James Lileks
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In the latest step toward a retail environment with two stores — Amazon and Tar-Mart — we learn that Herberger’s is closing. It’s owned by Bon-Ton, a company that sounds like a movie-star dog, and since Bon-Ton is super-extra broke, everything’s going to be liquidated.

They mean that literally, by the way; all the merchandise will be subjected to extreme pressure until it turns into sludge, which will be shipped back to China and made into Croc shoes and cellphone cases.

The Herberger’s location in Southdale started out as a Donaldsons, a venerable name in local retail. It was a place for people who couldn’t quite afford Dayton’s but still wanted to look down on people who went to Penney’s.

It was one of the oldest retail brands in town, so, naturally, when it was purchased by out-of-towners, they killed the brand and renamed the store Carson Pirie Scott, a name that sounds like a snooty East Coast girl your brother dated and who hated you on sight.

If memory serves, the Carson stores turned into Marshall Field’s for about a week and a half, and then morphed into Mervyn’s, a “fun” department store with a “California” vibe. No one knew what to make of Mervyn’s because the name belonged on a 1957 TV repair shop, and eventually it went away.

Then Herberger’s filled the Southdale spot. This was nice, because the company has Minnesota origins. It started in Osakis in 1927, and eventually merged with Proffitt’s, which eventually bought Saks Fifth Avenue, then sold Herberger’s and other brands to Bon-Ton for a billion and change in 2006.

Beyond the fact that the addresses for credit-card payments kept changing, I have no idea what the point of any of that was except to enable junior execs to prattle on about maximizing synergy and leveraging core brand strategies.

Imagine the meetings:

“Gentlemen, we have a proposal from Retail Holdings IncCorp to buy our portfolio of mid-level department stores — specifically, Won-Ton, Purrfergers, Hisburgers, Gormland’s, Buggerman’s and several other chains — for $1.6 billion. As you may recall, we paid $1.59 billion. After lawyers’ fees, the shareholders will receive a quarter. I recommend we mount the quarter on a plaque and mail it out to the shareholders. Questions? Yes, you there.”

“Won’t the cost of mailing the plaques exceed the actual profit?”

“Yes, but what matters is repositioning our portfolio to maximize the synergy of our core brands. You there, yes?”

“A quarter apiece doesn’t seem like a lot of money for venerable brands with deep roots in the community.”

“You’d think! But the brands don’t mean what they used to. Once upon a time, when there was but one department store in town, people had an emotional connection to the brand. There was the excitement of seeing a box from the store on Christmas, gauzy memories of going downtown with Mom to get school clothes, eating at the lunch counter, feeling as if you were part of an exciting world of grown-ups.

“Shoppers were awed at the way the women at the perfume counter seemed so perfect and remote; the mysterious bongs that sounded overhead, announcing the arrival of an invoice in a pneumatic tube, or the summoning of a floorwalker. The local brands gave a place an identity, but we screwed that up something wonderful, eh?

“Anyway, these days, brands only matter to the gray-hairs. The millennials would rather saw off a finger than drive to a mall. They’re happy when they can tippy-tap on their phones and order artisanal T-shirts from Etsy, so we’re getting out while we can. Any other questions?”

No, not at this time. Although perhaps someone who worked at one of these chains might ask: Was this really necessary? Would the world have been worse off if these department stores had been left alone to thrive or die untethered from a parent company far away? They might not have had the economies of scale, but I’d rather pay a few dollars more for a tie I can see and touch than stab a button on Amazon.

You get to talk to people, too. “Sorry about the store closing,” and things like that.

If the actuarial tables are correct, I might be around to write about the closing of Tar-Mart and Wal-Get, and how the stores are being converted to Amazon warehouses patrolled by drones that deliver mild electric shocks to slow-moving employees. If ...

Oh, sorry, hold on. “Alexa, order dog food.”

OK, it’s on the way. Now, what was I saying?

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks