Tuesday, July 1, 2008

By Candlelight

I was looking at a library book today when I noticed it.

It would have been easy to miss -- a tiny paper sticker pasted discretely on the bottom, inside edge of the back endpaper:

It spoke of another era -- when Detroit was a bustling metropolis and Hudson's Department Store was the place where everyone shopped. People came downtown, by bus or car or streetcar, to visit what was then the tallest department store in the world. Hudson's sold furniture, clothing, sporting goods...basically everything under the sun. There was even an equestrian shop and something called "A Nice Girl Like You Shop." There were restaurants and elevator operators and tot-sized drinking fountains especially made for the children's clothing department. On patriotic holidays, the largest American flag in the world hung outside the store. Each year the Thanksgiving parade ended right outside Hudson's, where the mayor of Detroit would give Santa Claus (accompanied by his assistant, "Christmas Carol") the key to the city, thus opening the holiday season. Anyone who grew up in this area can tell you stories about visiting Hudson's twelfth floor -- transformed into "Santaland" -- at Christmastime.

By the time I came along, the Hudson's downtown store was no longer the big deal it once was. During the sixties and seventies, everyone began flocking to Hudson's satellite stores in suburban malls: Northland, Eastland, Southland, and (you guessed it) Westland. I visited the downtown Hudson's just once as a teenager and it was a shadow of its former glory. The top floors were closed down and the remaining two or three levels looked like a cheap discount store. I especially remember earsplitting music blasting from the the mezzanine record department -- one of the few departments that remained in that dying, hundred-year-old store.

What I didn't know then was that the mezzanine was once the home of Hudson's Book Shop. And from what I understand, it was a very special place. Major authors used to come to Hudson’s for booksignings (Dr. Seuss actually arrived by helicopter) and the store even had a rare book department. A friend of mine recalls visiting Hudson’s as a young woman and the head of the rare book section bringing out special volumes just for her to look at. (Perhaps inevitably, my friend ended up working in a library.)

The downtown Hudson's closed its doors in 1983. Fifteen years later, the store was razed in a controlled implosion. You can watch the building fall on Youtube; I viewed the tape today and realized that what was once a major event -- something most of us stayed home to watch live on TV one October Saturday -- had now been dwarfed and usurped by the more horrific televised implosions we all witnessed on television three autumns later.

In fact, time has begun to usurp many of our memories of Hudsons. All the Hudson stores that remained, anchoring those malls to the north, east, south, and west, had their names changed to Marshall Fields a few years back. Then, a couple years ago, they all became Macy’s. Even the name “Hudson’s” is receding farther and farther into the past.

Book collectors normally hate finding stickers pasted inside books -- even little labels glued at the bottom of a back endpaper. But I’m glad Hudson’s stuck a small reminder in every volume that they sold. All over the Detroit area -- in libraries, in used bookstores, in attic trunks, and on living room shelves -- there are books, now decades old, containing Hudson’s name and a picture of a candle that never goes out, shedding a tiny bit of light on this bookstore from our past.


Anonymous said...

Peter, I'm glad to be excluded from the SERIOUS collector's group because I love hints of the previous book's life. I picked up a Beverly Cleary reading copy from a small independent shop in Portland with the following penciled hand printed note from a child:"Dear reader, I hope enjoy this book. I enjoyed, it.It was incredible and interesting".
I'm curious as to what you will choose to place on this July 4th blog's plate for us.

Nicola said...

I only just found your blog a few weeks ago but just had to say how much I love it.

I absolutley love finding those little bookseller labels in old books! They just bring out the nostalgia in me.

Peter said...

Hi Anonymous. I loved hearing that story about the child's note in the Beverly Cleary book! Maybe we should start a movement of writing messages in all the books we donate to rummage sales or sell to used bookstores. The SERIOUS collectors would hate us! What am I serving for July 4th? Chinese food and apple pie! You'll find out what that means on Friday. Thanks for reading, Peter

Hi Nicola. Thanks for your kind words. I am going to be writing more about bookstore labels this Sunday, if all goes as planned. Peter

P. J. Grath said...

I've just finished reading THROUGH CHARLEY'S DOOR, by Emily Kimbrough, and wonder if Marshall Field's in Chicago put those little labels in books. Can't recall if I've ever seen one, though I've seen lots of the Hudson's labels and also those from a little bygone shop up here in our neck of the woods, Sollie's in Omena. They are so tiny and discreet, these labels, but well--another proof that while I may be a bookseller, I am not a serious collector.