Bye Bye, Younkers

As I type this at approximately 6:27 PM Central Time, the Bon-Ton stores will be open for less than three hours, then it’s all over. All the department stores that were a part of this corporation – Carson Pirie Scott, Bergner’s, Younkers, Elder-Beerman and Boston Store, will call it quits after decades of service. But it was Younkers I remember best.

Younker Brothers got its start in Iowa’s capitol city, Des Moines.

Younker Brothers

Like so many back around 100 years ago, they operated out of a huge, ornate multi-story building in the heart of downtown Des Moines.

Younkers 02

Of course, as with pretty much every department store between the 1940s and the 1970s, they were moved out to the malls, and did very well for themselves. So much so that back in the early ’90s, The Bon-Ton bought Younkers lock, stock and barrel.

Bergner's Galesburg Illinois

So while it was business as usual at the various and sundry Younkers spread throughout the Midwest, it was now part of a larger family of department stores, including Carson Pirie Scott in Chicagoland, Bergners, Boston Store, Herbergers, Elder Beerman and The Bon Ton itself.

Younkers 03

It all came to a grinding halt this spring, and all the stores’ days were numbered. I knew since at least 2016 that the corporation was having financial issues, but I, like many, hoped they would get things sorted out.

Younkers 04

Unfortunately, the point of no return had been reached, and all stores were to be liquidated and closed. Despite a last ditch attempt to keep at least a fraction of the stores in operation, it was not successful.

Burlington IA Younkers

Right after the announcement was made that all the stores were going to close, I heard on a Facebook group, The Golden Age of the Department Store, that the Burlington, IA Younkers was a time capsule straight out of the 1970s, so I decided one Saturday in May to check it out.

Burlington 02

They weren’t wrong. These awesome mosaic tiles and exterior lamps greeted me upon my arrival.

Burlington Younkers

The entire exterior had not seen the early 1990s upgrades that my local Younkers in Moline had gotten. It was a real time capsule.

Burlington 04

I didn’t take a lot of interior pictures, but I had to get a shot of this vintage wooden recessed lighting!

Burlington 05

On that Saturday in May, the place was plenty busy, and there was still lots of interesting merchandise. I myself found a nice navy blue golf shirt.

Younkers 03

And so it went. If I was nearby, I often visited a Bon-Ton store and usually found some item that I felt I needed to buy.

Boston Store Janesville WI

In early July I snuck up to the lake, visited a couple antique malls in Beloit, Wisconsin, then drove the 12 or so miles further north to Janesville, where I found most excellent 1970 and 1971 Thunderbird deluxe brochures at an antique store downtown-and a nice coral golf shirt at the Boston Store at the Janesville mall.

Younkers 04

I visited our Moline Younkers frequently, often finding something, but just as often wandering about, taking it in while I still could. For a while I thought about grabbing this classy club chair, but never pulled the trigger, as I didn’t really need it.

Younkers 05

And then, last night, August 28. I stopped by, to say good bye.

Younkers 06

It was getting really empty.

Younkers 07

As I walked the sidewalk outside, various SUVs were parked out front, as people were loading display tables and racks they’d bought. Perhaps they’d have better luck at the retail game.

Younkers 08

But I didn’t buy anything last night. I just walked the store, looking around, and hoping for the best for all the soon-to-be displaced employees. We’ve seen this before. With Toys R Us, with Venture, with Zayre, with a multitude of retail operations that we all liked. That we all patronized. Until it was gone. Be well, Bon-Ton employees. I hope you all land on your feet. And good bye, Younkers.

17 Replies to “Bye Bye, Younkers”

  1. AvatarTJ

    Being from Rockford, we didnt have Younkers, but I grew up with Bergners as the place to go for nicer things (we were largely a walmart/target family, alas.) Bergners will be missed

    Reply
  2. AvatarPaulE

    It’s really a shame that BonTon pretty much ran all of these storied (in their home communities) into the ground (in a slightly different mode than Sears/KMart was sucked dry).

    Once the BonTon buyout happened in the 90s, one could see the quality of goods steadily decline over the years, driving me away as a customer. Even in the “good” Younkers stores (my fave was the older one in West Des Moines), one could see the decline and fall coming.

    It’ll be interesting to see how its few remaining competitors will do in the collective stores’ wake. In Iowa and Illinois, thank goodness for Von Maur.

    Reply
  3. AvatarMIke M

    Interesting read i never heard of these stores. Way back when on Long Island we had TSS (Time Square Stores), Korvetts, Pergament, A&S, even Play World, but they’re all gone.

    An interesting note is that we have PC Richard, they are a local tristate electronics/appliance store, the prices are competitive if not better than Best Buy and Amazon. I go there first for any electronic or appliance purchase, I like having a local chain, hopefully they will stay around a while.

