Cafe au Lait
Marshal Field’s fading glory
December 7, 1990
Few places gave the visitors from the rest of Illinois an idea of what Chicago was like in its heyday than Marshal Field’s main store on State Street. This column was inspired by the news that Field’s department stores were going to be sold to the outfit that ran the Target chain. (In 2006 Field’s was to be sold again, to Macy’s, which by now is itself dying.) The State Street store of Field’s was by then less a store than an Olde Chicago exhibit in the urban theme park that the Loop was becoming.
The piece is sentimental and foolish, but I got that way about Field’s, which is odd, since while I could afford to shop there I seldom could afford to buy there.
"You didn't see that," said the counter woman in a stage whisper, smiling. She'd just aimed a wet coffee filter brimming with grounds at a waste basket and missed, with spectacularly inconvenient results. I put on a comradely smile. "See what?" I said.
L. and I were in Chicago, in a cozy little spot called Café Vienna we'd stumbled upon while shopping. We were seated on bentwood chairs at a marble cafe table separated from the bustle of passersby by an etched glass partition; she was sipping an espresso and I a cafe au lait while we shared an almond croissant.
It was pretty elegant for a spot whose menu not too long ago included girdles and handbags by the binful. The Cafe Vienna is located in what used to be the bargain basement of Marshall Field's main store on State Street. Field's has moved upscale, and the bargain basement was converted a couple of years ago into a maze of houseware boutiques and food shops collectively called Down Under. As I sipped I wondered why our little spot wasn't called Cafe Melbourne or Cafe Sydney, given its setting; L. explained that they wouldn't do much business selling Vegemite sandwiches and instant tea.
I often contrive to be in Field's on my trips to Chicago. Like any grownup I loathe to shop. But I have come to love—well, to like a lot—shopping at Field's on State Street. I have bought cheesecake there, and a belt, a wallet, pajamas, and shirts. I have eaten Chinese, drunk cafe au lait, and learned how to clean a lobster. It is a store in which you can buy a Bears mug for a buck or a hand-woven Tibetan room rug for $27,000; if you look hard enough you will probably also find Bears rugs and Tibetan mugs. Their lines of store-label goods offer boutique style at mall prices; their pajamas are cut like Diors (if from lesser cloth) and their made-in-Italy men's outer coats sell for half what the same garment would cost in a shop.
The store occupies a whole Loop block—thirteen floors of merchandise, fifteen restaurants, and a range of services that would embarrass most malls, from watch repair to cleaning, interior decorating, catering, travel booking, and hair styling. The store will deliver hose to any office in the Loop, mail merchandise anywhere, and offers its own warranties on appliances that often are more generous than those of the manufacturers.
Most astounding to someone whose shopping experience has been limited to mall stores manned by teenagers, Field's clerks know what they are selling. A year ago I was in the market for a sharpening steel. All the cookbooks said I ought to use one, but they didn't say why or how. I asked the kitchen guy at Field's and got a demonstration showing how a steel cleans the dulling microscopic burrs from a knife's edge. On another occasion L. asked why German coffee makers deliver much better brew than Mr. Coffees; she was told by a clerk that Mr. Coffee machines heat brewing water only to 120 degrees (or something like that) compared to the Braun or Krups machines, which heat it to 160 degrees.
Field's is not perfect. The ink on their otherwise rugged shopping bags bleeds when wet, and its entire selection of men's hats is sized for customers with small heads—the result perhaps of catering to a clientele that includes a high percentage of football fans. But these are quibbles.
Many a tourist who has visited Field's on North Michigan Avenue and mistakenly assumed that this branch store was the Marshall Field's. The chain maintains its mall stores as a customer service for customers who can't parallel park or who panic at the prospect of rubbing elbows with people who use American Express cards. But there is only one real Field's. The Water Tower Field's is to its State Street store what the State of Illinois Center is to the statehouse.
First-time shoppers should know that the scenes on State Street are grim this time of year in spite of the music and the lights, mainly because of the sheer crush of people. They stand six deep to gawk at the famous windows, and customers—mostly suburban moms with kids in tow—start lining up in mid-morning for seats in the Walnut Room for lunch around a 45-foot Christmas tree festooned with 12,000 lights. (I know the number because I counted each one last year while waiting for a table.) Such rites have become a tradition for thousands people to whom the State Street store is not just a store but a monument to a way of life, indeed to a city they abandoned—or which abandoned them.
A town identifies with and is identified by its downtown department store. I remember Myers Brothers as Springfield's Field's. The store enjoyed a national reputation in the 1960s among smaller stores for the sophistication of its merchandising. I was in high school when it first outfitted its traditional departments into in-store boutiques like the Golden Key Shop. I liked Myers Brothers, even was proud of it in a citizenly way; it made Springfield seem more like a city than a small town, not just because it was in Springfield but because it was of Springfield, having been founded and run by Springfieldians. When Myers was sold, downtown Springfield became just another market for the chains.
Some months ago tremors were felt in Chicago when it was revealed that Field's too was going to be sold. An investment group headed by the chain's then-president was in the running, but Dayton-Hudson, the Minneapolis-based chain, made a higher bid.
Such buyouts ruined many a proud store in the '80s, but Dayton-Hudson was a chain whose taste and customer base was similar to Field's. (Only similar, as it turns out; this year there are dresses in a Randolph Street window that must cause Phil Miller, the ousted Field's president, to wince.) Asked last year what he planned to change, the new boss replied, "Why would we change anything?" Field's lifelong customers wanted to believe him. I was surprised to realize that I wanted to believe him too. ●
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