A place to recall and celebrate the wonderful stores of a Downtown Boston now alive only in our memories

Friday 25 June 2010

The Gilchrist Company Department Store of Boston

Hello, My Fellow Retro Boston Lovers!
I am thrilled by the many emails I now get each month as a result of this blog.
So many folks fondly recall these wonderful stores of retro Boston and want to share their own memories with me and...you!!
Today I look back on The Gilchrist Company...Gilchrist's as we all called it.
This great competitor to Jordan Marsh and Filene's occupied the corner of Washington and Winter Streets from 1906 until it closed for good in late 1976. The name of Gilchrist was part of the Boston retail scene from the 1870's but the Gilchrist Company came into its own in 1901. The store had always been in the Winter Street area but taking the famous corner in 1906 really put it on the shopper's map.
The opening in 1912 of the new building on the corner of Washington and Winter Streets made headlines and showed the rivals on the other corners that it meant business. Jordan Marsh had just finished building part of their famous Annex and Filene's had just built a beauty of a new, modern department store...Gilchrist's had to make a splash as well. It did and it still stands today in all its 1912 glory.
One of the many features of the new building were glass plate windows on all floors that allowed natural light to be used to illuminate the vast floor space. In years to come, the upper windows in most older department stores would be blocked out using wooden wall partitions...these added some storage space for goods and hid the now grimy windows from public view...how times change!!
Most Bostonians remember Gilchrist's for their famous almond macaroons baked in the little bakery of the store located along the Winter Street side, it even had its own street door if I recall correctly. The smell of these treasures wafted round the street floor of the store and has found a home in my sensory memories forever!
If you have read my 1968 memories posted a few years back, then you know that I was treated to one macaroon on each trip "in town" until the store closed in December of 1976.
My last memory of this fine store was from the closing sale in late 1976. I was taken in and my mom and I wandered around the ground floor and looked on tables filled with goods going cheap. I think the upper floors were closed off by this time as I recall signs in front of the elevator doors saying "not in use".
It was depressing. I bought a sweater and I always thought of this sad day every time I wore it. This was the first of the big department store closings I was aware of...RH Stears would close around this time as well. Downtown Boston was changing.
My mother recalled RH White's and Raymond's closures of the past as being "bad enough" but losing Gilchrist's on this famous corner was tragic.
By 2006, they would all be gone...my mom did not live to see that...she would have been very shocked...the Boston she knew so well...history!
The Corner Mall soon took over the ground floor of the vacant building in 1977 and turned the famous Marble Spa into a food court...but it was not the same at all!
Now we are left with just sweet memories of this great store!

A wonderful new blog reader has written me several times and has really been fun to get to know. Maryellen and her Boston chums had a theme party and used photos from this blog as a way to enjoy a walk back in time to retro Boston and a day out shopping circa the 1950's. They loved recalling dressing up and going "in town" to see what was on offer in all the big stores. Lunching in Jordan Marsh, Filene's...maybe Gilchrist's Marble Spa was part of the day as well as a visit to
the counter at Neisner's 5 & 10 for a cold drink.
Maryellen also worked in one of Gilchrist's branch stores in Medford and wrote...

Gilchrist’s in Medford was on Riverside Avenue in Medford Square , now a health services center. I worked there for a few years while attending what was Boston State College, now UMassBoston and I loved it; it was a mini-department store with almost every department in the Boston store represented. They were open every night, if I remember correctly; the hours fit my school schedule. I was a “floater” and worked as a sales clerk (not called a “sales associate” in those days) in every department; the staff was like family and I enjoyed every minute I worked there. Eventually I was trusted to run the “switchboard”, yes, a real switchboard, answering with “Good Evening, Gilchrist’s, how may I help you?” in my most pleasant tone. Occasionally the store manager (I even remember his name! Mr. Archimbault - Ed Flynn was the Assistant Manager) would call in from home just to make sure all was well - one had to be on one‘s toes at that switchboard. I must have looked like Lily Tomlin with the headphones, pulling and pushing those old-fashioned toggle switches. This was in 1957 – 1960. We rang up sales on the old registers with the numbers printed on typewriter-like keys and wrote up charge slips. There was a basement in the Medford store and for some reason, Gilchrist’s basement always had shipments of the latest shoes coming in and I had first crack at these. The spike heels with the metal tips, the ones that damaged wood floors and caught in gratings, were my favorites. The price was about $3.99 a pair. I discovered I fit into the largest size in the Girls Department, where the prices were considerably lower than the Women’s Department, this allowed me to buy clothes inexpensively with my employees’ discount. In between sales we would fold, straighten, fold again; we were instructed to “look busy.” The small paycheck I received (in cash!) paid my tuition, bus fare, etc. Good memories of that store and the people I worked with.

Wow! I love it! Thanks, Maryellen! Sharing these memories of retro Boston helps to keep the past alive and also records the way it was for those who are too young to know the Boston we did when we were growing up.
Keep writing to me and I will add to this ever growing montage of Boston memories.
I treasure these memories and I am thrilled folks like Maryellen are able to share them with us so we can all enjoy a look back in time:-)

Now please enjoy this look back at dear old Gilchrist's!!!