Farewell to Lord & Taylor

Stores and the things they carry aren’t merely symbols of our materialistic consumer culture. They’re about identities, relationships and memories.

Lord & Taylor in Eastchester is closing. After a three and a half-month lockdown, the store reopened in June, only to see parent company Le Tote file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Aug. 2 and announce L & T’s liquidation some three weeks later. (New owner Saadia Group, which acquired Lord & Taylor in October for $12 million, has announced that it will run L & T as an online business only.)

That leaves what’s left of its 38 stores, including one in Yonkers’ Ridge Hill mall and one outlet to close by the end of the year, although the sales clerks I talked to said the Eastchester location — which became the de facto flagship last year after the landmark Fifth Avenue store closed — may hang on until Valentine’s Day. 

Since Lord & Taylor’s Covid return, I’ve been haunting the Eastchester locale, housed in a curving, white Modernist building that helped signal the suburban expansion of the great New York City stores in the postwar era (in this case, 1947). The L & T expansion was spearheaded by store president Dorothy Shaver, the first woman to head a multimillion-dollar firm, who also introduced the store’s distinctive script logo by Andrew Geller and its American Beauty rose icon. The trailblazing Shaver was a fitting leader for a business that had originally opened in 1826 on the Lower East Side as America’s first department store. Now it is at the end of a long goodbye that has made me think not only about my relationship with things but the complex pas de deux between cost and value. 

Surely it was discounted costs (albeit a mere 20 percent) that drew long lines that first weekend in August when Lord & Taylor “surprised” customers with the closing announcement everyone had already surmised. With no dressing rooms open as per Covid-19 guidelines and all sales final, some ladies had commandeered an open, Loehmann’s-style backroom downstairs and were doing a striptease there to make sure their planned purchases fit.

Others, fully clothed, were stuffing themselves into outfits on the sales floors, a no-no. “You’re a woman,” one man said to me as he pulled a size 2 black polka-dotted white dress by Ralph Lauren down around his wife, a petite but buxom size 4. “Do you think this fits her?” I pointed out that it was only slightly tight and she was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans. It would be fine. With that seal of approval, they headed to a long line that snaked around the lingerie department.

As the weeks passed, the discounts grew and dressing rooms opened but the crowds oddly thinned, affording me time to look around and troll for the last red powder blush here and pink washcloths there. It also gave me ample opportunity to consider the difference between the cost of an item and its value. Was a small, oval ruby ring flanked on each side by two little diamonds in 14-karat gold, on sale for $1, 440, ever worth its original $3,000 price tag? Was it worth the discounted price? How could you tell under the pressure of a final sale and without a gemologist at your side?

Or is the truth worth of an item determined by the buyer’s willingness to meet the seller’s asking price, whatever that may be? Ah, but then that depends on the object’s value to the buyer. For anyone who saw a sweet little ring of brilliant clarity, warmed by yellow gold — perfect for those independent-minded women born in July, the month of rubies — $1,440 might seem like a good bargain, while for those who cared nothing for rubies and July birthdays, $440 or even $44.40 might be too much.

But the value of a thing lies not only in its material quality and even its monetary context. The purchaser of such a ring might look back one day and say, “This was my souvenir of Lord & Taylor, a store that gave me much happiness.” The word souvenir comes from the French “to remember.” For many, Lord & Taylor was the place they bought their first suit, a prom gown or that little black dress for a last-minute cocktail party invite.

It was the place where I spent part of many a Saturday with Aunt Mary — the beloved aunt who raised me — and my sisters Jana and Gina. I remember one time when we were trying on hats, we laughed so uproariously at what we looked like that a security guard followed us out of the store, convinced we had taken something.

We had — a memory of not only a good time but the close relationship the four of us shared. Now as I walk through what remains of a once vibrant store — its trunks, shelves and fixtures tagged with “sold” signs, its makeup counters Covid shrink-wrapped — I am reminded that my aunt is gone and we three sisters are scattered in different places. 

But I still have the pink faux crocodile tote bag I use in summer and the beautiful Santa Claus in faux fur-trimmed green and red plaid and the red ornament nestled in silk in a Florentine paper box that I display at Christmas as well as many other treasures. These are not only souvenirs of happy times at Lord & Taylor but part of my tastes and thus my identity. A thing is never just an object, an example of our materialistic consumer culture. It’s about you and the experiences you’ve had and, most important, the people you’ve loved and shared them with.

I’ll be at L & T at the end. (I’ve promised some friends that when it gets to 80 percent off, we’re going to lay siege to the jewelry department.) And I’ll remember that time, too, just as I recall one I shared recently with my cousin Michele in which we paused before the hats. They have long since ceded pride of place inside one of the main floor entrances and lay forlorn on a couple of shelves off the dresses and gowns department downstairs. At one end was a prominent pink organza hat with a square top, a broad brim and a pink flower — the kind Queen Elizabeth II might wear. I tried it on.

“It’s really you,” my cousin said, only half-joking (I think).

For indeed it was.

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