    Reply
    • Avatarnightfly

      I still miss our old TSS… I think it was on Montauk Highway. Of course the area is nearly unrecognizable after 30 years, I also seem to recall there being an A&W on the eastbound side a little ways down, with a big gravel lot. I also remember going to the Woolworth’s when they still had a barber shop leasing space in the back. If I behaved well I’d get a soft pretzel from the counter on the way out. Good times indeed.

      Reply
  4. AvatarRonnie Schreiber

    J.L. Hudson made enough money from his department store in Detroit to back the creation of Hudson Motors. Eventually the Hudson store company merged with Minneapolis’ Dayton’s and later that company bought Marshall Field’s and Mervyn’s. By 2000, Dayton’s discount stores, Target, made up a bulk of the corporation’s sales and profits so they renamed the company Target.

    I think it’s fascinating to see how major retailers couldn’t cope with the internet. In particular, Sears, which pretty much pioneered mail-order should have been well positioned to do online sales, WalMart pioneered inventory management systems to the point where they knew in Benton, Arkansas when a tube of toothpaste was sold in Tokyo. One would think with that kind of information tech they’d be likewise positioned well to sell online.

    There is a market advantage to being able to deliver today. The companies that have figured out the “buy online, pick it up at the store”, may survive.

    FWIW, it’s all logistics, and eventually Walmart, FedEx, UPS, and Amazon will be competing with each other, selling, fulfilling, and expediting.

    Reply
  5. AvatarJohn C.

    I will miss the Department Stores. I remember the older Jewish man helping fit me for my job interview suit at Belks around 1990, taking the time to offer helpful tips on it’s care. Even then, I realized that I was experiencing something from another time. Belks is still around, with the family only recently having been cashed out and in the hands of a hedge fund that owns a lot of old mall has been brands.

    Reply
    • AvatarRonnie Schreiber

      Buying a man’s suit from a knowledgeable salesman is a great experience. I’m built like a chimpanzee, long trunk, short legs, only with a fat ass, so I’m hard to fit. When I needed a suit for my Bar Mitzvah in late 1967 my mom must have taken me to every shop in town that sold boys’ suits and couldn’t find anything. Finally, about a week out from the event, in the evening my dad took me to Hudson’s men’s department at the big downtown store. The salesman was a black man from NYC and he and my dad, who grew up in Brooklyn, hit it off. He found me a very nice double breasted pinstripe that didn’t need too much alteration. On the way home my dad pointed out how professional the guy was. I think that’s when I learned that selling things was a skill.

      There’s is a discount suit store, Suit Depot, in the strip mall around the block that has really good salespeople. I think they also have a website for online orders. I’ve bought a couple of summer suits there that were very inexpensive but still get me a lot of compliments. Of course, nothing is made in America or Europe but then I wouldn’t expect to buy an American or European suit for $169.

      Reply
  6. Avatar-Nate

    It’s a tough go, fighting against the online sellers but every time the department store replaces a good quality item with cheapo trash they lose one more customer .

    I will miss those old department stores but I have no arm chair quarterback suggestions .

    -Nate

    Reply
  7. AvatarRyan

    I was so busy worrying that we’d lose our local Kmart stores, the liquidation of the Bon-Ton was not on my radar until it happened. I just assumed that they would be able to work through their financial problems, or at least emerge from bankruptcy as a leaner company. I went around for final visits to all seven local Bon-Ton stores, remnants of the old AM&As, a local department store dating back to 1867, acquired by Bon-Ton in 1995. The first thing they did in 1995 was to close the Downtown store, leaving 1960s-1980s era suburban shopping mall and strip mall stores. Nothing was really updated in any of them; walking into the Bon-Ton in 2018 was like walking into AM&As.

    Funny that you should post the photo of that leather club chair. I had been eyeing the green sofa version of that same chair since before the liquidation started. Each store had at least one; some stores had several. At the beginning of the liquidation sale, it was priced higher than the pre-liquidation price. The sofas lingered for months, prices slowly dropping. I figured I would just wait it out until they became really cheap. After all, who wants a moderately sized green leather sofa? Unfortunately, I waited a bit too long, and they were suddenly all gone.

    Reply
  8. AvatarRick T.

    Seems like all the old giants of Chicago department store retailing are either dead or just haven’t fallen over yet:

    Sears
    Montgomery Ward
    Marshall Field’s
    Carson’s

    And the lesser ones:

    Wieboldt’s
    Goldblatt’s

    I was a young pup staff auditor on the Ward’s audit. My last in-charge audit was Goldblatt’s. They were not able to pay off their holiday short-term debt. They hated the engagement partner. And they had to bring three window air conditioners to the audit room before one worked. We couldn’t have the window opened because they were tearing up State Street to turn it into a pedestrian mall and the noise and dust were unbearable. I had enough and quit Andersen after two weeks on the engagement. Good times.

