As the news of our old friend’s tragic demise sinks in, I’ve been pondering the five stages of how grieving humans work through the death of a loved one. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
We’ve lost a dear part of our region’s family. Herberger’s, rest in peace.
Denial? Oh, yes. Until the axe finally fell, I clung to the lingering hope that a white knight with deep pockets would swoop to the rescue of our troubled Minnesota-born department store. No such luck.
Anger? You bet! When the “going out of business” banner went up on the Center Mall, I was downright furious — frankly, far angrier than I’d expected. This was not only a place I knew by heart; it was populated by helpful, patient people whose names I may not know but whose math skills have guided me through countless coupon-tweaking trips to the cash register.
Not only that. Our Herberger’s didn’t fail. Long the corporate flagship in terms of sales and profits, it was scuttled by latter-day decisions based in mercantile mishaps far further up the food chain. Moorhead shoppers and our neighbors — from Alexandria, Minn., where it all began, to 33 other cities across the northern swath of the Midwest — have loved our Herbie’s with a passion.
So now we mourners find ourselves in stage three — bargaining. The vultures of liquidation have flocked to sell off bits of the carcass at low-low-low prices. We diehards, though, observe that the discounts to date can’t hold a candle to the genuine bargains we’ve come to know, from Community Days and the Rose Sale to coupons stacked up in the Sunday paper and those lovely “Your Rewards” incentives so adored by our corps of credit-card holders.
Last Sunday was the first in decades when I didn’t flip through ad circulars right after reading the comics. It was the unyielding third task of my morning routine, right after pouring the first cup of coffee and fetching the newspaper from the front porch. I’d pull out Herbie’s missive and set its weekly bounty aside in a safe spot.
This week — a first — my jeans don’t crinkle when I sit from the coupons in my back pocket. It’s not that I’ve always planned to shop there in the next seven days. Far from it. My long, steady relationship simply taught me to always be prepared. I suppose that’s why I haven’t yet had the heart to clean my purse, where a handful of expired coupons still amount to a crumpled mouse nest for sunglasses and keys. And I’m sure my driver’s license barely knows what’s hit it — lingering alone in the spot where, for so long, Herbie’s plastic faithfully rode shotgun.
Herberger’s … just another store? I beg to differ. How could you say that of the place where I lost myself among racks and shelves for more than half of my lifetime? The glowing neon rose logo has signaled a comfortable, familiar world expressly designed to suit us –— the Midwest’s modest midmarket shoppers. Not for the big-city crème de la crème, those acres of less-than-flashy but well-made merchandise, from brisk career garb to embroidered, appliqued grandma sweatshirts. Nor did the Minnesota-born department store’s price points aim to entice bottom-of-the-barrel bargain hunters — though they certainly did know us well and understood that scoring a $50-off-$100 deal on already-on-sale trophies was the mercantile maven’s equivalent of bagging a 12-point buck.
What sealed the deal that made Herberger’s a family favorite? For our Moorhead store, some posit Minnesota’s lack of sales tax on clothes and shoes as the secret of its wide appeal. I think they’re wrong. It was the escalators! Fargo-Moorhead had been sadly without those moving stairs since Woolworth’s closed. Starved for that emblem of sophisticated retail, I always loved soaring gracefully above the fragrant cosmetics aisle to the kids’ realm overhead.
It really did feel like family: In fact, you can track its DNA all over our home. Come with me now to tour Hanson’s Museum of Herbergerhood. From vintage baby clothes boxed away in the basement to the contents of our own overstuffed closets, Russ and I exist in the afterglow of Herbie’s Greatest Hits — the troll nightie treasured by our 2-year-old three decades ago; my well-aged career pantsuits with shoulder pads broad as the sidewalk; his drawer-full of sober unmentionables lit up by the polka-dot socks that never fail to get a giggle from our granddaughter.
So many memories! There’s the dressing room where I burst into tears on my daughter’s off-to-college provisioning: “I won’t g-g-g-get to s-s-see you wear that!” Across the store in the middle-aged department, I paced in frustration as a mother of the bride-to-be dead-set against pastel polyester. Housewares? More wedding gifts than I can possibly count on all my fingers and toes.
So where will mourners like me buy our next generation of bath towels? Where will we find reasonable shirts and ties for husbands browbeaten to dress up? Where can we count on finding sensible women’s undies or frying pans or fresh bedspreads? How can we exist without the Clinique counter? And who else still handles housecoats?
Life will certainly go on. Our dedicated horde of Herberger’s fans will eventually drift to other venues. Perhaps I can cobble together some weird combination of Macy’s, Chico’s and Fleet Farm. Eventually, and with reluctance, I, too, will loosen my grip on the lifelong lure of personal, face-to-face shopping and yield to the sirens of the effortless Internet.
The final stages of grief lie dead ahead — depression and acceptance. If it’s any comfort, remember we’re not the first to go through this. Grandma bemoaned the loss of her small-town Main Street merchants … while better roads and faster cars were speeding her away to shop in city emporiums. Mom’s heart broke when her local downtown languished … as she enjoyed every minute spent prowling the upstart shopping centers.
Go ahead. Blame the demise of department stores on whatever you personally loathe most — rapacious big-box discount stores, or Amazon and online shoppers, or overbuilding, or even stagnant middle-class incomes. In the end, all of these irresistible forces — and we ourselves, unwitting architects of the retail apocalypse — are guilty of sealing our hallowed Herberger’s fate.
Turn, turn, turn. To everything, there is a season. Dear Herberger’s, rest in peace.