Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Demise of Marshall Field's: A Librarian's Viewpoint

A lot of people in the Chicago area are stirred emotionally by the announcement that May Department Stores is going to retire the Marshall Field's name and replace it with the Macys logo. Many people who have known and loved the Chicago store and its famous public service are upset by what they feel is a senseless and heartless act. They feel something is being ripped away from them. The men in suits respond that it is a good business decision. Their vision is of opportunities for national marketing - a homogenization of our country.

Many people in this area have Marshall Field's stories. Mine actually has a library tie-in. When I arrived in the Chicago area in the early 1980s I had no credit cards; I had believed that I needed little and that I was better off without a temptation to go into debt. The realities of commerce were changing and writing checks was getting to be a hassle, so I decided to get some credit cards. It was not so easy, because I had no track record, having gotten into my late twenties without ever testing credit. I got several rejections, including one from Marshall Field's Department Store. Having read a booklet on credit from my library's pamphlet file (remember pamphlet files?), I went to the offices of Marshall Field's in their State Street store and asked to speak with a credit reviewer. I was taken to the desk of an older woman who looked at my application and my bank statement and said that she saw nothing on which to base a recommendation. (With my library salary, I could have qualified for public housing.) Then she said, " I see you are a librarian. Did you have to go to college for that?" I affirmed that I did, telling that I had a master's degree, to which she replied, "If you have a master's degree, you deserve a credit card." I have shopped at Marshall Field's ever since.

Eric Zorn's column in the Chicago Tribune on Thursday, September 22 was an eye-opener. He listed many Chicago and national business names that have disappeared during the last twenty-five years: Montgomery Ward, Kroch's and Brentano's, Poppin' Fresh, Stuart Brent Booksellers, Chas. A. Stevens, Illinois Bell, Polk Brothers, Wiebolt's, Union 76, Rose Records, and many more. (Oh, I loved Rose Records store on Wabash - three floors of LPs - heaven!) I can imagine taking a time machine back twenty years to any Chicago area shopping district or mall and being surprised by all the old names. We have lost so much tradition. At least our public libraries are still here with the same names. Mostly.

When I think about it, our libraries have changed much in the past twenty years and not all of our clients have been thrilled with the changes. While I see much good from our technical advancements and new buildings and new ways of providing services, some longtime residents have not kept up. Perhaps some are no longer inclined to adapt: they have seen too many changes and symbols of their pasts are being taken away; they have fond memories of the old, poorly-lit buildings where the books overflowing the shelves. We have to be more sensitive than the men in suits and try to find ways to soften the shock to our public when we institute change. We want them to stay with us through the changes.

We have not totally escaped the name change phenomenon here in Illinois. On the positive side, a couple public libraries merged to form a bigger, stronger library with more resources: the Indian Prairie Library was the result of merger; it is unfortunate that so few communities were able to do what Darien and Willowbrook did. All other public libraries that I know in our area are under the names they were twenty years ago.

A bigger name change in our area came from the Illinois State Library's push to consolidate regional library systems. The Suburban Library System combined with a portion of the old Chicago Library System (minus Chicago Public Library) to become the Metropolitan Library System. Not everyone was thrilled, and fifteen months after the official merger, not much has happened to excite reference librarian about the new name. In time, we may have the promised collaborations between city and suburbs and involving public, academic, and special libraries, but I see no structure to foster joint projects yet. We lost the system's reference service and the resources to which it subscribed in the state of Illinois' underfunding of library systems. MLS seems a lesser entity. Like the name Marshall Field's Department Store, the name Suburban Library System evokes some good old memories.

Will I shop at Macy's Department Store? My first reaction is "No." I may eventually find myself there, but I will never have any fondness for it. It will always just be a corporate box filled with dry goods. I am sticking with the Metropolitan Library System; there is still hope for good times to be remembered later.

1 comment:

jules said...

I feel the same way about Sears. When I was in my early 20's without any established credit, I applied for a Sears credit card and got the same response "insufficient credit history". I wrote them a letter and asked how I was supposed to get any credit history if no one would give me any credit to get any history with. I received my credit card in the mail within weeks. I was so proud. I still shop Sears to this day, for that very reason.
Thanks for dredging up this memory.