As Macy's continues the gradual process of shedding The Bon Marché name from its department stores, the time has come to pay respects...

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As Macy’s continues the gradual process of shedding The Bon Marché name from its department stores, the time has come to pay respects to a local shopping institution that began modestly in 1890 and has been fighting for respect ever since.

For all the button-down style of Nordstrom, for all the trunk-show couture of Frederick & Nelson (R.I.P.), The Bon Marché was the store for the common people. Its young fashion departments, the Cube and Tiger Shop, set trends for groovy teens and college kids all over the Pacific Northwest.

The Bon also set the standard for one-stop shopping convenience long before the era of the big-box retailer. The downtown Seattle flagship had a large drugstore and sold guns, fly rods, record albums and books, with budget items in the basement.

On March 6, Bon-Macy’s officially becomes just Macy’s as part of a new corporate branding strategy. Between now and then, new credit cards bearing only the Macy’s name will be sent to all Bon-Macy’s cardholders. Exterior and interior signs referring to the Bon will be removed.

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Brass vertical signs that stretch down the flat corner facades of the downtown Seattle store started coming down yesterday, soon to be replaced with brass Macy’s signs. Bon Marché plaques flanking the entrances will come down later this month. Small brass horizontal exterior signs over three window canopies that say “The Bon Marché” in script will remain, as required by the building’s landmark status.


The Bon Marché: 115 years of retail history




1890:
Edward and Josephine Nordhoff open The Bon Marché, a small store selling dry goods and sundries at First Avenue and Cedar Street.


1929:
The Bon is sold to Hahn Department Stores, a retail chain that reorganizes as Allied Stores in 1933.


1950:
The Bon’s Northgate store opens as the nucleus of the 80-store Northgate Shopping Center, America’s first modern shopping mall.


1986:
Canadian entrepreneur Robert Campeau purchases Allied Stores.


1988:
Campeau purchases Federated Department Stores.


1990:
Federated and Allied file for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11.


1992:
The new Federated Department Stores emerges from Chapter 11.


1994:
Federated acquires R.H. Macy & Co.


2003:
Federated rebrands its regional department stores with the Macy’s nameplate, and The Bon Marché becomes Bon-Macy’s.


March 6, 2005:
Bon-Macy’s becomes Macy’s and almost all references to the Bon are removed from the stores.

Source: Bon-Macy’s

Those signs, though, could use some work. At the Fourth Avenue and Stewart Street corner, the “T” in The, the “n” in Bon and the “h” in Marché are missing. The “a” in Marché is hanging perilously on a fastener, slightly askew.

Sad. But it kind of fits.

No-frills reputation

It always has been fashionable in these parts to dismiss The Bon Marché as a no-frills destination for a “good buy,” as the French translation suggests.

The Bon name never carried the same cachet as Nordy’s or Frederick’s. While Frederick’s sold Frango chocolates, the Bon sold “ala Bons” mints, a cheaper knockoff. Even the Bon’s previous color scheme was less than thrilling: brown.

The store’s reputation for bargains goes back to Edward Nordhoff, who opened The Bon Marché 115 years ago as a small store north of downtown selling only dry goods and sundries.

John Buller, The Bon’s director of marketing from 1985 to 1996, said Nordhoff once obtained a huge supply of pennies in order to give his customers a one-cent discount for every purchase.

“That set the foundation for the Bon,” said Buller, who began working at the Bon in 1971 and is now executive director of the University of Washington Alumni Association.

In 1929, Nordhoff sold the store to Hahn Department Stores, a national retail chain.

“The Bon was, and still is, part of a large corporation but its executives always had free rein to run the business as they saw fit for the Pacific Northwest,” said Robert Spector, a West Seattle retail historian and author.

THE SEATTLE TIMES

By 1900, The Bon Marché had moved to Second Avenue and Pike Street from its original location at First and Cedar, north of downtown. The department store originally sold dry goods and sundries when it was opened in 1890 by Edward and Josephine Nordhoff.


Bon-Macy’s is owned by Federated Department Stores of Cincinnati, which acquired R.H. Macy & Co. in 1994. All department stores in the Federated chain are adopting the lone name of Macy’s this year. There are 50 Bon-Macy’s stores in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, including home stores.

“Retirement” parties

The Northgate store began ridding itself of any Bon references last week. Bellevue Square, Alderwood Mall and Southcenter are next.

Each store is having an employee party to retire the Bon name. Workers are signing a 25-foot-long timeline that tracks the company history from 1890 to present day. At the downtown store, workers have added historical facts to the timeline, such as the year the electronics department closed (punctuated by a sad face), and personal indulgences, such as their hire date. The company is collecting Bon Marché memorabilia that will be displayed on the third floor.

A customer celebration of the name change is March 12. Much about Macy’s still will seem like the Bon. The Christmas star at Fourth Avenue and Pine Street will go up this holiday season, and the popular one-day sales will continue — although the calypso “Day-O!” advertising jingles are being phased out.

The Bon Marché name carries 115 years of capital, but Federated officials believe the Macy’s name boasts a prestige that loyal Bon customers will learn to appreciate.

“We’ll still be locally managed and responsive to the needs and lifestyles of the Northwest,” said Daniel Edelman, Bon-Macy’s chairman and CEO.

Northwest style-setter

In some ways, the Bon helped establish those Northwest lifestyles. The Cube and Tiger Shop, the young women’s and young men’s departments, positioned the Bon as the trendy pop alternative to its more elegant and proper competitors. Separated by one block of Pine Street, the Bon and Frederick & Nelson inevitably got compared.

“The city had much more of an emotional attachment to Frederick & Nelson than it ever had with the Bon,” said Spector, who wrote the definitive history of Frederick’s. “Whereas Frederick’s was the place young men would buy their first suit and young ladies would learn to be ladies by having lunch at the Tea Room, the Bon was a good place to get good bargains.”

THE SEATTLE TIMES

Bargain hunters fill the aisles of The Bon Marché in 1955. Seattle’s economy was booming in the 1950s, thanks in part to the success of Boeing.


The Bon also had staying power. In part, that was because its owner, Allied Stores Corp., developed Northgate, Southcenter and Tacoma Mall with the Bon as the anchor tenant and, therefore, at the forefront of the new shopping trend. As the malls flourished, so did the Bon.

As signs come down and the memories come back, current and former executives will be bidding on the bronze plaques outside the entrances of the downtown store. The proceeds will be donated to charities — a tradition of benevolence that Macy’s promises to continue. Other signs are being donated to the Museum of History & Industry.

The Bon Marché won’t be easily forgotten, said Sam Qureshi, a selling specialist at the Bellevue Square store.

“Customers are saying, ‘We know the name is changing, but it’s always going to be the Bon to us.’ “

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com