“Let’s go see the president,” Maxine Dalsemer is saying, in the way that Maxine Dalsemer says everything, which is fast and peppery and a little meshugana. She’s 72 and five feet tall, with a body shaped like a bowling pin, but the lady can move. As we thread our way through Macy’s handbag department, Maxine is still talking, though since she’s in front of me, I can’t really hear her. Which is sort of odd, because you can usually hear Maxine from anywhere in the store.
It should be noted that we are not, in fact, on our way to see Barack Obama, but rather William Howard Taft. A hundred years ago next month, Taft came to Philadelphia to dedicate a shining symbol of its commerce: the new, sprawling 13th and Market building of John Wanamaker, the grandest department store in the city’s history.
A small rectangular plaque implanted in the marble floor between two jewelry cases marks the spot where Taft spoke, extolling “this enduring monument to the clear-sightedness and genius” of the space’s namesake, a canny merchant who had first opened a men’s clothier in 1861.
Maxine knows every plaque that’s ever been in the store, can tell you the stories hidden in every balustrade and up every winding staircase. As an official tour guide of Macy’s, which rebranded the building in 2006, she’s the Ghost of Department Stores Past. She works three days a week at the store information desk, usually pointing the way to the restrooms. She gives only a few tours a month, often to random tourists or Philly expats indulging in some nostalgia.
We go on to the next plaque, by the Market Street entrance. “This is Ulysses S. Grant,” she says, as if the general is lying in state in front of us. After being made head of the Union forces in 1861, Grant bought his uniform from John Wanamaker and—oh, enough of that. Maxine takes off again, sprinting past the famous 2,500-pound bronze Eagle (“‘Meet me at the Eagle’ needed no definition if you grew up here,” she says), past rows of expensive denim (“There’s no reason you need 200 kinds of jeans”), past a wool shift dress (“I swear I wore this in the ’70s”), past a wary supervisor making sure she’s not being too … well, Maxine (“She’s upset with me because I’m supposed to be pushing the 10 percent discount,” Maxine says conspiratorially). “Here, I want you to see the most gorgeous thing.” She stops dead and points up. “See that balcony? If you want to put in about the most beautiful piece of wrought iron in the world, that’s it.”
Not really. But it is to Maxine, and that’s all that matters. With her gray wavy hair and oversize purple-framed Lucite glasses, she bears a slight resemblance to Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie if he/she’d made it to grandmother-hood. And when Maxine gets animated talking about her building, which is a lot, her body almost folds in on itself, as if she’s trying not to combust from all the excitement.
“John Wanamaker,” she says, “is a historic figure, and should be, for what he gave the city. The building itself is magnificent, and as a merchant, a man of ideas … ”
She trails off. She knows that most young Philadelphians don’t even know the name Wanamaker. And she worries, as only a Jewish grandmother can, that his legacy will die, which she thinks is not merely a shame but a tragedy. Because how can you appreciate your city, know its identity, if you don’t know how it got to where it is?
“I grew up in this store,” she says. “My father bought a piano from John Wanamaker. My mother had money, and she just thought she was queen of the hop and she would come in here every single day. We would get dressed and put on our gloves and have lunch in the Crystal Tea Room.” Maxine bought her wedding dress here, and her $3,000 fur coat.
“Wanamaker’s,” she says, “has always been in my life.”
THERE WAS ALWAYS SOMETHING special about walking into John Wanamaker.
It had a posh, seductive aura that you didn’t find at Gimbel’s or Lit Brothers or Strawbridge & Clothier. Browsing Wanamaker’s made you feel special. With its monstrous 28,000-pipe organ thundering calliope-worthy tunes and its Parisian-feeling Grand Court, it forged the city’s retail belle époque in the 20th century.Born and raised in Philadelphia, Wanamaker was by most accounts a mild and quiet man, but he had a fine head for how people shopped. (He invented both retail returns and the white sale.) For decades, “going to Wanamaker’s” telegraphed a certain cosmopolitan éclat.