Pondering Old San Francisco…

Is it the end, or just the beginning? A step back to regroup moment? The announced closing of Macy’s at Union Square in San Francisco stirs up memories and another TC Ponderable. Read on! – the editor

My sister (and editor of this column), has been a Bay Area resident for over 30 years. She took me on my first visit to “ The City” in 1988. We drove up to Daly City to get on the BART to subway to shopping district, including the San Fransisco Centre and the infamous Union Square. Back then, the Centre was brand new mall attached to the classic Emporium, then known as Emporium-Capwell. The top levels of the Centre was a full size Nordstrom, with 3 restaurants, and I have to say, I believe she talked me into getting my first and only pair of Doc Martins. That day we were going tourist. After pre-paying for tickets for the famous cable cars, a huge cue enticed us to walk to the waterfront. I had the stupidest Capezio shoes on that I lived to regret after climbing the hills of San Fransisco. You would think it was Mount Everest.

In many subsequent trips into San Francisco, I got used to the territory. I used to do a lunch at Nordstrom, and on other trips, the Cheesecake Factory in Macy’s at Union Square. Macy’s was in two buildings, with Men’s store all to itself with its own food counter in the basement.

Emporium eventually closed, to make room for the expansion of the Centre, to include a massive food court, a Bloomingdales, a city Bristol Farms, and even a Century Theaters Multiplex. It was sweet, and the last of the era of disposable income brick and mortar shopping.

Cha, Cha, Changes…

A lot has changed during the years since I last visited Union Square. A recession. A pandemic. And work from home.

From afar (my outpost in Vegas) I’ve watched as the press has made a spectacle of SFO’s troubles post-COVID — especially its pointing out of “doom loop” factors that include homelessness and crime around the very charming shopping district I had admired. Couple those with the loss of workers coming into the City (so declining foot traffic) and, well…

Perhaps it was inevitable.

What I’ve observed isn’t unique to SF. In fact, in other cities, this decline has been going on for years.

The downtown branch of a department store has been a rare species for decades.

Philadelphia had several huge department stores for years, including the great Strawbridge and Clothier (with the best tomato soup and Sirloin cheeseburgers with an old school cup of coffee, in its Corinthian Room on the 8th floor). John Wanamaker had the pipe organ and Christmas Light display, worth the visit every season.

Now in the 21st century, most of the “Grande dame” of department stores, have all become, through mergers, a Macy’s.

Sooner or later, Macy’s would need to implode upon itself. It made no sense to fill these huge department stores with merchandise, only to mark it down at clearance, for it to move.

Nope, unless you are a Walmart Super Center, a Super Target, or Costco, a store that goes on for days (a reference to ginormous foot print) is well past its prime.

Case in point, Macy’s announced another 150 stores to be closed over the next three years. The company is shopping the real estate that houses it Union Square branch, with the intention to close its West Coast beach-head within the next 3 years.

Macy’s had already closed its separate Men’s store years ago and consolidated to the main location across the street. The retail exodus had been started post pandemic, with Nordstrom closing months ago, along with mall owner Westfield turning it over to the bank. The movies stopped, Bristol Farms left, a new Whole Foods was mothballed. Even locations of Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid, and Safeway are reconsidering its urban outposts.

With the Macy’s announcement, you’d think it was the 1906 earthquake all over again…

What Will Be, Will… Be?

Is it the end, or just the beginning? A step back to regroup moment? Perhaps.

Do I think Macy’s may eventually drop a “Mini-Macy’s” in cities like San Fransisco in the future?

Maybe down the line, but not now. Until disposable income makes a comeback to downtown, the contraction will continue to climb because sales have not off-set the losses.

That being said, all is not lost. IKEA did not bail on its “Mini-Ikea”, and the rumor is Primark is eventually expanding to the West Coast, they got room at the Emporium.

That’s a Wrap…

It IS with much sadness that I ponder I the slow death of these urban charming department stores. [pause]

Then again I, too, have entered a new era of sorts. Honestly I’m lucky if I can go into a Walgreens or a breakfast joint, but that is for another reason.

Sure, the last 40 years have been “transitional” in retail (and the whole shopping experience). I miss those cheeseburgers at Strawbridge and Clothier just like, I suppose, the generation before me misses the old lunch counters at Woolworths (as Dollar Tree, Dollar General and Daiso have taken over that “5 & Dime” space).

But, you know, something good (heck, G-R-R-R-E-A-T!!!) could be, literally, around the corner. And with that in mind, Peg and I remain watchful and hopeful. This is, as they say, a developing story, so… stay tuned!

Thanks for reading and hanging out with me!–TC

Bonus Clips…

It only takes a tiny corner of
This great big world to make a place you love
My home up on the hill
I find I love you still
I’ve been away but now I’m back to tell you
San Francisco
Open your golden gate
You let no stranger wait outside your door
San Francisco
Here is your wandering one
Saying I’ll wander no more
Other places only make me love you best
Tell me you’re the heart of all the golden west
San Francisco
Welcome me home again
I’m coming home
To go roaming no more…


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