Friday, December 08, 2006

A Kid's Day on the Town

This date, December 8th, was a day that my brother, sister, and I looked forward to for almost an entire year. No, it wasn't as important a date as say, Christmas, or your birthday. But December 8th was important for two reasons: It was a day off from school, and it was a day fully-spent in Center City (we called it going uptown) visiting the department stores and their
Christmas attractions.

The day always started with us sleeping in a little later than usual. After all, it was a day off, so you had to put it to good use and get a little more sleep. It was just a little, maybe an hour or two more, but then our feet hit the floor and we started to get ready.

We always took the route 2 bus north on 16th street into town. My mom and her friends didn't trust the subway, they thought too many bad things happened down there. So we stayed on the surface. The first stop once hitting Market Street was a short walk to John Wanamaker's to see the Christmas light show, which was a must, and still should be for families today. Afterward, we'd head up to the 9th floor to the toy department where there were two things a kid had to do: ride the monorail around the toy department, and go shopping for your parents at the Little Santa shop that the store set up for kids. The doorway into the shop was really low, giving the impression that only kids could come in, no adults allowed. We were so into it that we didn't think about how the adult cashiers and sales helpers got into the room. I think it's safe to say they weren't shrunken momentarily to allow them entrance, but we didn't care. We finished our trip to Wanamaker's with a stop for lunch in the fancy dining room they had there, at least fancier than places kids go most times of the year.

After lunch, we'd trek east on Market to Lit Brothers department store at 8th Street. This was before the pit they call The Gallery was built down the street. Lit's had an attraction called The Enchanted Village, an animated Christmas town that was enjoyed by kids and adults alike. We'd line up through the length of the store to wait to get to see it. The trip through the village took only maybe fifteen minutes, but we got to clown around with each other while waiting and the time wasn't wasted. The Enchanted Village survived until Lit's closed in 1975, and should someday rise again when the Please Touch Museum moves into the current Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park. If you haven't been there as a child, start a tradition with your family and head there every year around Christmas time. Although I haven't seen it in three decades, I believe kids will still be interested, even in the world of high tech - which the village definitely isn't. When it's back, take them and let them decide whether or not it's for them. My bet is that they'll love it.

There was a third big department store on Market St. East in those days, but to our knowledge, Gimbel's didn't have anything like the other stores did. The only thing we can remember is that on Thanksgiving Day, they were the sponsors of the parade, and Santa Claus would ascend the ladder of a Philadelphia Fire Department ladder truck and enter the window of one of the store's upper floors to usher in the Christmas season. After that, nothing. It's a shame really, because they missed out on drawing in the kids with their parents and what could have been some tradition for some families.

The common thread in all this was the big department stores. Those that survive or have started in the more recent decades fall short in a lot of ways. They're just not the same. When you look at it, the average department store has two, maybe three floors of goods for sale today. Wanamaker's had nine in Center City. Retail is a different animal than it was back in the day, and that's sad, because generations of kids and entire families will miss out on what we remember from just thirty years ago.

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