When it opened in 1911 on a 23-acre city block between Broad Street and Halsey Street in downtown Newark, the Hahne & Company department store was home to over 400,000 square feet of selling space on five floors. It contained more than two acres of plate glass windows, had a formal dining room (The Pine Room), and was arranged around a massive atrium that occupied the center of the building from the first floor through the fourth. It was dubbed “The Store With The Friendly Spirit.” Two thousand people worked there.
By the time I arrived at its employees’ entrance on a gray, snow-spitting day in February of 1988, hardly anybody worked there. Hahne’s was a vast gloomy cave that smelled powerfully of rotting carpet and draperies. To get to the advertising department, I had to walk up three deactivated wooden escalators to the fourth floor and across a vast open space littered with fallen ceiling tiles and lighting fixtures. The advertising department was located in the rear area of the fourth floor and occupied itself primarily with creating ads that ran in the Newark Star-Ledger and Bergen Record. The tagline at the foot of those ads read “Hahne’s, A New Jersey Tradition.” But it was a tradition on its last legs.
The May Department Stores Company had purchased Hahne’s parent company, Associated Dry Goods, in 1986 and immediately closed the badly deteriorated Newark store, leaving nine other stores in the chain. It was widely understood that May’s purchase had everything to do with Associated’s crown jewel, Lord & Taylor, and absolutely nothing at all to do with Hahne’s, a shabby retailing sister whose own golden age had petered out in the ’70s. It was said that Hahne’s had doomed itself by remaining too closely committed to Newark in the ’60s while its competitors made the leap to the suburbs. For a good number of years prior to the sale, Hahne’s had ghosted along in Lord & Taylor’s queenly shadow, ostensibly catering to upper-middle-class shoppers in a handful of northern New Jersey cities. The May Company would put a quick end to those pretensions.
Hahne’s former flagship store wasn’t the only edifice that had seen better days in Newark in 1988. The entire city was at its absolute nadir at that time, having staggered out of the post-white-flight ’70s only to be walloped in the mid ’80s by recession, AIDS, and crack. Hahne’s had been the second of Newark’s “Big 3” department stores to close. Kresge’s closed in 1964. Bamberger’s had become Macy’s in 1986, and was operated as a clearance outlet until it finally closed six years later. By 1988, downtown Newark had no department stores, supermarkets, movie theaters, nightclubs, bars, or restaurants. The security gates on the few enterprises that remained—lunch counters, furniture “rent-to-buy” operations, beauty schools, check-cashing storefronts, health clinics, discount outlets—came rattling down promptly at 6pm. After that hour, Newark was a ghost town. Indeed, its desolation was so pervasive even muggers, purse snatchers, and derelict panhandlers were in short supply. At 6:30 on a summer evening, you could cross little Military Park and walk down Raymond Boulevard to Newark’s Penn Station and not encounter a single soul.
I knew nothing about retail, advertising, or marketing in 1988. I scarcely knew how to dress myself. I was two months out of state college, sitting in a big empty office in a big empty building in a big empty city because I’d answered an ad in the Help Wanted section of the Star-Ledger. Entry Level Advertising Position. Organized, detail-oriented, flexible, hard-working. EOE. Two months after I was hired, Macy’s consolidated its Northeast and Southeast advertising departments, putting a few dozen advertising professionals out of work. My new boss, Ted, a tall, lean, fashion-model-handsome man who chain-smoked constantly at his desk, told me, “I’d never have hired you if I’d known Macy’s was going to cut staff.” Nevertheless, I rose from proofreader to copywriter to senior copywriter in a scant six months.
Ted was one of many retailing pros who’d been brought in by May Company corporate to shake out the cobwebs at Hahne’s. You could always tell a May person from a Hahne’s person at first glance. May people were young, aggressive fast-trackers newly arrived from Pittsburgh (Kauffmann’s), Virginia (Hecht’s) or Boston (newly acquired Filene’s), and openly disdainful of Hahne’s faded-lady company culture. I spent a lot of time reading ad copy to them over the phone for sign-offs because they avoided the old Newark flagship store like the plague, preferring to work out of branch stores in Livingston, Woodbridge or Westfield.
Hahne’s lifers were older and always in their offices. They liked nothing better than to muse solemnly over ads on deadline while young ad guys like myself itched to get the mechanical into a manila envelope and out the door to the Star-Ledger. A few of the old guard had been with Hahne’s twenty, thirty years or more and could tell you what Hahne’s had been like when the Newark store was a lunchtime destination for a generation of clerks, secretaries, and housewives. Emotionally, they ran the gamut from wistful to resigned, and you couldn’t blame them. They’d seen the ever-consolidating future of retail, and they weren’t in it.
I wish I’d taken more time to wander the dark recesses of that building. It wasn’t easy to stray too far from the escalators near the atrium at each floor. The gloom at the perimeter of each floor would swallow you right up until you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I’d be edging carefully across the tattered carpet, only to step into some mysterious hole or knock over a display fixture. It was said that there were rats on the first two floors, but I couldn’t imagine how’d they survive. The air was so dry and dusty it would scorch your sinuses and your lungs after a while.
Some of the best areas (the Pine Room, the basement, the areas behind the old display windows) were completely off limits, barricaded off with metal accordion-fold security fencing. And then, too, there was really no legitimate reason to be on any floor but the fourth or the third, where some buyers (shoes, outerwear) still kept their offices. More than once, I was shooed back to the fourth floor by a security guard with a flashlight.
In June of 1988, May Company announced that they were moving Hahne’s corporate office to a strip mall across Route 1 from the Woodbridge store. I’d be lying if I said I was sad to leave Newark and that old warhorse of a retailing emporium. It was a time-consuming and expensive commute, via train from Edison to Newark. Woodbridge was a fifteen-minute drive from my apartment. For a little while, there was talk of Hahne’s surviving as some kind of down-market alternative to Lord & Taylor. In the end, however, that’s all it was. Talk.
May Company moved us all into expensively renovated offices in Woodbridge in September of that year and then pulled the plug on the division four months later, after January inventory in 1989. By April, I was working in the shoe department of the Woodbridge store, selling mismatched shoes to bargain hunters bused in from Camden and watching as novelty T-shirts and shoddy plastic toys were sold out of boxes on Hahne’s floor for a buck a piece. In May, I was back on the train, to Manhattan’s Journal Square. I’d been hired as an advertising copywriter at Macy’s. “Juniors,” they called us.
That’s how retail worked back then. Everything was consolidating so quickly that managers at every corporate level were variously ignoring, duplicating, or countermanding the plans and directives of managers at other levels. It made for a pretty hectic decade or so, until seemingly the entire department store universe, including May Department Stores, was consolidated under Federated Department Stores and the Macy’s Inc. banner.
It’s been twenty years since I’ve set foot in any part of Newark other than the airport. Newark has experienced another boom-and-bust cycle in that time, and I hear that the Hahne’s flagship is still standing, still boarded up. I have to get up there, I tell myself, get off the train at Newark Penn Station (How many NJ Transit trains have I taken in the last ten years? Four? Five?) and walk up Raymond Boulevard and across the little park to where that faded lady is brooding silently to herself between Halsey and Broad.