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HEARTS OF THE CITY | Essay / ROBERT A. JONES

The Tearoom Question

November 13, 1996|ROBERT A. JONES

One day in the 1970s, when Mid-Wilshire still thrived, I was taken to the city's cathedral of fashion by an old friend. That cathedral, as everyone knew at the time, was Bullock's Wilshire.

We breezed through the airy portico and into the foyer. Even though the room was ringed with cosmetics ladies, it had the hushed quality of all cathedrals. My friend stopped halfway across, closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

"It smells," Celeste said, "like money."

She loved Bullock's Wilshire in a way that seemed to defy logic. After all, she did not come to buy because who could pay the amazing sums stamped on the price tags? No, she came to wander the rooms, to finger the silks and leathers, to breathe the special air.

At one point she took me over to a huge mural commemorating a visit to Los Angeles by the Graf Zeppelin--a zeppelin!--in the 1920s. Sure enough, it was amazing. I remember thinking that nothing would dislodge this store from its place in the city.

Oh, the irony. B-W has been shuttered for three years now. And this past weekend, the last vestige of the Bullock's and Broadway stores disappeared when Bloomingdale's opened in Century City. The very name of Bullock's has been rubbed out and replaced by Macy's, the Broadway by Bloomingdale's.

How smoothly the disappearances have taken place. You almost wouldn't notice. Like Security Pacific and First Interstate banks, like PSA and Air California, like Alpha Beta supermarkets, the grand department stores of Los Angeles have gone quietly into that good night.

To complete the list, I. Magnin's, J. Magnin's and Buffums have joined the list of the dearly departed. Only Robinsons-May remains in the fray.

In truth, the demise of most of these stores mattered not a wit to me. Except for Bullock's Wilshire and its magnificent building, why should anyone mourn the passing of stores that loved to confront their customers with smocked ladies spraying perfume into their personal space? Let Macy's devour Bullock's, I told myself. All of them--Macy's, Bloomies, the whole lot--will die soon enough at the hands of Wal-Mart and the Good Guys.

But, as with so much else, there appears to be a gender gap on the question of the death of our home-grown stores. In short, the women seem to hate and resent this cultural switch. This morning I talked with another friend, a major shopper, and asked her about Bloomies. Would she be going to the grand opening in Century City?

No, she said.

Why not? I asked.

Maybe it's silly, she said, but she didn't like the idea of Los Angeles surrendering its sense of taste and style to New York.

"A few months ago, I drove into the Beverly Center and there was this big sign that said, 'Macy's.' Right where Bullock's used to be. I thought, what is this, New York West? Where did Los Angeles go?"

Then she started talking about the tearooms. In fact, all kinds of women seem to be ticked off when it comes to the tearoom question. In case you don't know, Bullock's had these tearooms in several of its stores--again, B-W had the main tearoom--where ladies retired in the afternoon to nibble at finger sandwiches and watch a fashion show.

Is it possible that modern women with fast-track careers and double-shift nannies at home can feel nostalgia for the passing of tearooms? It is possible. A colleague here at work told me about her mom taking her to the Bullock's tearoom in Pasadena on special days like graduations and birthdays.

They would sit in the banquettes, she said, watching the parade of models in sensible shoes and wool ensembles, and she would feel very grown up.

"I would always have the fruit compote," she said, almost blubbering at the memory.

But in the end, it is the New York issue that rubs them wrong. How did it come about, they ask, that Los Angeles lost its place in the fashion firmament and must now submit to the whims of Manhattan?

In many ways, the question is unanswerable. We could say that the spirit of Arthur Letts, the legendary founder of the Broadway, and John Gillespie Bullock somehow got lost in the 1970s and never was recaptured. Indeed, much of the 1980s was spent trying to do just that. Every attempt failed.

By 1995, Federated Department Stores, which already owned Macy's and Bloomingdale's, had acquired Bullock's and the Broadway. At that point, the end of those great retailing names was only a matter of time.

"The real question is whether Federated can take stores with a New York orientation and make them fit into Los Angeles," said Lenny Friedman, a partner in Sy DeVore's, a longtime specialty men's store. "So far, the evidence is mixed."

*

So we shall see. On the matter of the tearoom issue, I was told that Macy's had decided to keep the tearoom operating in the old Bullock's store in Pasadena even though the store has already been recast in its new guise.

So I called to check. Is the tearoom still going, I asked the operator.

"T Rex?' she said.

"No, no," I said. "Tearoom."

"T-room?" she said.

"No, T-E-A room. Like a restaurant," I said.

"We have a training room," she said.

I said thank you and hung up. Like other questions, the issue remains in doubt. But somehow you know it's not quite the same.

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