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Shoppers in Windy City Unhappy to See Icon Go

September 08, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — Every month for 70 years, Josephine M. Stern and her girlfriends treated themselves to a trip to Marshall Field's on State Street.

They came here to celebrate birthdays, picking up slim green boxes of Frango mints wrapped in silk ribbons. Weddings called for a stop at the silver department for an antique cake-serving set. Every Christmas, they cheerfully joined the mad rush to hunt down a new tree ornament.

"My friends are gone and, as of Saturday, so is our store," said Stern, who lives on Chicago's North Side.

At 102, she's not going to switch stores now. "I have a lifetime spent here, and all I will have left are the memories."

This weekend, Marshall Field's -- as much a temple to consumerism as a beloved Windy City icon -- will fade away when the store's new owners officially turn it into a Macy's.

The change has infuriated generations of loyal shoppers, some of whom are organizing a rally Saturday and plan to march around the State Street store in protest.

The fight began last year, when parent company Federated Department Stores Inc. announced it would roll all of the Marshall Field's stores under the Macy's brand as part of its buyout of May Department Stores Co. Federated is erasing signature store names across the country.

But those changes haven't generated the level of angst among shoppers that the demise of Marshall Field's has. Nearly 60,000 people signed an online petition, begging Macy's and Federated to keep the Field's name. After all, they pointed out, this is no ho-hum retailer.

With its ornate Tiffany mosaic ceiling and legendary customer service -- where the mantra was "Nothing is impossible at Marshall Field's" -- the company helped usher in the era of shopping as a grand experience. It was a place where, in the words of Marshall Field himself, the staff should "give the lady what she wants."

Marshall Field's was one of the first department stores to offer revolving credit to shoppers, which helped families rebuild after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Amelia Earhart signed books here, back when it was the world's largest bookseller. Norman Rockwell came to the heart of Chicago's downtown to capture the store's massive outdoor bronze clock on canvas -- a painting later used on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

But the pleas didn't sway Federated, whose officials pointed out that the Field family hadn't owned stock in the department store company since the 1960s.

"I've tried talking to people, to ask them to just give us a chance," said Frank J. Guzzetta, chairman and chief executive of Macy's North, the Minneapolis-based division that operates Marshall Field's and other retail outlets in the Upper Midwest. "Some people are open to listening. But there's still a hard-core group out there that's saying, 'You can't take my Marshall Field's.' "

In recent months, customers have been flooding company executives with angry letters; some shredded their Macy's store credit cards and mailed back the plastic bits.

Gail Heriot, a University of San Diego law professor who spent a couple of college summers working at the flagship location in downtown Chicago, printed and mailed thousands of stickers that read "Keep it Marshall Field's" to friends, family members and strangers who had heard about them. Last month, she flew here to wage a one-woman protest by handing out stickers.

"It's been a part of Chicago for so long, everyone has their own story about their family going to Marshall Field's," said Heriot, 48. "It's one of those things that identifies us as being a Midwesterner."

The company's roots date to 1852 when merchant Potter Palmer opened a dry goods store on Lake Street. At its peak in 2001, Fields had 64 stores in eight states

The demise of the Marshall Field's brand is the latest in a string of endings among the city's revered symbols. The Berghoff restaurant, known for obtaining the city's first post-Prohibition liquor license, closed up shop last year. So did City News Service, a scrappy outlet where author Kurt Vonnegut once worked.

Ironically, the closures have come at a time when downtown Chicago is booming.

Part of what rankles locals is the use of the Macy's name, a New York label that fuels an old rivalry, said Peter Alter, curator of the Chicago History Museum.

"We've struggled with being labeled the Second City, and therefore being second-class to New York, for decades," Alter said. "This is a store that survived the department store wars and outlasted other shops started by Chicago-based entrepreneurs, such as the Boston Store and Mandel Bros. Now a New York brand comes and quashes a Chicago brand? That does not sit well out here."

On Thursday, the Marshall Field's faithful turned out to pay homage and indulge in a final shopping spree. On the seventh floor, a crowd of customers stood impatiently in line at the Walnut Room, eager to slip into the restaurant's leather seats and dine on open-faced turkey sandwiches and chicken potpies.

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