What a Wonderful Ward’s

Demise of department store heralds the end of an era

I am hiding under a rack of polka-dotted dresses in Montgomery Ward in Richmond. I have ditched my mother in the appliances department, and I am waiting for the store to close. When the security guy flicks off the last light and deadbolts the door behind him, I spring from my hiding place and do cartwheels down an aisle of girls’ casual wear. I am seven. And that’s my favorite daydream.To some in the East Bay, the demise of Montgomery Ward–or, as my family called it, Ward’s–means little more than bargains on Panasonic TVs and Levi’s 501s.

But to me, it’s the end of an era, the final curtain on my childhood. Ward’s and I go as far back as I can remember. When I was in grade school, Mama, Daddy, my little sister Pam, and I lived in a white-with-green-trim, three-bedroom tract house. It was the house that Ward’s built–at least it was the house Ward’s furnished, painted, carpeted, and landscaped. Our orange-flowered sofa, all of our bedroom sets, the refrigerator and stove, and most of my and Pam’s dresses and jeans–from toddler to Junior Miss sizes–came from that concrete-and-brick building at 4300 MacDonald Avenue. A trip to Ward’s was almost better than a visit to Disneyland. The lines were a lot shorter, and the attractions were brighter and easier to touch: plush velvet recliners, rich oak desks, rainbow-colored sheets and pillowcases, gleaming white washing machines, shiny ten-speed bikes, bright red culottes, plaid miniskirts, tennis shoes, camping gear, ovens, blenders, lunchboxes, and a wall of color television sets. No wonder my childhood idea of nirvana was being locked in Ward’s overnight. But some of my Ward’s memories are not so euphoric. In one of them, a girl called Paulette and I are on our hands and knees sifting through Barbie fashion ensembles. We choose a shiny gold evening dress with matching pumps, and Paulette demonstrates how to separate the clothes from the cardboard packaging in one quick, fluid movement. It’s mid-December. I am ten. And this is no daydream.

“See? Use your fingernail to cut the little plastic staple,” she whispers, her skinny fingers making quick work of it. “Ya gotta be careful so ya don’t tear the dress. And ya gotta hurry up.”

Paulette is three years my senior, and eons ahead of me in life experiences. This is the second lesson in her crash course to turn brainy, nerdy me into something I’ve never been before–cool. I have already flunked the first lesson, when Paulette stuck a lit Marlboro between my lips and showed me how to inhale, and I threw up all over the base of the oak tree in her grandmother’s backyard. Only petty thievery can redeem me now. She easily pockets the miniature eveningwear.

“Your turn.”

I walk to the edge of the aisle like she’s told me to, look both ways, then kneel down and choose a carmel-colored business suit with a matching pillbox hat. I slip a fingernail between the cloth and the cardboard and slowly pull at the staple. Nothing. I tug harder. Still nothing. I wipe the sweat from my hands onto my jeans and try again.

“Hurry up,” I hear Paulette hiss. Then I hear her retreating footsteps.

“What do you think you’re doing?” a deep, gruff voice barks at me. I look up into the jowly face of a scowling security guard. He holds my stare for days, weeks even. “Don’t you ever, ever come into this store again,” he finally growls. By this time, I’m on my feet and running for the exit. Not a week later, Mama decides that we’re going Christmas shopping at Ward’s. “I don’t feel well,” I say.

“You’re fine,” she says.

“My stomach hurts. I want to stay home.”

“You’re coming.”

“But Ma.”

She gives me the steely look that means no more arguments if I want to live. I shut up. My knees are jelly and my stomach turns somersaults as I slink behind Mama and Pam into the store. They lead me into the toy department, and my stomach spins faster and faster. I am silent while my mother and sister chatter and walk up and down aisles of puzzles, balls, board games, Tonka toys, and Barbie dolls. And Barbie clothes.

After what seems like years, we are in line at the cash register. Mama pays for our purchases. I start to breathe again as we walk out of the toy department–and then we come face-to-face with the security guard. The same security guard. I freeze. He stares. Then, apparently, he reads the message I am beaming to him with my eyes: Please, please, please, please, pleezzzzzzzzzzze don’t tell my mother. For as long as I live, I will never, ever, ever steal anything again. I swear. He nods at us and keeps walking. I never steal again.

It took about a year before I could walk into Ward’s without hot terror gripping my insides. I feared that, at any moment, the security guard would regret his decision not to rat on me, grab my collar, and haul me off to the slammer. I’d be branded a brazen Barbie-clothes bandit. Mama would weep with shame.

But, in general, most of my memories of Ward’s are fond ones. Like my memory of that time in the Junior Miss department when I was eleven, and I was able to conjure up big enough tears to convince my mother to buy the coat of my dreams–a calf-length, chocolate-brown faux fur with wide white cuffs and collar, all pulled tight with a narrow matching belt. And I remember the rainy day when I was twelve and curled up on our orange-flowered sofa with paper, pencil, and a dog-eared Ward’s catalogue. Beginning at page one, I wrote down the name, size, and price of every item in the book that I wanted to buy when I grew up and moved into my own home. I listed living-room furniture, a stereo set, draperies, even my future wedding dress–and the corduroy pants and flannel shirts of my future husband and kids. It took all day. Then I added up the prices and tried to figure out what kind of job I needed to live the ultimate Ward’s life. Now it’s 26 years later. IKEA is king, and Montgomery Ward’s contribution to my adult household is less than I envisioned. In the white tract house of my childhood, virtually everything came from Ward’s. In my townhouse today, nothing does. With the Richmond store gone, I will have no physical evidence that Montgomery Ward ever even existed. The linoleum-tiled floor my sister and I often skipped across–gone. Our favorite entrance, to the far left of the main glass doors, that led to the toy and gardening-department annex–history. The closet-sized “Pick-Up” room on the side of the building near the warehouse where we jumped up and down waiting for big-muscled, gray-uniformed men to lift the newest big-ticket item into our Falcon sedan–just a memory. But those will have to be enough. For me, the wonder of Ward’s transcends the windowless structure on MacDonald Avenue. It lies in having once been seven and knowing that I could visit a place that made me hug myself and smile.

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