To mourn the loss of the Bon Marché Department Store in Downtown Lowell is almost like mourning the loss of a beloved grandparent. On the day the Bon Marché closed, its faithful came out one last time to reflect on their relationship with the store, and to discuss among themselves what its loss would mean to Downtown Lowell. As the Bon Marché prepared to close its doors for the final time at 5:30 PM on January 10, 1976, customers picked through its remaining inventory and expressed their mixed feelings about the new Jordan Marsh branch that would open in its place. As she shopped in the Bon Marché one last time, Anita Angers told the Lowell Sun: “This is awful. I’ve shopped here for years. Oh, I like Jordan’s. I go to the mall for Jordan’s, but I don’t like Bon Marché leaving. It’s a sad day for Lowell.” Betty Cook offered The Sun a different perspective: “I think it’s great. I’ve shopped here for 10 years, but I’m glad Jordan’s is coming.”
For generations, the Bon Marché offered six floors of wares to Downtown Lowell. Below ground, on its basement level, the store sold kitchenware, groceries, and electrical household equipment. Walk in from the street and you would find hosiery, gloves, and shoes on its first floor. One floor up, dresses, coats, and corsets were sold. The third floor featured the gift shop, mirrors, and dinnerware. Music was the theme on the fourth floor, where radios, Victrolas, and records could be found. The top floor included the beauty shop, barber shop, and the store’s executive offices. The Bon Marché offered it all.
But, to tell the real story of the Bon Marché is to tell the story of Downtown Lowell. If you’ve grown up or spent any time in Downtown Lowell, you’ve heard of the Bon Marché department store, which operated for decades on Merrimack Street. Its takeover by Allied Department Stores, the same chain that owned Jordan Marsh, mirrors the same fate that happened to lots of independent, locally-owned department stores in the mid-20th century. And, its eventual demise on Downtown Lowell’s Merrimack Street mirrors the fate of many long-time downtown merchants as mid-century Lowell rolled into the 1970’s.
The Bon Marché was born during Downtown Lowell’s heyday. Its founder, Frederic Mitchell opened his first store on Merrimack Street in 1878. A native of Lowell, Mitchell was educated in the local schools and, in the wake of the Civil War at the age of 16, became a pattern maker. Soon after, he decided to try his hand at the dry goods business and found work with A. C. Skinner, who then owned and operated a small Merrimack Street store. Mitchell eventually left the dry goods business and went to California where he speculated in cattle and sheep. Upon his return to Lowell in the late 1870’s, he opened his first dry good store named ‘This is Mitchell’s‘ on Merrimack Street. He traded for his first merchandise, exchanging his ranch in California for his new store’s first wave of inventory, sight unseen. From humble beginnings, the store grew into the Bon Marché of later years, eventually acquiring its well-known name within a few years.
The store’s initial merchandising efforts followed the trends of the day, and much of the store’s wares were sold outside, on Merrimack Street in draped packing cases. Mitchell could predict with reliable accuracy that his millworker customers would descend on his storefront once monthly, right after they received their monthly wages. Millworkers waited until ‘the ghost walked’, as they said, and then went to the stores of the day to buy the wrappers, yards of cloth, and silverware that they had been eyeing during the entire month before. During the three weeks between pay days, Mitchell and his counterparts chased tramps away from their racks of clothes and planned for the next onslaught of millworkers, each one armed with newly-earned cash.
The history of the Bon Marché can be traced through its advertisements to Lowell residents through the years. Even in its early years, the Bon Marché billed itself as the largest department store in New England and touted its great deals, often obtained through efficient bargaining with its own suppliers. The Bon Marché got its name from French words translating roughly to a ‘good bargain’. A typical ad from the time, published during the Christmas season of 1898, was entirely text-based and announced a combination of its offerings to customers and its superior negotiations with suppliers. Intermixed with offers for china, dolls, men’s suspenders, and ladies’ shirt waists were transcriptions of correspondence from suppliers who had been ‘forced’ to accept ridiculous offers received from the buyers of the Bon Marché, the savings from which had been passed along to customers.
