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A Herberger's-shaped hole in my heart

It all makes perfect sense. Changing consumer habits, shifting heavily toward online retailers, mean the writing's been on the wall for quite some time for Brainerd's last department store. While logic told me Herberger's would someday fall prey ...

Bon-Ton Stores reported Wednesday, April 18, it will close its retail stores, including Herberger’s in Brainerd at the Westgate Mall, after liquidators had the winning bid in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Steve kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Bon-Ton Stores reported Wednesday, April 18, it will close its retail stores, including Herberger’s in Brainerd at the Westgate Mall, after liquidators had the winning bid in U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

It all makes perfect sense.

Changing consumer habits, shifting heavily toward online retailers, mean the writing's been on the wall for quite some time for Brainerd's last department store. While logic told me Herberger's would someday fall prey to the same challenges as other brick-and-mortar stores, relegated to the dustbin of history-emotion kept my fingers crossed on its behalf.

The Bon-Ton family of stores, which includes Bon-Ton, Bergner's, Boston Store, Carson's, Elder-Beerman, Herberger's and Younkers, reported last week it will close its locations including Brainerd's, which at first seemed destined for a reprieve.

The primary reason for my pangs of sadness upon learning the news of Herberger's fate is nostalgia, really. As a child growing up in Crosslake, shopping trips to Brainerd were infrequent and special, and those to the mall even moreso. (And yes, it was always just 'Brainerd,' despite referring to a wider geography-sorry, Baxter.)

My mom, sister and I were almost always accompanied by my maternal grandmother, whom I call Oma. It was a full-day affair, and I knew we were getting close to the mall when the somewhat frightening ride along Riverside Drive, just "The River Road" to us, was underway. It was where we'd often start our shopping trips, visiting the "fun" stores first before making our way to those with necessities and finally groceries.

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Going to the mall meant a walkabout through Herberger's was almost assuredly on the docket. In fact, the doors into Herberger's were our usual entry point, guaranteeing the mall trip both began and ended with a saunter through the store that seemed to simultaneously have everything, yet nothing you really needed.

Looking for an "As Seen on TV" light switch cover? A garish necklace you'll wear once before realizing it's actually kinda ugly? Some kitchen gadget relegated to a two-week period of use due to Christmas-themed decoration? You could probably find it at Herberger's.

But, Herberger's was also where my nicest school clothes came from, where I found my winter coats, where I first became interested in fashionable accessories (although my smallish allowance meant most of my personal spending was done across the hall at Claire's), and where I admired the impressive shoe displays, imagining myself wearing a sweet pair of Vans.

The store was the site of many bonding moments for my family: finding a sweater too cute to pass up, or a jewelry set so deeply discounted it would practically be a crime not to buy it. It was where Mom would notice me admire a miniature vinyl backpack adorned with smiley faces or peace signs or some other symbol of the '90s, only to surprise me with its purchase on the way out.

Also, can we talk about the coupons? THE COUPONS. I've always maintained if you're paying full price at Herberger's, you're doing it wrong. But thanks to the ever-so-helpful cashiers scattered among the sometimes surprisingly placed checkout counters, I've saved more than I even thought was possible.

I think those hired at Herberger's must all have math degrees. I always imagine them huddled around a whiteboard like some sort of scene from "A Beautiful Mind," computing the complex calculus required to decipher the Crazy Days sales from the clearance items.

When I moved to the Twin Cities after high school, I left behind the Brainerd lakes area and Herberger's along with it. Which is why, when I offhandedly mentioned a few weeks ago where I bought the dress my metro-dwelling friend complimented, I was met with a look of confusion. Apparently, Herberger's does not loom so large in the minds of those outside of cities like Brainerd.

Not until I moved back four years ago did the store once again become a place I peek through for good deals on dress pants, or search for a last-minute gift-y looking item.

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But, I'm not representative of the average American, it seems. I've so far not adapted to the online shopping lifestyle, and continue to make most of my purchases-particularly clothing-by driving, parking, walking, browsing and buying at a cash register. And I'm better off than my mom or my oma, who, bless their hearts, would be the first to admit they scarcely know how to shop online.

So what of us, those rare birds unable or unwilling to adapt to an online-only environment? What happens when those bonding moments and fond memories fostered by human interaction and special shopping trips are no longer possible, and can't be replicated in front of a computer screen? What can fill the Herberger's-shaped hole in my heart, and the massive retail space anchoring the Westgate Mall?

I don't know the answers. All I know is I'm going to miss that somewhat unnecessary but also enjoyable place. And I don't think I'm the only one.

Related Topics: BRAINERDBAXTER
Opinion by Chelsey Perkins
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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