To some it might be just a pretty hat, a gray felt topper with a cluster of flowers. But for Margarita Cromwell, 84, the hat she bought at The Bon Marché was an old friend — just like the store.
So when the downtown Seattle Macy’s opened for the last time Sunday, Cromwell was there, wearing her Sunday best with a cameo pin — and that hat.
Cromwell moved to Seattle in December 1979 from Chile, speaking little English. One of the first things she did that winter was buy the hat for $3 on sale at The Bon. It became a conversation starter, a little something special that helped her connect with people.
“It opened the door. Every day I got compliments. People would say to me, ‘It is so beautiful, you look so nice,’ ” Cromwell said. “I had communication with people, thanks to this hat. Because of this hat, people would talk to me. For that reason I had to say thank you to The Bon Marché. I came today to say goodbye.”
Cromwell said she knew the store as generations of Seattle shoppers did, “like a second house. It’s where I bought all my things.”
Shoppers hoping for a great deal on the last day arrived to find the store stripped but for its furnishings. Trash cans were grouped in a huddle in the middle of the vast, empty ground floor, selling for $1. There were dress racks, display tables and shelves for sale, scavenged from around the store. Even employees’ staplers were offered, their names or departments still stuck on the back with Scotch tape.
Some employees were there, too, to say goodbye to a store where salespeople once made careers as specialists and where all eight stories brimmed with clothing, fine china, mattresses, jewelry, furniture, fragrances and “foundations,” as women of a certain age knew that department to be called. Memories were being collected on two Facebook accounts, Bon Marché Soiree and Macy’s Downtown Seattle 2020.
With so little to buy, customers mostly just lingered, and reminisced.
“Everyone has a memory of the big downtown department store, the flagship store where everyone went,” said Larry Laffrey, who took the bus from the Central District with his biggest backpack, hoping to make a purchase, at least get a memento. It was not to be. Instead he took in the beautiful architectural details more noticeable than ever with no merchandise on the floor: the carved finishing touches at the tops of columns, the grand wood-paneled elevator doors and beautiful bronze store clock, still keeping good time.
The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s always a shame when a downtown anchor store goes away,” Laffrey said.
The Bon Marché began as the dream of Edward and Josephine Nordhoff, who in 1890 arrived in Seattle and used their $1,200 savings to start a dry goods store. They called it The Bon Marché, and as James Warren recounts in a HistoryLink essay, it became one of the Pacific Northwest’s most famous department stores.
Expansion and success led to construction in 1928 of a $5 million building at Third Avenue and Pine Street designed by prominent Seattle architect John Graham Sr. After several ownership and name changes the store, by 2004 part of a chain of 50 stores in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Wyoming, was in 2005 renamed Macy’s.
“It used to be a grand old department store,” said Julie Davidson, 50, of Belltown, who said she picked up some great buys in the last several years as the store offered sales to draw shoppers. “In the last few years it’s been sales central,” she said, delighted with the $300 Michael Kors leather backpack she said she recently bought for $80.
She found it ironic that Amazon has leased so much of the building’s upper floors. “It’s the new way of commerce versus the old way, I’ve lived here 22 years and it’s a really cool building.
“It’s sad most of the new buildings going up have no personality to them. It’s starting to look like any other city.” A designer by profession, she has started collecting photos of Seattle’s iconic signs for her Instagram account, Saving Seattle Signs.
Lily Aguirre, 27, detoured from her bus route home to Greenwood to stop by Macy’s, hoping to find something for her mother. A minimum-wage restaurant worker, she said Macy’s for her didn’t often have the right combination of low price and high quality she found on the discount tables at other stores. But she said she would still miss it.
“It’s sad, the company has been here a long time, since I was a little kid, and what about all the people that used to work here, what is going to happen to them?”