Column: Ode to the magic of the department store

  • A crowd gathers outside the downtown Younker-Davidsons Department Store in Sioux City, Iowa, for Santa's visit in 1950. (Courtesy Sioux City Public Museum) photographs Courtesy Sioux City Public Museum

  • The tea room in the Younker-Davidson Department Store in a circa 1950 photograph. (Courtesy Sioux City Public Museum)

  • The Younkers store in downtown Sioux City, Iowa, near its closing in 1986 as it was moved to a new location. (Courtesy Sioux City Public Museum)

For the Valley News
Published: 5/1/2021 10:00:06 PM
Modified: 5/1/2021 10:00:03 PM

For me as a youthful Midwesterner, Younkers Department Store in Sioux City was the inspiring destination for a day away from the monotony and sameness of my small-town life.

Even here in Vermont right now — especially right now — I remember the restlessness of my mother’s voice on an early Saturday morning in spring when she posed the question, “Shall we just go to Sioux City?” Young enough that I wasn’t yet caught up in the weekend demands of high school activities, I was eager. I wanted something new for a school dance, and maybe there would be other things too. I fantasized about the possibilities as I traded Saturday jeans for a skirt and well-worn saddle shoes for my gray suede penny loafers.

The drive to Sioux City took the better part of an hour, and whatever the weather, my mother loved it. Putting on a stylish suit and high heels seemed to awaken her sense of adventure. As we sped along the familiar state highway through three other small towns along the way, we made plans. Lunch would be first, at the Younkers Tea Room.

The Tea Room, compared with hometown eateries, was exotic. We were greeted by a hostess in a nicely tailored restaurant uniform. My mother asked for a table for two where we could look across the dining room to absorb the atmosphere. White tablecloths, upholstered chairs, and fresh flowers in small vases next to the cut-glass salt and pepper shakers spelled elegance. Lunch would be a small bowl of something filling, like a beef soup and salad — so as not to use up our precious time. I had dessert, and my mother, coffee, accompanied by cream in a tiny glass pitcher that balanced on the side of the saucer.

The hours spent shopping did pass quickly. My mother and I each had our own ground to cover. She might have selected fabric at Younkers for a sewing project. I likely scoped out shoes and clothing as I waited for her to join me.

One teenaged spring, I found red, strappy sandals with stacked heels, and my mother let me buy them. Maybe after the shoe department, I entered a dressing room with a wooden door on it to try on pleated skirts or a series of summer dresses I had chosen from the nearby racks. With each selection that fit, I exited the confined space to show my mother how I looked, as she sat in a comfortable chair in the more open lounge area. Sometimes one of my choices took me beyond my usual self for just a moment, or helped me imagine who I might become, if I wore this ... or if I wore that. Sometimes my mother’s response was helpful; sometimes not.

Decisions made and time permitting, we might have gone on to the book department where my mother bought a novel or a travel guide, or to the cosmetics counter where she replenished her supply of Coty loose powder or her rouge, while I cast a longing eye at the golden tubes of Tangee Natural Lipstick that I would be using soon. Younkers held the allure of maturity, as I grew from teenager to adult.

Occasionally before I left home for college, I traveled with my parents to Chicago, and my mother and I explored the Marshall Field store on State Street. Marshall Field was always a wonder, with its elegant clock near the entrance, the Tiffany glass ceiling, and the Walnut Room on the seventh floor for lunch, where chicken potpie was the specialty. I don’t remember any specific purchases there, but those visits to Chicago enhanced my belief in the magic of the department store.

Next came Woodward and Lothrup in Washington, D.C., where I spent a long-ago college summer on a political science internship. How did I know about the store? Because as a young woman, my mother had also had a job in Washington, before returning to Iowa to marry my dad. She had loved “Woodies.” Being a student low on money and busy with my program, I visited only a few times. On a Saturday morning or an evening after work, the air-conditioned comfort was welcome, and so were the opportunities to walk through the aisles of merchandise picturing myself as a well-dressed woman working in a city like Washington.

My lengthiest department store infatuation has been with Macy’s, beginning directly after college when I became a New Yorker. I was starting my teaching career while my new husband went to grad school. Early that first fall, we sprang for an expensive $80 rug for our studio apartment, from Macy’s flagship store on 34th Street at Herald Square. Following that, I made frequent weekend excursions there.

Macy’s was a respite from the challenges of my job as a high school English teacher. I also wanted desperately to figure out how to dress in my new role, how to be in my new profession. Macy’s prices were reasonable and my choices were varied. There were also trips for Christmas shopping, and at other times with my mother if she came to New York. When we could, she and I made the Macy’s spring flower show a priority. Being together to enjoy the blooms, the fragrance, the musical accompaniment, the sophistication, we became our best selves as mother and daughter. I also made a defiant trip to Macy’s via the West Side IRT when I was beyond impatient at 9½ months pregnant with my first child; sure enough, she was born early the next morning, induced, perhaps, by the relaxing pleasure of my Macy’s lunch.

By now, of course, the era of these iconic, enchanting department stores has morphed into an age of shopping online. It’s convenient and efficient, better suited, some say, to our busy lives. Yes, there are still department stores to go to, including old favorites like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s, though not in Vermont. A recent ad even invites me to the Macy’s New York annual flower show, opening on Sunday. It’s titled this year, appropriately, “A Floral Celebration of Fortitude,” and will celebrate “the promise of 2021 and hope for brighter days ahead.”

Of course I won’t be going, but even thinking about the possibility makes me wonder: If I were to travel to Macy’s at Herald Square on a May weekend, could I ever recreate the anticipation and the dream of transformation I first felt on a Midwestern Saturday morning when my mother asked, “Shall we just go to Sioux City?”

Mary K. Otto, formerly of Norwich, lives in Shelburne, Vt. Email her at

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