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The Marshall Field of dreams

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In the annals of department-store history, it would be hard to top a comment about Marshall Field's, made long ago by a Chicago matron. After hearing the news about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she exclaimed, "Nothing is left anymore - except, thank God, Marshall Field's."

Even if the story is apocryphal, it neatly captures the affection and loyalty legions of shoppers feel for the famous store. But soon not even Marshall Field's will be left. Federated Department Stores has announced that in the fall of 2006, it will convert all 62 Marshall Field's stores to Macy's.

So distressing is the news that customers are writing impassioned testimonials to www.keepitfields.org, a website that is also collecting signatures for a petition against the name change. Supporters express a range of emotions - anger, sadness, disappointment - as they tell about what the store means to them. They talk about its legendary service, its wondrous selection of merchandise, its flagship State Street store. Some threaten to cut up all their Federated charge cards. Others insist they will never enter the store again if it becomes Macy's.

Federated argues that customers talk more about nostalgia than about the merchandise. But the sadness here goes beyond nostalgia, beyond warm memories of dining in the Walnut Room or taking children to see the Christmas windows. The larger loss has to do with the homogenization of shopping everywhere.

One by one, regional retailing landmarks have been swallowed up and renamed. Think of Wanamaker's in Philadelphia, Woodward & Lothrop in Washington, D.C., Jordan Marsh in Boston, Dayton's in Minneapolis, Hudson's in Detroit. The pleasure of regional identities in stores has disappeared. In subtle ways, that loss contributes to a fraying of community ties, a growing impersonality in the marketplace.

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