For many of us, Christmas “shopping” will consist of a few clicks, a couple of Google searches and one or two joyful free-shipping dances. But even if we don’t leave the couch during December, the light show in the old Wanamaker’s building remains a Philadelphia tradition.
For Michael Lisicky, author of “Wanamaker’s: Meet Me at the Eagle,” this hints at the soft spot we have for the former department store, the man behind it and the city that used to gather in its luxurious lobby. “Market Street had six department stores at its height, but each one served its own demographic and had its own identity,” says Lisicky, a Cherry Hill native who is now an oboist in the Baltimore Symphony. “It’s not like in the ’90s, when you suddenly couldn’t tell what store you were in.”
In “Wanamaker’s,” Lisicky traces the iconic Philadelphia department store’s history from the company’s beginnings in the 1860s all the way through the building’s current incarnation as part of the Macy’s chain. And although the holiday traditions remain, Lisicky doubts another business can replace it: “Wanamaker’s had 8,000 people at one point in that building. People say, ‘Could it ever happen again?’ And I say absolutely not. No one is going to invest the amount of money and resources into the type of service that is needed for that level of service.”
Culture and the customers
The Wanamaker’s organ and holiday shows were partly to get customers into the store, but marketing guru John Wanamaker was also interested in the arts. “John Wanamaker wanted to bring culture to the masses,” says Lisicky. “We didn’t have that access that we do now. He brought music, he brought art and just culture in general. He tried to treat his store like a church — and, well, his church like a store.”