Reports that Macy’s is closing the store Minneapolis residents knew as Dayton’s brings a treasure of memories.
For many, it was the holiday exhibits and spring flower show in the eighth-floor auditorium. For those of us who rode the bus downtown as teenagers, it was the contrasting adventures of shopping in the Oval Room — if only on the clearance rack — before going to look for trouble on Block E. Or perhaps ordering a Bloody Mary from the 80-year-old waitress in the 12th-floor Oak Grill Room along with our popover and wild rice soup.
For those of us who worked there, it was the sense of belonging.
Even in the early 1990s, a decade after the last Dayton had ceded a controlling seat on the board, we were trained to act like and to believe, “It’s my company.” Maybe it wasn’t as in the ’20s and ’30s, when Dayton’s sponsored an employee orchestra and basketball and bowling teams, or as in the ’40s, when five different Dayton boys worked in the store at one time. Maybe it wasn’t as in the decades when Dayton’s provided a full-time nurse for sick employees and customers.
But it still felt like family.
Dayton’s gave second chances. When I first applied to work there, at 19, I didn’t think I’d be hired. I’d shoplifted at the Ridgedale Dayton’s at age 14, and I’d been caught. I was trying to show off to my friend who had just proven that she could get away with slipping a Van Halen cassette tape into her Bermuda purse at the mall’s Woolworth’s store. I one-upped her with a bikini.
And yet, five years later, when I told my story to the woman behind the desk in HR, she smiled and said, “I’m sure you learned your lesson.”
I had hardly even been punished in the first place. Dayton’s didn’t prosecute minors on a first offense. It tough-loved us delinquents by gathering us in a room for a five-hour motivational talk. I didn’t learn my lesson. I learned to be better.
My team in Women’s Shoes included recovering drug addicts, an opera singer, a former nun, many immigrants, and the first out-of-the-closet gay people I’d met. It included people who read Martin Buber and the first feminist I would get to know well. She was from St. Louis. I remember when the whole team signed a card for me on my last day. The feminist wrote: “Keep the faith, sister, and take back the night.”
That’s sort of what I’d like to tell the people who work at Macy’s now, the employees working from shipping and receiving in the subbasement all the way up to the still-functioning Oak Grill Room. Many people will say that the spirit of Dayton’s died long ago, but I doubt that’s any consolation to those who just learned they will likely lose the Macy’s jobs they have today.
I don’t know all of Macy’s history, but I know Dayton’s didn’t just rise up out of nothing. George Draper Dayton and his sons made it what it was, but it started out as a partnership with an earlier dry goods store owner named R.S. Goodfellow.
Dayton had learned about grafting fruit trees as a boy out East, and he would use the concept throughout his business life, building his vision onto something already established. The store that became Dayton’s started out like a tree grafted onto the rootstock of Goodfellow’s. The corporation later grafted itself onto many other department stores, and used its own rootstock to grow other businesses, like Target.
If Macy’s doesn’t stay in Minneapolis, another business or entity will plant itself in the well-loved building at 700 Nicollet Mall. I don’t think the building, erected in 1902, is ready to go down yet. Macy’s might not have been right for it in the first place. Let’s welcome what is to come next, and keep the faith.
Catherine Dehdashti, of Eagan, is the author of “Roseheart,” a novel set in Minneapolis. She is working on a novel set at the Dayton’s store in downtown Minneapolis during its last decade. Find her at www.facebook.com/CatherineDehdashtiAuthor.