From the late nineteenth through the mid-twentieth century, department stores were portals to luxury, innovators of modern retailing, and major players in the development of center cities. Today, department stores are considered passé and fêted as “historic or nostalgic artifacts” that epitomize the good old days of urban life and leisure (p. 5).
Vicki Howard examines this transformation in From Main Street to Mall: The Rise and Fall of the American Department Store. She rejects the conventional wisdom offered by marketing and retail scholars—the idea that the rise and fall of department stores was simply “part of a life cycle” of retailing (p. 5). Instead, she argues that their course was shaped by structural shifts in the U.S. economy, the rise and proliferation of chain and discount stores, suburbanization, the decline of American cities, and the actions (as well as inactions) of the state. She also insists that the department store industry itself made decisions that facilitated the birth and success of discounters, as well as its own demise. In doing all of this, Howard makes significant contributions to our historical understanding of American department stores—those in and outside major cities—and their relationship to the state and other retailers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. [End Page 304]
Howard’s book is an impressive achievement. Well written and extensively researched, it deftly builds on the works of Susan Porter Benson, Lizabeth Cohen, Alison Isenberg, William R. Leach, Richard Longstreth, and Daniel Opler, among others, while engaging department store records, trade publications, and newspapers.
What distinguishes From Main Street to Mall from other books on department stores, however, is its meticulous attention to the industry’s relationship with the government through the decades. Department stores welcomed the support and protection of state and federal governments when they believed their interests and goals would be safeguarded. However, when government agencies sought to implement fair-trade legislation, protect price maintenance, or pursue any policy retailers believed would undermine their power, department stores strategically campaigned against government oversight. In such instances, they even went as far as to ally themselves with their competitors—chain and discount stores—to push for a laissez-faire program. In the end, Howard argues, it was “loose federal oversight of the financial sector and the explosion of leveraged buyouts” that “allowed a wave of ‘retail-merger mania’ . . . and left far fewer firms standing” in the final decades of the twentieth century (p. 199).
From Main Street to Mall is arguably at its best when exploring postwar department stores and their efforts to expand and modernize in the face of the discount revolution and federal policies that supported the decentralization of cities. However, its consideration of the industry during the civil rights movement may leave some readers wanting more. Howard rightly notes that many merchants, specifically those in the South, “opposed federally mandated desegregation of public accommodations” (p. 160). She also rightly credits grassroots activism and government intervention for integrating these spaces on behalf of African American workers and consumers. But Howard surprisingly makes no mention of the urban disturbances of the 1960s or how department stores often thwarted integration by shifting into suburban retailing (where they could continue to cater to and secure the work of their desired clientele and personnel—the [End Page 305] white middle class). All of this significantly affected the industry and American cities.
Nevertheless, From Main Street to Mall remains an insightful and valuable text on the history of department stores. It is essential reading for anyone interested in American consumer capitalism, retailing, and politics.
TRACI PARKER is an assistant professor in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies at the University of Massachusetts– Amherst. She is currently writing a book on African American workers and consumers in twentieth-century department stores.