Mirror, Mirror: An author who was sold on Wanamakers
Michael J. Lisicky has written a loving history of the store that once "defined Center City Philadelphia."
Originally published Nov. 25, 2010: Moments after I met author Michael J. Lisicky at the eagle in what many begrudgingly refer to as Macy's, he pointed to a display of stuffed Smurfs and began muttering.
"Behind those Smurfs is a marble column that is the essence of what this store stood for," Lisicky said. Then, as he moved the soft blue plushies aside, he recited by heart the quote from store founder John Wanamaker etched in stone.
" 'Let those who follow me continue to build with the plumb of honor the level of truth and the square of integrity education courtesy and mutuality.' This is the foundation on which Wanamakers was built."
With this kind of brand loyalty, it's no wonder the 46-year-old self-proclaimed department store junkie was eager to talk to me about his new book, Wanamaker's: Meet Me at the Eagle (History Press, $19.99), at the old Wanamakers building.
As Thanksgiving launches the holiday shopping season, Lisicky is hopeful that locals will have an appetite for his 150-page history book that reads like a love song to the revolutionary store.
"I want people to remember a time that may not have been perfect, but was a better time for many of us," said Lisicky. "Department stores define cities, and for years, Wanamakers defined Center City Philadelphia."
Wanamakers, which had its beginnings in 1861 as a men's store at Sixth and Market, was a groundbreaking institution with a founder who could claim a number of "firsts" in the retail world: the first to guarantee goods and refund money if a customer wasn't satisfied, the first to discount linens and call it a White Sale, the first to commercialize Mother's Day, and the first to install electricity in his store.
"He changed the way retailers at the time were doing business," Lisicky said.
Lisicky gave me the behind-the-scenes grand tour of the store at 13th and Market, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary next year: There is the plaque on the ground floor where President William Howard Taft dedicated the building in 1911 - the only commercial building dedicated by a U.S. president. We visited Greek Hall, what used to be the store's lounge area, which now houses a newly restored Wurlitzer organ. And we saw remnants of the store's former Egyptian Hall, where Wanamakers once sold pianos and organs, and which currently is home to the Dickens Village exhibit.
With its Crystal Tea Room, annual Christmas light show, a monorail that ran during the holiday season, a one-of-a-kind art collection and an immaculate sales floor, Wanamakers kept its reputation as an upscale Philadelphia fixture well into the 1960s.
But the story of Wanamakers runs parallel to the decline of America's downtowns. As people flocked to the suburbs, city-based stores like Wanamakers struggled to keep up in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. Wanamakers was sold in 1995 to May Department Stores to be turned into Hecht's (now Macy's).
"Department stores lost their identity and they lost their customers and their purpose," Lisicky said. "My book reminds people about what once was," which, in the case of Wanamakers, was a bustling hub where merchants catered to the needs of the upper class and the people who aspired to be part of it.
Wanamakers isn't the only department store that has captured Lisicky's heart. The 46-year-old oboist for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra also wrote Hutzler's: Where Baltimore Shops (History Press, $19.99), published last year. Along the way, he's built a reputation as a national department store expert and regularly answers historical questions about department stores online at www.departmentstorehistory.net.
Although Lisicky, who was born in Camden, can't pinpoint the origins of his department-store love, he remembers being devastated when Philadelphia-based Lit Brothers closed in 1972. His mother was a big fan of Strawbridge & Clothier - "Wanamakers seemed so much out of our reach" - and after she died in 2008, he got the store's Seal of Confidence tattooed on his left calf in her honor.
He's also accumulated more than 5,000 newspaper articles about department stores at his Baltimore home ("They are all indexed and everything. It's ridiculous"), which he shares with his wife and 11-year-old daughter.
He's not sure which department store he'll write about next, but he's thinking of focusing on the now-defunct Filene's, which was based in Boston.
"I've got hundreds of photos about that store," Lisicky said. "There is a good story with Filene's."
Author Michael Lisicky will talk about Wanamaker's: Meet Me at the Eagle this weekend.
Friday 11 a.m., Barnes & Noble Jenkintown, 835 Old York Rd., 215-886-5366; 2 p.m., Borders at the Court at King of Prussia, 610-337-9009.
Saturday 12:30 p.m., Barnes & Noble Rittenhouse Square, 1805 Walnut St., 215-665-0716; 3 p.m., Borders in Center City, 1 South Broad, 215-568-7400.
Sunday 2 p.m., lecture and signing at the Philadelphia Center for Architecture AIA Bookstore, 1218 Arch St., 215-569-3188.
Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at email@example.com or 215-854-2704. Follow her on Twitter at ewellingtonphl.