    Reply
    • Avatardejal

      Monkey Ward, may anyone who worked for them rot in hell.
      MW Bought Lechmeres – Mass. based electronics store.
      I opened up a Lechmere’s credit card when they were brow beating people in the mall for a 10% on a purchase.
      Bought something for around $50.
      Never got a bill. Forgot the purchase.
      Never got their card in the mail either.

      One day I get the bill near when the Lechmeres was ready to close.
      Go to the store. Pay the bill, get a receipt. A LONG Time passes.
      THEN the fun started. GE Capital ends up with the accounts because MW is on its last legs.

      Says I never paid, starts passing me around from a collection agency to collection agency.
      Fax Proof. Never hear from THEM again. They realize I have proof so they just
      sell me to someone else. I hear from someone else.

      Ends up with a collection agency my state. Same, we are going to cut your balls off if you don’t pay.
      The collection agency has a web site, with e-mail addresses for departments and individuals.
      Probably 30-40 people. I carry on my conversation with all of them in the “To” address.
      I say, here’s copy of the receipt, take your best shot.
      Within 10 minutes, I get a reply, “Your good”.
      I then sent an e-mail out to everyone again and said, you are on record saying “you are good”.
      I have proof. You mean it?

      “Yeah”. Never heard from them again.

      So, fuck M-W. This crap took maybe 4 years to resolve.
      I still have all the paperwork in an manila envelope (16-17 years).

      For years I would sometimes get come-ons tied to G.E.Capital in the mail.
      I’d send them back with a “Go fuck yourself”.

      I will Never, ever take a captive in-house credit card ever again.
      No Lowes, No Home Depot, No Walmart, No Target.

      For what is’ worth , I recently HAD a 800+ credit score.
      Did you know that making four figure donations to multiple charities via credit card will lower your score by 50+ points?
      No good deed goes unpunished.

      Reply
      • Avatar-Nate

        You got off lightly ~ I’ve been harassed for over TWENTY YEARS by various collection agencies that flat refuse to tell me whom I owe how much (?! WTH ?!) ~ they blow up my home ‘phone line and message machine but when I ask ‘what’s the debt, will you send me a copy of the bill ?’ they refuse .

        I ask them ‘? what am I supposed to do here, send you a blank check ?’ .

        Still no answer .

        -Nate

        Reply
  9. AvatarGeorge Denzinger

    We recently got Younkers over here in Western Michigan about 10-12 years ago. I had not heard of them before, but I really don’t pay that much attention to retail chains. I didn’t recognize them as anything particularly upscale, but maybe that was their schtick in our market? They didn’t seem like much of an upgrade over Target or at best, on-par with Kohl’s. We have/had a plethora of those kinds of stores here, even more than we had in Atlanta. But it seems that everything down there was a Wal-Mart of some configuration.

    I had spent some time in Chicago back in the 1980’s and was aware of Carson-Pirie-Scott stores, but I had no idea they were tied in with Younkers and Bon Ton. I was in Chicago again over Memorial Day weekend attending my cousin’s graduation from Navy Boot Camp. I knew Younkers was going out of business, but it was kind of depressing to see the “Going out of Business” banners draped on the sides of the C-P-S stores as you traveled along the suburban Interstates.

    Like you, I think about the employees at those stores. I also think about the loss of selection and service to the consumer. (Puts on his old-guy persona…) There was a time you could walk into any Sears, Penney’s or similar stores and get a suit fitted for you. Now the only place that does that is Macy’s, unless you go for the overpriced (for what you get) Men’s Whorehouse, I mean Warehouse, Or an actual tailor. And those are becoming increasingly rare…

    Like you, I’m sad to see them go. I’m still one of those people who wants to see, in-person, the thing I’m about to spend money on. There are some things that I buy online, but only after I’ve seen it in-person. I’m hoping that someday the service aspect will signal the return of these kinds of institutions.

    Reply
  10. AvatarTrucky McTruckface

    Thanks for this. Carson Pirie Scott was a fixture of my youth, and Elder-Beerman had been my go-to department store for nearly 20 years. Sad to see them both gone. In retrospect, Bon-Ton’s billion dollar acquisition of the former Proffitt’s stores (Carson’s/Bergner’s/Younker’s/Herberger’s/Boston Store) killed the company. But, as I recall, Carson’s was struggling even back in the ’90s and Beerman’s would have long since folded or been gobbled up by now otherwise. So I guess it was a good run while it lasted.

    Turns out that retaining the regional nameplates probably didn’t help either. It’s ironic that the former Federated Department Stores generated such ire from Marshall Field’s and Kauffman’s customers for dumping those revered names in favor of Macy’s but in hindsight that was the smart move.

    Most towns of any meaningful size used to have at least one home-grown department store. Some of them were pretty special; All of them contributed to the local character of our communities. Today we think that buying cheap shit from China off a website owned by a Lex Luthor-looking asshole is the epitome of modern convenience. It’s amazing how much we’ve willfully forfeited as a society in such a short amount of time.

    Reply

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