Biz & Books Review: Today’s retail shoppers influenced by handful of women

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You can almost do it with your eyes closed. Grab a new shirt, snag a new jacket, find accessories to go with them, and you're so familiar with your favorite store that you barely have to think.

The place is almost like a second home, staffed by friends – and as you'll see in the new book "When Women Ran Fifth Avenue" by Julie Satow, it might've once been a groundbreaker.

Shopping is relaxing. It's therapy. It's addicting and early in the last century, department stores were places for dreams and opportunity. Not only did they sell clothing and make-up, but some stores also allowed shoppers to send a telegram, see a doctor, adopt a baby, even plan weddings or funerals.

For women, the stores' primary customers, department stores held luxury, grandeur, imagination, a bit of pampering, and just the right outfit, only steps inside the door. Women shopped, men ran most of America's businesses, and few questioned the status quo.

Except, says Satow, a handful of women did step up and take the reins, and they changed how we shop today. Hortense Odlum, once a good Mormon girl, took over New York's Bonwit Teller because her husband, Floyd, owned it as part of his portfolio.

Under her control, the store made $9.5 million during the Depression because she recognized that America's working women wanted decent fashions, too.

When Dorothy Shaver's sister, Elsie, created small dolls and a story to go with them, Dorothy approached a distant cousin to sell them. Unbeknownst to her, he was the president of Lord & Taylor. He merchandised the dolls, and invited Dorothy to work for him; later, as president of the store, she invited the public to learn about American clothing designers.

Maggie Walker founded St. Luke Emporium so Black customers had a place to shop. Geraldine Stutz assumed control of a small store, turned it into a series of boutique shops, and changed the way we browse. And then malls came into the picture...

Sometimes, it's hard to believe that dressing up to go downtown was once mandatory, that nobody left the house without a hat, and that gloves and pumps completed an outfit. "When Women Ran Fifth Avenue" brings that time strongly to mind.

When it comes to shopping, change was good, thanks to a few women who knew what other women wanted and Satow tells the all-but-hidden story of their accomplishments – some at a time when women barely had the right to vote.

In revealing these tales, Satow also takes readers back decades to an America that now seems quaint, like an old black-and-white movie or a scrapbook filled with past advertisements.

You'll be surprised at what you'll read, pleased at the nostalgia here, and grateful that Satow's subjects did what they did.

This book is a fun, informative and highly fascinating read and will interest even the most fervently internet-driven shopper. If you've had your wallet out any time recently, you'll enjoy "When Women Ran Fifth Avenue," so keep your eyes open for it.

Terri Schlichenmeyer is the reviewer behind “The Bookworm Sez.” Reach her at bookwormsez.com. 

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