Cherry Hill toddler, Michael J. Lisicky once was so excited by the prospect of a trip to a department store that "I ran into an Ethan Allen chair and needed stitches in my forehead."
Fortunately, his devotion to department stores was unscathed -- as his latest book about those once-mighty temples of American retailing well attests.
Bamberger's – New Jersey's Greatest Store (The History Press) is a thoroughly reported, clear-eyed and deeply affectionate account of a traditional downtown retailer that boldly rode the postwar suburban wave with savvy and style.
"Bam's" already had opened several successful stores outside Newark when it made its first foray into the Greater Philadelphia market by opening at the Cherry Hill Mall on Sept. 21, 1962.
After a bit of a shaky start, "Bamberger's Cherry Hill had blossomed into the top-grossing suburban department store in the Philadelphia/South Jersey area," Lisicky writes.
The author spoke to me recently while visiting a former Dayton's department store in downtown Minneapolis; now a Macy's, it may close in 2017. "I flew in for the day just to see the store," he said. "I would have really kicked myself if I lost an opportunity to go there again."
Lisicky noted that the store "is Minneapolis," and for Newark, much the same role was played by the store Louis Bamberger established in 1893.
He later built a flagship at Market and Washington streets that drew shoppers for most of the 20th century. But the city's decline led Bamberger's to close the downtown store in 1992; by then it had been rebranded as Macy's, which had been Bamberger's corporate parent since 1929.
Stores like Bamberger's "are a part of our history and a part of our identity," said Lisicky, 52, an oboist with the Baltimore Symphony who has written eight other books about long-gone retailers such as Gimbels and Wanamaker's. He grew up in the Willowdale section of Cherry Hill and now lives in Baltimore.
"These stores, in their heyday, treated workers and customers like family," he said. "There was a time when coming [to a department store] really was an outing."
Indeed: I vividly remember the first time I rode an escalator at England Brothers (RIP), the department store in downtown Pittsfield, Ma.
Englands had multiple floors, elevators, and animated Christmas window displays; it was far grander than anything on my hometown Main Street.
To a child (particularly, a child like me) England Brothers offered so much of everything that anything seemed possible; it was an early glimpse of a bigger, better world.
"For people who remember the department store era," Lisicky observed, "you bring up the names of these places, and their eyes light up."