Carson’s

My brother Brian and I will most likely be the last generation of our family to work at Carson’s.

A few weeks ago, their owners Bon Ton announced that they are closing down all their stores permanently, including Carson’s.

We both were third generation of our family to work at the well-known Chicagoland department store. While I worked in the Men’s Department, first in Accessories and Dress Shirts, then in Slacks and Dockers — no snide remarks, I heard them enough when I worked there and would say, “I work in Men’s Slacks and Dockers” — and my brother worked in stock distribution, of the three generations of Facks who worked at Carson’s, our Dad had reached the highest out of all of us: furniture buyer.

The first job I ever knew Dad had was working for Carson’s on State Street in downtown Chicago. At the time I didn’t appreciate it, but the wrought iron facade of the Louis Sullivan building was an architectural masterpiece, both of early high-rises and of city architecture, of which Chicago reigns as Queen (if not King).

When I was a young child, he’d leave before I woke up and return home around 7 PM, this sort of clockwork schedule which I never realized at the time was probably pretty draining for him. God bless him, he’d bring me home reams of computer paper to draw on (which to this day, I still think was pretty awesome), and even though he hated flying, whenever he got back from some trip on the planet Europe — and being 5, New York felt so far away that it was another planet, and Denmark and Italy definitely felt like they were places on a planet in a star system several light years away — he’d give me a present from his travels. We’d get postcards too. I remember one from Italy where all these buildings were perched on a bridge, and I wondered if the people who lived in the buildings on the bridge ever were scared of the river flowing below their houses.

Carson Pirie Scott at Randhurst Mall with the windows in the addition lit up and the beautiful colored lights going.

There was a Carson’s at Randhurst Mall in Mount Prospect too. That’s the Carson’s Opa worked at. That Carson’s was one of the original main tenants of the mall, located in the eastern-most department store in the original mall. We would go there a lot when I was a kid because, well, I’m sure we got a discount, but it was also a nice store, albeit a bit smaller than the other main tenants’ stores (Montgomery Ward and Wiebolts). There was a small addition outside the eastern-most entrance to the building, which was one story. When I was really young, I remember the light streaming through the windows, filtered by the fine drapes, which gave the windows this glowing quality. In the Blizzard of 1979, the roof of that section collapsed. The family story goes that Opa had only just walked out of that section when the roof caved in. When it reopened — and I don’t remember it being closed — the windows no longer existed.

The basement section of the Carson’s at Randhurst also had this extended area where the carpeting department once was. I vaguely remember it had been closed off for a while until they reopened it again when I was older.

Wiebolts went under sometime in the mid-to-late 1980s and a store named Bergner’s took over their old space in Randhurst Mall. From memory, the Wiebolts-then-Bergner’s space was the largest of the department stores in the original, and then expanded, Randhurst Mall.

When Bergner’s and Carson’s combined — I think Bergner’s bought out Carson’s — Carson’s moved into the Bergner’s store space, making it the largest department store at Randhurst.

But I’m jumping ahead of myself a little here with a history lesson.

The Louis Sullivan building on State Street in Chicago where Carson Pirie Scott used to be located

Dad used to take me downtown to visit where he worked in Carson’s on State Street when I was young. I don’t remember a lot from some of the visits other than everyone was really always very nice to me. There was a woman named Kiki — kinda ironic since her name sounded Polynesian to me and I now live in the South Pacific — and she was always very outgoing and nice to me. My father’s secretary, a very motherly and kind African American woman named Marge, treated me like her own child, and I remember how loving and caring she was. My Dad left me coloring at a desk in the office, and she checked up on me, very interested in what I was drawing. (Sadly, she passed away when I was in high school or college. I wished I had had the chance to thank her for her kindness.)

The office, from what I can remember, was long with a window looking out to one of the city streets at one of the short ends. There were desks on the left wall if the window was behind you and small offices on the right wall. At the back wall, there was the manager’s office (maybe the head buyer?) and the doorway into the main floor was to the left, on the wall with the desks. This is from a very young person’s perspective, so it was all very daunting. (I spoke to my Mom about this, and I was right. She also told me she thought the office was on the 9th floor facing State Street.)

One of the last visits, Dad drove him and me downtown, which was pretty cool. During his lunch break, we went to a book store and I bought a book that kinda creeps me out even now as an adult. I can’t remember the book’s title itself, but I remember my Dad asking me several times if I did indeed want that book. It was a 4th or 5th grade reading level at least, and I was a lot younger than that. If memory serves me correctly, the children’s books were on a higher floor. The El may have even gone past the window. I’m not too sure about that last part, but some part of me remembers the train going by and how cool I thought it was, although I was disappointed we were either slightly under the track or at eye-level of the supports for the track so we couldn’t get a clear view.)

We had lunch before that at a dark, dingy place on a corner. I don’t remember if it was on the ground floor or in a basement, but the food seemed okay.

The day had been full-on, and I enjoyed myself. I remember telling my Dad on the way home that I didn’t feel so well, and he was trying to calm me down and encourage me to wait until I got home to be sick. I honestly tried, but as we turned into Mount Prospect Road, I puked into the wheel well. Dad seemed to handle it pretty well.

