Meet Her at the Eagle: Touring Wanamaker’s With Maxine Dalsemer

This brassy, sassy tour guide is trying to save the store's legacy, one story at a time

Which made it all the more sad and shocking when the era of the grand city department store slowly dissolved. Wanamaker’s was first sold in 1995, quickly undergoing a series of unsuccessful reinventions before finally becoming a Macy’s in 2006. Today the store is festooned with blown-up images of great moments in Macy’s—Macy’s!—history. It’s like having the second wife rip out the hardwood floors to put in indoor/outdoor carpeting. But what’s a grandmother to do?

Place blame. “People built malls,” Maxine says, almost spitting out the last word. “And people put their backsides in the car and they drove to the mall and they did their food shopping and they put it in the trunk and they did their clothing shopping and then they put that in the trunk. And they could get to 25 stores in one stop. And that was that. Who ever went downtown? Only poor people.”

That was then. Now, Maxine says, all the boomers with their empty nests are coming back, and she’s ready for them, ready to show them that the glory days of the department store have returned. We stand in the housewares department, with its stately pillars and huge, slender windows throwing splashes of sunlight onto the floor. The Home Store is relatively new, Maxine says: “You can’t keep sending them over to Burlington Coat Factory. So they invested several million dollars. Though I’m not allowed to mention the price.”

MAXINE HASN’T ALWAYS been a Macy’s tour guide. The daughter of a prominent Center City furrier, she worked as a schoolteacher and raised her kids before working for the city convention and visitors bureau, hired one month before Meryl Levitz. (“She got much further than I did.”) She was hired by Macy’s when it took over the store in ’06, temporarily retired in ’09, and then was rehired a few months later.

“I wish more people would take the whole tour,” she’d admitted to me back at the Grant statue, “but they get this far and think they’ve heard it all.”

It’s doubtful it’s possible to ever hear it all from Maxine Dalsemer, which may be why she just keeps on talking. As long as she does, as long as there’s one person walking by, asking about the old milk bar and the light show and whether the running track Old Man Wanamaker built on the roof for the employees is still there (“I told him to climb up into Billy Penn’s hat, look over, and let me know,” Maxine says saucily, rolling her eyes), she’ll be there to answer, and answer, and answer. Someone has to.

We’ve reached the end of our tour. Maxine says she can’t take me to the in-store jail, where accused shoplifters are still detained. “I asked Security if I could show you the prison cell,” she says, “and they said, ‘Absolutely not! He’ll think we’re not nice.’”

We wrap up at the famous Wanamaker organ, the largest functioning organ in the world. Organist Peter Conte gives customers a soundtrack to shop by; Maxine’s favorite is ragtime. As Conte bangs out a few bars of Scott Joplin, Maxine gets giddy, her body tensing in delight as if it’s squealing inside.

As we ride the escalator down, Maxine has a look on her face, the look you get when you’ve accomplished something very meaningful and significant, even if only to you. And I realize this is how so many of the people who keep pockets of Old Philadelphia alive must look when they score another convert, another listener, if only for an hour. Keeping legacies going—whether it’s Mario Lanza or the Mummers or the Philadelphia A’s or John Wanamaker, the people and places that have made Philadelphia what it is—this isn’t work for the meek. It is instead the calling of the city’s Maxines, endlessly peppy and hopelessly devoted, doing all they can to keep the lights turned on just a little bit longer, before their slices of the city fade to black.

Because Macy’s may be stamped on Maxine’s cards, but it’s Wanamaker’s that’s in her heart. She turns to me on the escalator and smiles broadly. “We’re a wonderful place,” she says.