Everything Must Go!

Our round on bygone retailers offers gracious living for all

Published February 2, 2024

Eric Keihl is the managing editor for Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink. Each week, he will accept a reader challenge to write a entire, quiz-ready trivia round on some tricky or obscure subject. You can challenge Eric here.

This week’s theme is “defunct department stores,” suggested by Lindsey Taylor at Buckley’s In Belltown in Seattle. Thanks, Lindsey!

I was all gung ho to do a Sears question for this round, but then I found that they’re still clinging to life: a whole 11 stores scattered around the mainland U.S., and one anchoring a mall in San Juan.

Still, it’s been a slow and sad wasting away for a company that in 1969 comprised 1% of the entire U.S. economy, more than 350,000 employees, and sold everything from these fine gowns (perfect for weird orgies and Aladdin cosplay!) to bottles of fake “Old Croak” whiskey, to a junior chemistry set to help kids learn the very safe arts of paintmaking and glassblowing. Then again, I guess it was all downhill after they introduced their all-time top catalog item: four ounces of the opium solution laudanum for… 29 cents?! Damn, no wonder they got big.

One part of the Sears empire that’s definitely gone is their infamous Portrait Studio, but even that lasted way longer than I expected: smartass Redditors were still getting group shots in front of those fever-dream backgrounds well into the 2010s. My parents used to insist that I get my picture taken there every year when I was little, but my agents have assured me that all copies of the offending snapshots have been destroyed.

If you enjoyed that bit of pointless nostalgia, you’re bound to enjoy the actual round. Customer service to question one!

1. After Connecticut’s blue laws were rolled back in 1979, an employee unsuccessfully sued Caldor to get what day of the week off? Sunday

The further back you go, the more hardcore blue laws get. In 1610, the Virginia colony required everyone to attend church twice every Sunday, and if you missed three times you were straight-up killed. In 1656, a Bostonian named Kemble was put in the stocks just for kissing a lady on a Sunday. The other offending party? His wife.

2. Gimbels had been dead in the real world for 17 years by the time they hired Buddy to spread Christmas cheer in what 2003 film? Elf

The producers wanted the film to be set at Macy’s, but the chain thought kids would be disillusioned if they saw a fake Santa at their store. Selling them Las Vegas Raiders Santa Funko Pops is fully in the Christmas spirit, though. More on their evil later.

3. Speaking of Christmas, “Written for Montgomery Ward” originally appeared on the Robert L. May book about what misfit whose beak blinks like a blinkin’ beacon? Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rankin/Bass’s first Rudolph TV special originally ended with those poor Misfit Toys still marooned on their island. So many people complained that before next Christmas, they tacked on a scene where Santa scooped them up for delivery. Too bad that gambit didn’t work for Game of Thrones.

4. The former Wanamaker’s in Philly has the world’s largest working musical instrument, a 28,000-pipe, 11-pedal… WHAT? Organ

Seriously, you can play this thing! Here’s some rad jam footage, sponsored by… Macy’s?! Wait your turn, you scoundrels!

5. Pittsburgh store owner E.J. Kaufmann liked to picnic on a stream called Bear Run, so he had Frank Lloyd Wright build what marvelous house right over it? Fallingwater

Kaufmann actually wanted the house to be below the falls, but Frank Lloyd Wright, being Frank Lloyd Wright, did what he wanted and had it built over the run. He also failed to add enough support on the hanging side, so Fallingwater has been slowly falling into the water for some 90 years. It’s still there and still astounding to look at, but only after millions of dollars in repairs.

6. Michael Goldwater’s store began as a desert trading post in what Four Corners state that made his grandson Barry a senator? Arizona

I’m no fan of Barry Goldwater’s politics, but he did say “I think every good Christian ought to kick [Jerry] Falwell right in the nuts.” So, call it even.

7. In the early ‘30s, a floor of Chicago’s South Center department store housed a School of Beauty Culture owned by what Black cosmetics queen? Madam C.J. Walker

Walker was orphaned at seven, a domestic servant at 10, and possibly America’s first self-made millionaire at 51. The rest of the story is too long to be covered here, but check out her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia’s bestselling biography

8. Madison Maxey’s work on smart fabrics earned her an award from Lord & Taylor, and a job helping lil’ Tim Gunns make LED dresses on what show’s “junior” spin-off? Project Runway

That’s season two episode five, if you’ve got the DVDs. Maxey’s pet project these days is the Loomia Electronic Layer, a fabric embedded with customizable circuits for heating, LED lighting, and other stuff I’m not smart enough to understand. Science!  

Bonus: Stern’s, Bullock’s, Hecht’s, and Filene’s are a few of the many, many department stores that have been gobbled up by what red star of doom? Macy’s

So what did Macy’s do that got me so riled up? I’ll tell you: In 1932, they stopped releasing their iconic Thanksgiving floats into the air at the end of their big parade. They’d stay up there for a long time, too: It used to be that you could look up from your Long Island home in early December and see a massive Felix the Cat hovering over your neighborhood, bound for the open Atlantic. But no more! Thanks for nothing, Macy’s.