“Going downtown to shop” is a concept from my 1950’s New Jersey childhood, when my sisters and I would board the #39 bus in Kearny and ride the 30 minutes or less to Newark. Hahne’s, Bamberger’s, and Kresge’s were three large department stores located only minutes from each other on Broad Street. We liked Hahne’s the best, because it had a basement tea room where you could sit at the counter on a swiveling stool and order an inexpensive lunch like chicken croquettes with mashed potatoes and gravy plus a small silver dish of ice cream. We may or may not have bought anything much that was on offer on the main floors; our mother ordered a lot of our clothes from the Sears catalog. But we went, and spent money, and were part of the flow of foot traffic that kept the stores feeling vital and alive.
Seattle has a big downtown Macy’s, which so far has escaped the wave of closures, but when I occasionally stop in during the day as I’m walking past I see more sales clerks than shoppers. The store feels utterly dead. I have little interest in poring through racks of clothes, often discounted at any season of the year — not just at “sale time”. I do buy a piece here and there in some specialty shops downtown, like the FlyingShuttle in Pioneer Square — artisan made clothing, often with hand-woven fabrics and unique colored dyes. But I’m as much part of the trend that has killed downtown shopping as anyone: I buy a lot online.
I’m not sure what “downtown” means if there aren’t restaurants and movie theaters and stores — all of which Seattle still has. My former hometown of Rochester didn’t; suburban malls killed off the appeal of Sibley’s and Forman’s on Main Street, and as for restaurants, you can buy fast food in downtown Rochester but there’s nothing resembling the old Manhattan where business people and ladies who lunched could both be found. There hasn’t been a functioning movie theater there in decades.
When I talk about downtown retail stores I’m thinking of urban spaces where young working people and elders like to live, for somewhat different reasons. We urban dwellers share the pleasure of being able to do happy hour at day’s end, or catch a movie then dinner at any one of a number of places, or make a museum visit a drop-in thing as you’re walking by instead of making it an excursion. Retail stores fill a lot of the real estate and are part of the makeup of downtown, but nobody much is in them any more.