When I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s money was tight in our family of 7. And toys were coveted items arriving primarily at Christmas and birthdays. That is, unless you talked grandma into bringing you with her on one of her trips to Bullocks Wilshire Department Store. Driving to Bullocks was a full day event requiring us to be appropriately dressed and ready to board her Cadillac no later that 8:00 in the morning. Freeways were not what they are today and much of the trip was done on side streets as you wove your way up to Wilshire Blvd. Unfortunately, if one of my aunts went with us I was relegated to the backseat. On those trips the time seemed to double and I travelled with an empty 31 Flavors ice cream bucket on my lap as back seat driving and I did not agree. As you might presume, the trip to Bullocks had to be pretty special for a kid to endure a sure case of car sickness!
Bullocks Wilshire was an amazing life experience for any child and I learned a great deal about life, manners, money and patience during my trips. I remember thinking that my grandma knew all of the sales people in the store as they greeted her by name and welcomed us into their department. Shopping required time to look at the fashions, examine the quality and to speak to the sales people about what treasures were hidden in back store rooms or deep inside polished glass counters and drawers.
My greatest joy was that I was allowed to escape the sales pitches and wander freely throughout the toy department while my grandmother shopped. To this child the toy department appeared massive, filled with Madame Alexander dolls, toy cars and boats, wooden doll houses and stuffed animals. A colorful shelf of books filled one of the department corners and I was told that if I was very careful, I could look through the pages of my favorite stories. And real life authors like Leo Poloti came to the store to autograph his books. Two of my sisters even met him and got one of his signed books during their trip with grandma!
On every trip to the Toy Department I would inspect each Madame Alexander doll and practice my best good girl “longing for it” look when grandma returned to find me. And sometimes I even got to pick a doll out to take home. When the dreamed for doll did not make the trip home that day, I often found her under grandma’s Christmas tree with my name proudly displayed on it. And when Barbie became famous my grandma made sure that I had one of the first ones from Bullocks. However, I had to promise not show it to my grandfather because Barbie was a “real girl doll” with parts that grandpa didn’t need to see!
In addition to securing a trip to the toy department, every trip to Bullocks Wilshire promised two very important things - a new pair of shoes and a trip to the Tea Room. For a kid who went to Catholic school and only wore white oxfords all day long, acquiring sparkly new dress shoes or brightly colored Ked’s tennis shoes was a treat indeed!
But nothing compared to luncheon in the Tea Room. In the Tea Room I learned how to drink whole milk from a tiny white cow pitcher, how to read a menu and order my meal, where my white napkin belonged and most importantly how to sit quietly as the beautiful ladies in the latest fashions paraded by.
On each table were white table clothes, a flower or two, shiny silverware and large goblets filled with iced water. Little men in black pants and bow ties mysteriously appeared to fill our goblets whenever needed. Small sugar bowls overflowed with sugar cubes and my sisters and I became quite adept at sneaking one or two of these before our meals arrived. Desserts completed our meal with a scoop of vanilla ice cream adorned with 2 peanuts, representing ears of some sort, and a tiny silver decanter of hot fudge sauce. So good!
Unfortunately Bullocks Wilshire is long gone replaced by a busy law school. But the things that I learned remain steadfast. I wonder how many people were schooled in life skills while wandering the floors of this beautiful old department store?
Certainly things have changed, malls abound and internet shopping offers immediate purchasing opportunities. Time is tight as parents rush about hurrying to meet their children’s demands for school, sports, community involvement and more.
But I’m hoping that maybe, just maybe someday, once I am a grandmother, there will be a place where I can take my grandchild so that we can make memories as they learn about manners, money, patience and life; a place where I can show them how much they are loved.
I miss you grandma!