Thursday, November 20, 1997
Last shopping trip to Shillito's

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It was not the old Lazarus store I wanted to see. Or the new one. It was Shillito's.

I wanted to find Santa Land, where the ''real'' Santa lived. ''Those other ones are just Santa's helpers,'' we'd tell our kids. I wanted to find Town Hall, where Cary Grant came to sign autographs and promote a new cologne.

I thought I might sit at the old lunch counter one last time. I wonder who has the recipe for the chicken salad with pecans. Or the York rolls.

You can't buy fine linens or jelly squares at Seventh and Race anymore. But you can buy wooden reindeer, missing their antlers, for $5 and a birchbark canoe with a hole in its side for $295.

Dillon and Associates, the liquidators, promise that the building's interior will be ''sold to the bare walls at bargain prices.'' Artwork, antiques and collectibles, new leather chairs and sofas claims the poster in the window.

Those things must have been snapped up early. Everything still available was just stuff - thoroughly used telephones for $5, wooden hangers for $1, fire extinguishers for $25. A bunny suit minus the head.

Ultimate white elephant

Nearly naked with its ''bare walls and bargain prices,'' the store looks huge - every inch of 814,000 square feet. Built in 1878, it was modeled after the Paris Bon Marche store by architect James McLaughlin, who also designed the Cincinnati Art Museum.

The splendor of its six-story atrium and grand staircase disappeared in 1937, when the store was remodeled. Janet Block Rosen, who was Shillito's vice president of public relations and community affairs until 1987, says management considered opening it up again in the late 1960s.

''But it would have cost $250,000,'' she said. ''And they thought that was too much money.''

In January 1996, the city of Cincinnati bought the building for $11.8 million. Officials are working with Towne Properties, planning a mixed-use development - offices, apartments, retail. And they're going to give the building back its atrium.

''This is the ultimate white elephant, the ultimate developer challenge,'' says Towne's Arn Bortz. ''But there's a lot of affection for this building.'' And for the Shillito name.

Once the largest department store in the Midwest, Shillito's was my personal favorite. They sold everything, and they repaired everything they sold. If you changed your mind, you could take it back. At almost any time. And they were nice about it.

Selective memory

''We used to say you could get everything you needed from the cradle to the grave,'' Mrs. Rosen says. And somebody would help you find it.

Clerks would call favored customers - you didn't have to be rich, just familiar - alerting them to upcoming sales. ''That little blue dress you admired,'' she'd whisper, ''20 percent off on Monday.''

A lot of things I remembered from the Shillito's days were gone long before this building closed. Of course, it's not really Shillito's I miss. I miss department stores with elevator operators who call out the merchandise by floor. I miss shopping with my mom. I miss having the time to try on a dozen pairs of shoes, to be fitted by a seamstress. I miss Going Downtown.

But I'm glad this particular department store, this old building will survive. And so will the name. The Shillito Lofts - 99 of them - will be leased at the end of 1998.

''Please pardon our appearance while we prepare to move to our new location at 5th and Vine,'' reads a leftover sign by an elevator. It's a nice store, the new location. And I think I may have spotted Betty from the old wine shop selling linens. And Delores from sportswear. But Santa will be on Fountain Square.

The headline at the top of the sign reads: ''Change is good.''

Possibly.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE