Lowell Since '45

The Bon Marche: Shopping withthe family

Bon Marche: Shopping with the Family

On his excellent Forgotten New England blog, Ryan Owen says this about the Bon Marché, the department store that operated in Lowell from 1878 to 1976: “To mourn the loss of the Bon Marché Department Store in Downtown Lowell is almost like mourning the loss of a beloved grandparent.” Such words raise the question: Is this simply nostalgic sentimentality for what was, after all, just six floors of shopping space or was there truly something special about the old department store that captured the hearts of shoppers? Another way to ask this question from a modern perspective might be: How was shopping at the Bon Marché different from today’s experience at shopping at say, Target or Walmart?

To be sure, today’s generation is unlikely to write any poetic essays 70 years from now about the enormous square footage or interior fluorescent lighting of their local Target, but was the Bon Marché really all that different?

One difference was perhaps in its origins. There was a story behind the Bon Marché — a local Lowell family story. Bon Marché shoppers could look up at the portraits of founding brothers Frederic and Charlie Mitchell and sister Elizabeth hanging near the store’s entrance and understand that this was a Lowell store. That story began in 1876 when Frederic opened a dry goods store with the self-evident name “This is Mitchell’s” just down the street from his brother Charlie’s shoe shop. Nine years later, the Mitchell boys combined forces as “The Bon Marché” (or “a good bargain” in French) and merged with another building to erect the store at 155 Merrimack Street.

Of course every store has an origin, even the massive Target Corporation (one can trace their roots to Goodfellow Dry Goods, a turn of the century establishment in Minneapolis) but shoppers never really get much sense of Target’s history because of the hugeness of the corporation and the sameness of the stores. To shop at the Target in Lowell is to shop at a Target in California or Guatemala, for that matter — they all look the same, very big and very red. And with that uniformity one loses any sense of loyalty to something unique.

By the 1890s, Lowell was booming and so was the Bon Marché. The brothers did brisk business outside under tents, selling their wares to factory workers strolling Merrimack Street on payday. Sister Elizabeth took the reins in the early 20th Century and by the 1930s, the Bon Marché was calling itself the “largest department store in New England.” In that era, the store was managed in grand style by Carl Wenigmann, who had married into the family and was known for arriving to work in a chauffeur-driven limousine and holding court at the front door, greeting customers.

The Bon Marché was nothing if not unique. Starting with the name of the store and the fact that there was only one of it. Even after it was bought by the Allied Stores corporation, there was always just a single Bon Marché, managed locally, with its exclusive “merchandise of merit only,” as the ads said. Another originality were the low prices in the “Rock Bottom” basement (“Lowell’s Great Basement Store”) that was more than just a publicity-stunt. The basement of the store had literally been built around a large glacial erratic, meaning that bargain-hunters had truly hit “rock bottom.” The store’s look was unique too, from the elegant yellow brick exterior to the fact that this was a vertical shopping experience. Shoppers were not entering one of today’s faceless box stores but a windowed building with quirky architecture. Each floor was its own section from the Rock Bottom basement to hosiery and shoes on the first floor, clothes on the second, furniture on the third, music and appliances on the fourth and the beauty parlor and barber shop on the top.

And unlike today’s experience shopping at Target where once inside, you could easily forget where in the world you are, the Bon Marché always felt part of Lowell. Readers of the Lowell Sun, which in the era before television was pretty much everyone in town, would see the Bon Marché’s ubiquitous full-page ads for decades. Perusing through the advertisements today, each one seems representative of its own time: “Ladies and gents’ fine umbrellas with pearl handles” went for $2.49 in 1898, Majestic Electric seven tube radios cost $137.50 in 1928, first quality rayon hose were 78 cents and garter belts were $1.25 in 1944, a new 1951 Frigidaire sold for $199.75, an RCA Victor black and white television was $199.88 in 1957 and a 1976 ad boasted of the ability of a $29.95 Texas Instruments SR-10 Calculator to solve square roots and squares.

And indeed, what the city of Lowell went through, the Bon Marché also seemed to experience. During World War I, the Bon Marché started peach stone and nut pit drives (these small donations helped in the making of gas masks). During the Depression, a special “Dollar Section” included no less than 7 exclamation points with phrases like “Far BETTER VALUES than you dreamed this year” for those suffering along with the economy. During World War II, the Bon Marché offered war bonds and stamps during reduced “wartime hours” and advertised “family heroes’ photographs remade” in the 4th floor photograph studio. Readers were also encouraged to mail their overseas gifts before November 1st at the store (“Hearts go home for Christmas, but HEROES STAY ON TO FIGHT!”). Local boy Jack Kerouac launched his first novel with a book signing at the Bon Marché in 1950 and thousands of Lowell elders still have memories of childhood trips two floors up to visit Santa Claus. And when the downtown Lowell business district crashed hard in the 1970s as shoppers headed for suburban malls, the Bon Marché would crash hard too.

Employees counted at the Bon Marché. These days there is a kind of insincere culture of “family” that management pushes at the big box stores. Employees are called “team members” and are said to be serving “guests,” not customers. However, the minimum wage pay and lack of health benefits certainly undercut any talk of “family.” Indeed, the rapid pace of turnover at stores like Target is legendary.

But the staff of the Bon Marché, if not a family exactly, were indeed those imagined “team members.” A rather incredible statistic: In 1938 the Bon Marché had 62 employees who were 10-year veterans of the store (Their pictures were published in the paper as part of the run up to a 50th anniversary sale). And with that service came pride. Employees were said to often greet customers by name and the personal service established a close link between customers and clerks. Eunice Balamotis, a Bon Marché employee, told the Lowell Sun decades after the store’s closing, “We were part of their lives. If Mrs. Reilly needed something in a size nine, she’d get me on the phone. They depended on us.”

Not that there isn’t some value in today’s shopping experience. There is something to be said for wheeling into Target’s acre-wide lot, running in and grabbing a few household essentials from an enormous inventory (made even more enormous in cyberspace) and zipping through the self-check line to your minivan. And in fact, when in 1976 it became known that the Bon Marché would be replaced by a JC Penney’s, many shoppers were excited to step into a more modern shopping experience (JC Penney’s would stay until 1996). Bon Marché credit manager Betty Ciampa told the Lowell Sun the day the store closed that “a woman who could not find a sweater in exactly the right color and size now will have a large line to choose from.”

But clearly it wasn’t the same. A Target (or even a JC Penney’s for that matter) is really an anti-community — a place to get in and get out of fast, to move on to some other part of one’s life. And maybe that’s fine. Maybe we no longer expect or want shopping to be a community event. But if so, we better find those memories in the time that we are saving because unlike the fondly-remembered Bon Marché, no one is going to remember much about Target in 70 years — except maybe all that red.

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