As a child, I also remember Dad changed as the demands of his job at Carson’s got more stressful and as I got older. There were conversations around a new-ish boss he had and from what I recall, it didn’t seem to matter what anyone did, that boss always wanted more. One day, we were out for a walk as a family, and Dad and Mom told us that Dad was going to get a new job, so money might be tight for us for a while. I worried (there’s a shock) but honestly, it seemed like Dad was a lot better once he started working for himself.

Carson Pirie Scott in the Wiebolt’s building at Randhurst Mall

Fast forward to my early adulthood. I was at Northern Illinois University when I applied for a job at Carson’s. Mrs. Rudy, a lovely lady who was the head of Human Resources at Carson’s at Randhurst — now in the old Wiebolt’s-then-Bergner’s building, where it still currently resides, where Carson’s Randhurst will cease to exist forever more — hired me on the spot. No formal interview, just a quick meeting. She knew my Opa, she knew my Dad, and that was that. It was one of the least stressful job interviews I’ve ever had.

While training was at the Carson’s at Hawthorne Center in Vernon Hills, I started working at Carson’s in Mount Prospect, at the same branch my Opa and my Dad had both worked, around Thanksgiving. It took a little getting used to, and there were a few teething problems with at least one of the long-serving colleagues there — my boss Angie knew my Dad from when they were both buyers at State Street, and she knew she could trust me — overall, I seemed to fit in quite well.

I’ve already told you about Bill (the ice hockey player), whom I worked with there and who (I think) asked me out on a date. I still wonder what would have happened there. More on that later.

My brother Brian joined the team not long after I did, although he followed in Opa’s footsteps by working in stock distribution. What was cool about that was that I’d depart the second (top) floor for my lunch break and venture into the bowels of the mall to find him. Carson’s in Randhurst had 3 levels, and the basement level opened into the basement and delivery area of Randhurst Mall itself, a small fortress where allegedly the entire town’s population could live out a nuclear apocalypse. (Seeing some of it firsthand, I don’t doubt it.) I’d traipse past a few push-through “Employees Only” doors, past a staging area, and into the loading docks themselves, these long dark areas that reminded me somewhat of the launch bays on the Battlestar Galactica. I’d find Brian and we’d head off into the mall to hit the food court for lunch. It was quality time with my longest-standing best friend.

The summer that I left Northern Illinois University, when I left the Man I Loved, when I had the whirlwind summer with someone who changed my life, I ended up working for a temping agency instead of Carson’s. Mom and Dad were away somewhere and I remember my Grandma (who, with Grandpa, was watching us) telling me that my manager at Carson’s Angie had called about me working that summer, even though I’d broken the news to Mrs. Rudy about not working there anymore, and it was a very hard decision for me to make. But the money from temping was better and I needed money for my new university.

Carson’s holds a lot of wonderful memories for me. Even some of the bad ones — doing stocktake one night and I didn’t want to stop when the pizza arrived because I was on a roll, then finding the pizza was nearly gone and what was left was stone cold when I did finish — were okay.

I helped a lot of people and found out a lot about things I normally wouldn’t know about. I met wonderful people. There were a few colleagues who hit on me, and I felt attractive even though the Man I Loved seemed to not think I was. I had the summer of “B’s”, where something like 7 guys with names starting with “B” hit on me, which seemed a very odd (but funny) coincidence.

I remember volunteering to work New Year’s Day because I really needed Christmas Eve off — Christmas Eve is a huge occasion for Germans like my family — and my friend Will Potts had spent New Year’s Eve with me and my friends. It had snowed a ton, we had been drinking, and Will thought it would be funny to spin me around in the snow, which he did, and I sprained my ankle. The rule at Carson’s was that sales associates always had to stand, but my ankle was the size of a small farm animal, and we had absolutely no customers, so my colleague Bonnie urged me to sit on a stool while we adjusted stock, telling me to stand whenever a manager would come by.

One time, Bonnie and I, and I think a kid from Wheeling named Gabe, and ice-hockey Bill were unpacking new arrivals, and everything Bill said triggered some smart-ass response in me. One thing he did was pull a pair of a new type of Dockers out of a box, look them up and down, and asked, “What are these?” I quickly responded, “Those are pants, Bill. You put one leg into the big hole at the top until it pokes out the bottom of that leg, then you do the same with the other.” Still holding the pants up in their wrapping, his eyes widened and his mouth stood open for a few seconds before we all died laughing.

He asked me to go ice skating with him the next day.

As frequent readers of my blog already know, I said no. I regret that to this day.

So when I found out Carson’s was closing, I was pretty upset. My parents, who still work in the furniture industry, did warn me that this would probably happen, so perhaps I was not as upset as I could have been. But, I admit, when I read the news, I was sad. Sad for all the good times I had had, sad for all the wonderful people I met who had worked there or still do work there, and sad that another part of my life will be relegated to history now.

Thank you, Carson’s, for the wonderful memories and being such a big part of my life growing up. I’ll never forget you.

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