My love affair with department stores began when I young. When I was a little girl my beloved grandma would sometimes take me, all by myself, to Ballantynes. It was wonderful. Ballantynes was, and is, the main department store in Christchurch. Christchurch is not a big town. We have shops, boutiques even, but Ballantynes is in a league all of its own. It is pure old English class.

The patina of age: can’t buy it, can’t fake it
It’s old, dating from the 1850s, and big, covering a prime corner block just south of the Square. The exterior of this old lady has undergone many changes, the most major recent change wrought by the devastating 2011 earthquake, but the store retains its quota of majesty. There are large windows that face onto the mall, artful tempters for what lies within. To go in you push a heavy wooden and glass door. Inside, it’s warm, light, and smells wonderful. There’s modernity but it doesn’t hide the wonderful patina of age – wide stairs, wood everywhere, and high ceilings. And between the racks and down the aisles glide calm, well-groomed ladies in black who might politely enquire if you need any assistance, or who might just smile at you, welcoming you to this small palace of plenitude.

Shopping was special
When I was little, shopping was not an everyday sort of thing. It was an event. And the best shopping was in Ballantynes. Because when you had exhausted the possibilities of one rack, you could move onto the next. (Labels? I didn’t even know such things existed). And when the skirt or top was brought, then in the very same store you could go upstairs for knickers and pantyhose, or cross to the other side of the building for boy’s clothes for one of my brothers, who might be along spoiling the whole outing.

Ballantynes as it is now

Money flows
One of the best things about Ballantynes – and I’ll tell you the very best shortly – was the pneumatic tube system for payments. At the till a lady or gentleman would take your money, and put it, and the till receipt, into a small tube, and screw the end on. Then they would reach inside a small box and hold the container under a plastic tube, and suddenly it was gone. Up and away it went, rattling across the ceiling through the plastic tube, and always my head turned upwards, trying to seek its passage. I imagined its delivery – to some dark corner office, where someone in glasses would carefully count out the change and send it rattling back, where it arrived with a rude clatter. This arcane process meant a short time of quiet waiting and pleasant small talk, a momentary spell in the day that was no doubt welcome for my busy mother.

Sweet and salty
The very best thing was lunch with grandma. Down we would go, down the Ballantyne stairs into the basement restaurant, grandma in her tartan skirt and fine woollen jumper (it’s always winter when I remember this, I don’t know why). The basement restaurant, café really, was lined with wood, a bit like a Bavarian breakfast room. At one end of a long counter we would pick up a tray and a plate, and then, opening doors on plastic boxes, would choose a lunch for ourselves from the glorious offerings. Nothing, and I repeat nothing, ever beat asparagus rolls. Not fresh asparagus (even today I view fresh asparagus rolls with deep suspicion) but canned, on fine white bread, with a smear of butter and mayonnaise and the crusts cut off (of course). Eating these, two of them, along with a dainty fairy cake with fresh cream, waiting on another plate, under the dark wooden ceiling, under the floors of Ballantyne, with my grandma. Life was perfect.

Smith and Caughey’s – a grand old dame

Another city, a new love
I had an admiration for the old-world elegance of Smith and Caughey’s, in Auckland, but those were student days, so wandering among the racks of a department store was a painful experience, and the admiration never became love. When I moved to Melbourne in my mid-twenties, it was, of course, to Myers that I gave my heart. Not David Jones – suspiciously upmarket, and certainly not Georges where they might spy the dirt under my provincial fingernails. Myers in the 1990s was deeply familiar to me. It was wood and age and gentile assistants. I loved that it was slightly shabby, that it spread itself comfortably over two city blocks. I loved the wide elegant stairs with worn banisters sweeping up to the lingerie floor. I loved the food court at the top of the Bourke Street building, full of old people working their way through white sandwiches.

Myers in Melbourne

Testing times
They say love must endure through the good and the bad, and I have endured through a modern remake of Myer that hurts the eyes and deadens the spirit. The Lonsdale Street store has gone. The Bourke Street store is all metal and glass. The escalators head you up towards a light-filled ceiling. If I wanted light I’d go to the beach. Downstairs is choked with cosmetics, reminding you of how old and ugly you’re getting. The clothing floors are filled with racks full of well-thumbed specials. Gone is the mystery. Gone is the elegance. Gone too is great service, in fact you could lie haemorrhaging on the floor and no one would come.

Still, I persist and sometimes, when I drift from one section to another after coffee and cake at Brunetti’s, I remember for a moment why I love great department stores. You see, Myers, (if you are listening) the best shopping is not about just choosing an item and handing over the money. It’s about charm. It’s about atmosphere. It’s about nostalgia for something we have lost, and a yearning for something we can never have. It’s as much about who we are, as what we’re out to buy.

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