Although my days in Dubuque were years after the demise of the flagship department store, Roshek’s, I notice that the very mention of the epic department store’s name induces the misty-eyed look people get when remembering first love.
The fragrant tobacco counter. The vast notions department. The record racks with listening booths on the mezzanine, where one generation fell in love with Frankie, the next with Elvis.
I’m sorry to have missed Roshek’s, but I’ve had a love of my own — Younkers in downtown Des Moines.
Younkers with its motto, “Satisfaction Always,” commanded an entire block. The motto was much tested by my fashionable, fickle Grandma B, whom my mother, sister and I trailed like ducklings as she glided purposefully through aisles of gloves and purses, then up the “electric stairs” to return almost as many “better dresses” as she bought.
The store’s inner sanctum, on the towering fifth floor, near the hallowed ground of the tea room, was presided over by high priestesses. Their hair was marcelled, their talons lacquered, their bellies beneath their designer raiment so severely girdled they could hardly draw breath. Like jockeys evaluating horseflesh, they could with an almost imperceptible downwards glance at your flanks divine whether you were an eight or a 10.
The only garment I ever purchased at the French room was a black velvet pantsuit with a smoking jacket and drastically bell-bottomed pants (in the seventies, of course) lined in rustling satin. I fell so hard for it that I visited it periodically on my lunch hours from the Des Moines Register, a stone’s throw away. Watching for the tipping point as avidly as investors buying GameStop stocks, I snagged it at $70 (then a fortune) and never looked back: Its jacket survived into the closet of my vintage clothes-loving daughter.
I also spent lunch hours at the mezzanine’s book counter, reading a chapter or two per day of stiff new hardcovers that had not yet arrived at the library. And I owe what little math I know to Younkers, learning at my mother’s nyloned knee — in that era before pesky coupons — how to calculate an additional 20% off the initial 50% markdown. Plus tax. Those wheels that turned so slowly in Mrs. Erickson’s class clickety-clacked along like the Rock Island Rocket at Younkers sales racks.
My rail-thin and highly fashionable grandmother with her French twist and smart suit grudged the time my mother, sister and I begged her to spend in Younkers tony tea room, where we sometimes saw a fashion show. After lunch, we would descend to the bargain basement in an elevator operated by an attendant in spotless white gloves. (My mother scrimped to buy us lovely clothes but saved on “irregular” undies with seams placed so peculiarly that I was grown before I realized I wasn’t made wrong.)
It was from Younkers, too, that I picked up now antiquated pointers for the battle of the sexes. Mother never returned home from a spree empty handed — which would have strained even my trusting father’s credulity — but routinely “forgot” a package or two in the car. And on the day the Younkers bill came (liberal credit policy), she always made a succulent pot roast for dinner.
My parents are gone now, and so is Younkers. After its demise I joined the blocks-long throngs of pilgrims hoping to take home a tangible memory when its fixtures were sold. What an Ozymandias moment it was to see an early bird antiques dealer hauling out the sign for the once majestic “electric stairs.”
Rebecca Christian, a former Dubuquer, is an Ames, Iowa, writer.