Dec 17, 2009

A Christmas Memory...

The Wallace Company, shown on an old postcard

Three of my grandparents had died by the time I was 4 years old. I have very faint memories of my grandfathers Mead and McLaughlin and no memory at all of my grandmother Mead. But I remember my grandmother McLaughlin because she lived with us for many years. "Nana," as we called her, lived in my parents' house from 1944 until she passed away in May of 1957. To say that Nana spoiled us kids would be an understatement. She lived her life to love and cater to us three grandchildren -- my sister Ann, my brother Bill, and me.
One of the fondest memories I have, usually around this time of year, is going shopping with my grandmother. In the late 1940's, Schenectady still had a thriving downtown commercial area. State Street boasted three major locally-owned department stores -- The Wallace Company (Est. 1892), The Carl Company (Est. 1906), and the H.S.Barney Company (Est. 1855). These were elegant centers of retail commerce. I recall that each store had certain features we no longer see:
  • elevators that had real human operators who announced each floor and it's departments
  • a well-maintained cafeteria for patrons
  • departments in which salespeople knew most of their patrons by name
  • exquisite merchandise displays, especially at holiday seasons (often animated figures in their main display windows)
  • doormen at the main entrance to each store
  • Carl's featured "Gold Bond Dividend Stamps" through which you could "earn" additional merchandise
  • delivery service
My Grandmother would bundle us kids up and we'd proceed a block away to the bus stop at the corner of Gillespie Street and Union Avenue. We'd each want to put our own token in the box as we boarded the number 9 bus headed for "Downtown - State Street" as displayed on the sign above the windshield. And off we'd be on another excursion with Nana.

The stores were brightly lighted and always crowded. This was, after all, a city prospering in the postwar commercial boom. We had the world headquarters and main plant of the General Electric Company and the headquarters of the American Locomotive Company. (No one could foresee that in ten years, GE would "decentralize" much of the Schenectady operation and that ALCO would be KO'd by General Motors' Electromotive Division.) It was a carefree, joyous, happy time.

As we entered each store, we kids would of course want to head for the toy department. I usually wanted to see the latest display of Lionel electric trains. Barney's and Carl's had the very best toy departments. And the toy department manager at Barney's was Miss Mayer, who happened to be a patient of my father, so we usually got extra special treatment there (it was on the fourth floor, to the right of the elevator). And of course, each store had to try and outdo the others in the lavishness of it's Santa Claus presentation. These were premiere times for a little kid!

Invariably my sister and brother and I wanted way too much for Christmas. My parents tried to maintain some moderation in gift giving to try to keep us focused on the nativity as the reason we were celebrating. But my grandmother didn't always share that sentiment and often went in a direction of extravagance. I've already written about my Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab. I received it for Christmas in 1951. But there were other times that Nana went overboard in my parents' eyes. I can still recall many of the gifts. But the shopping trips are just as precious in my memory as the Christmas mornings.
Barney's is now an apartment complex

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