While Lowell progressed through the first years of the twentieth century, the advertisements of the Bon Marché evolved to make use of advancing technology. Pictures of the store’s merchandise were added to its ads, and the spare heading of its late nineteenth-century ads was substituted out for the more-familiar cursive-based heading that remained the store’s logo well into the twentieth century. By 1908, the store’s advertisements (at left) carried offers of ice cream, which could be bought by the gallon for a dollar, or in smaller portions with hot chocolate for a more affordable five cents. And, while Greater Lowell lived through the first World War, the Bon Marché offered its patrons an opportunity to support the US war effort by buying thrift and war stamps (at right). The Bon Marché also collected peach pits that were used by the government in gas masks. As the Bon Marché celebrated its 40th anniversary during that year, it continued to offer the latest trends in coats, suits, dresses, muffs, and petticoats, all first quality and at prices that ‘could not be duplicated’.
By 1928, the Bon Marché had become an established member of the Downtown Lowell retailing community and heavily touted its anniversary celebrations. In 1928, at its fiftieth anniversary, a ten-day sale was prominently advertised in the local press. The Bon Marché continued to sell the latest in fashions and also began to carry radios, at prices which were good for the time, but high in comparison to today’s prices. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, that $137.50 you would have spent for a radio in 1928 would set you back something north of $1,800 in today’s money.
Ten years later, in 1938, the Bon Marché planned another ten-day celebration, with a focus on remembering its founders. Store managers decorated the store’s interior and exterior in patriotic colors. Clerks were asked to wear badges that matched the theme. Sales were advertised in all six floors of the store and streamers had been strewn throughout. The sixtieth anniversary celebration also honored its employees at a pre-sale banquet at the nearby Rex Grille. Also, pins were awarded to employees who had more than five years of service with the store.
In a testament to Bon Marché as an employer and to the long-term employment mentality of the time, the Bon Marché and The Lowell Sun ran a special feature on September 30, 1938, showing all employees who had more than 10 years with Bon Marché. There were 62. All appear in this full-page advertisement, produced below:
A few years later, as the Bon Marché and the rest of the downtown community lived through WWII, the store instituted wartime hours and again offered war bonds and stamps to its customers to support the war effort. Lowell experienced a brief economic boom in the war years, mostly from the increased need for clothing produced by its remaining textile mills and its involvement in munitions manufacturing.
Later in the 1940’s, as the Bon Marché celebrated its 70th anniversary, the wartime business boom that had fueled increased sales slowed and sale levels returned to normal. By the time of its 70th anniversary sale in 1948, the store heavily advertised its ‘rock bottom’ prices and the convenience offered by its charge account.
The economic difficulties experienced by Lowell’s downtown merchants continued into the 1950’s. The city’s last two major textile mills, the Boott Mills and the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, both closed before the Bon Marché 80th anniversary celebration in 1958:
And, the economic malaise continued in Lowell past the store’s 90th anniversary sale in 1968:
The Bon Marché Department Store closed its doors for the last time on January 10, 1976, after surviving several decades of Lowell’s declining economic climate downtown. Lowell’s unemployment rate entered double digits. The store’s closure marked the end of a Downtown Lowell institution that had survived nearly a century. From its small-time beginnings as “This is Mitchell’s” in the last years of the nineteenth century to its last years as a subsidiary of a larger corporation, the Bon Marché Department Store served generations of Lowellians as they sought to buy clothes, housewares, and electronics. During the changeover in 1976, rumors emerged that Jordan Marsh, the store that replaced the Bon Marché, had only committed to a three-year trial period in downtown Lowell. In the end, Jordan Marsh stayed in Downtown Lowell, for more than a decade – not leaving until the early 1990’s. The Jordan Marsh chain, itself with deep New England roots, disappeared in 1996, when the last of its stores were converted to the Macy’s name.
The story of the Bon Marché follows closely the story of the rise and subsequent fall of downtown Lowell as it lost the textile industry to which it owed its founding. The Bon Marché survived several economic slowdowns, the Great Depression, the loss of the city’s mills, and the loss of downtown shoppers to suburban strip malls. Unfortunately, the Bon Marché didn’t live to see Lowell’s resurgence, which began in earnest with the establishment of the city’s National Historical Park, which occurred just after the store’s closing.
Readers, do you have memories of the Bon Marché that you would like to share? Please add them to the comments below.