Photo Source: PXHere
Recently, it was announced that the department store Bon Ton would be closing all of its stores. The department store chain was founded a hundred and twenty years ago and, like many other brick and mortar stores, no longer can survive in our current era. Malls are dying, downtown shopping centers are dying, and increasingly online shopping is edging out the brick and mortar world. I felt a little sad when I saw the news about Bon Ton closing all of its doors though not because of the larger trend of losing brick and mortar stores but rather in a more personal sense, as I worked at a Bon Ton when I was very young. However, as I thought about my tenure working at Bon Ton, I increasingly wondered if we are aware of what is being given-up as shopping malls and department stores pass away. Do we understand what it is being forfeited for the ease of shopping at work or in bed with your laptop or phone?
The Bon Ton I worked at was located at the Ithaca Mall in Ithaca, NY. My then future husband had just started graduate school at Cornell, and I had moved out there to be with him. I must admit that while over time I have come to see my job there fondly, working at Bon Ton was my least favorite job of all time. I just could not take the boredom of when there were no customers—which mid-week during the morning and afternoon could be brutal. However, when I read in the Wall Street Journal about Bon Ton closing not only did a little wistful sadness arise but also memories that were rich and poignant.
The department I worked at was the women’s petite department. Bon Ton was roughly equivalent to Macy’s with Liz Claiborne and Jones New York being the very premium brands and then a kind of ladder of price and style following the two premium brands (Liz Claiborne originally was a premium clothes brand—in fact, filmmaker John Waters hilariously references its suburban high-status in his movie Serial Mom). By far, the majority of my customers were over seventy, and they all wanted two things: something that would hide their arms and necks. I was very young at the time and thought it was fascinating how virtually every woman north of seventy ardently wanted to cover those two body parts—it had never dawned on me that arms and necks would be the real problem areas. Some of my golden girls were on the difficult side to work with, as there was a sense of frustration regarding finding fashions that suited their needs of wanting to look attractive as well as wanting to conceal the parts that made them feel insecure. However, I never really minded their snapping or demanding as I was very far from home, and they reminded me of my beloved matriarchs back home in the Central Valley of California. I grew up with a cadre of formidable older ladies, and to this day, I light-up when I am afforded the company of a senior female.
Not all of my senior women were short-tempered. Some were very gentle and sweet. One in particular comes to mind—Emily. She was very old—perhaps in her late eighties. She was always very soft spoken and kind and open to my fashion sensibilities. I will never forget our first encounter as she was the first person who needed full assistance getting undressed and dressed. It was also the first time I had so intimately interacted with a stranger before as well as the first time I had been so close to an elderly person’s body before. One only thinks of nurses and doctors when they think of interacting with a nearly naked body—but retail sales associates do too—as there would be (after Emily) countless times I would assist women getting in and out of their clothes.
She was very tiny. I think around five feet and possibly eighty pounds. Her hair was snow white and was a halo of soft finger curls. Her skin was very pale and had a soft matte finish like fine porcelain. I remember feeling very nervous as she seemed so breakable, so frail. I did not want to hurt her in any way as I unzipped her turtleneck tunic and gently pulled it over her head. Her arms were as slim as broomsticks, and you could see bruising from where needles had been. She wore a white lace bra and white satin panties, and I was struck by how her form was still very feminine excepting for this unbelievable aura of frailty. Her skin and bones were very distinct as being skin and bones. She was not embarrassed, and I felt protected by her plain acceptance that she was now at a place where she needed to be dressed and undressed. I felt like I had learned a great deal about life after that.
There were many other great memories from my days at working at Bon Ton—great lessons I learned from selling clothes. One time, a woman in her early forties came. She seemed very sad. I asked her how I could help her, and she revealed to me that her son was graduating high school, and it would be the first time she would be seeing her ex-husband with his new live-in girlfriend. It was very clear that she was still mourning the loss of her husband and that seeing him with another woman would be a kind of final painful blow. I spent a good three hours with her—not only in my department but also in the shoe, accessories, and cosmetics departments with the mission that she was going to look stunning. By the end, she was surrounded by a small group of us sales girls laughing and smiling. I realized after that experience that there was nothing shallow about shopping and clothes and appearance—that it is interwoven with our sense of self and where we are in our lives. When the woman first entered Bon Ton, she looked like a frumpy woman who no longer cared about life or sex or love or dreaming. However at the end of evening, the woman that we lovingly and patiently dressed was laughing and crying. She would return and slowly rebuild a new wardrobe that reflected her new life. Over time she came to see her careless dress was not just her sadness of her marriage ending—but was also showing the sadness of her marriage—as the clothes were all purchased during her marriage. Again, what an amazing graduate school I attended while selling women’s petites.
How much are we giving up when we give up brick and mortar shopping? Beyond job loss—what about the loss of human connection? I have memory after memory of amazing women and brave men (shopping for their girlfriends and wives). So much about what we wear is about where we are in our lives, and very often as I helped I also listened. I was someone many women felt safe to talk to far beyond fashion. I learned so much about bodies—at every age—and I came to learn how our vulnerability is one of our most stunning attributes as people. We have little scars, moles, bruises, and bandages. We have body parts we want to hide, shrink, or show off. And the human connection ran both ways—as a sales associate I felt privileged and touched to be included and trusted in their lives. I hope they too saw me as someone they felt safe and good around and that at least with some patience, trial and error, we could find an outfit or dress that could help them feel well outfitted to handle even the toughest trials—a soft, sometimes silk sometimes cotton armor.
Jennifer Barnick is a painter and writer. She studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute. She founded Twenty-two Twenty-eight. “One of the most exciting aspects of Twenty-two Twenty-eight is building a channel for artists and writers to share their work with the world.”
Check out Jennifer’s book. You can read the first short story for free on Amazon here.