There was no greater thrill for me as a child than going downtown. It was the time before the growth of the suburbs, before the birth of the giant suburban indoor malls. Downtown was “where it’s at” – the traffic, the lights, the people, the stores, theaters, restaurants, banks, courthouses, city hall, tall office buildings – it was everything that Petula Clark sang of in her giant hit “Downtown” – everything that is now just a memory.
For me the highlight of going downtown was going to the largest department store, Sibley’s. It was monstrously huge, at the time the 5th largest in the country. It had almost a fifth of a mile of fabulous window displays where you could see the latest in fashions and products. It had a gourmet food department with delicacies from all over the world – I still remember the cans of chocolate covered ants! There was a hoity-toity white table cloth restaurant on the 6th floor reached by an express elevator. At Christmas time on one of the upper floors there was a long darkened corridor with windows on both sides through which you could follow a Christmas story with animated puppets. Their departments carried the highest quality of merchandise, but they also had a huge bargain basement.
The feature of the store that fascinated me to no end was the system of pneumatic tubes through which all sales were processed. There were no cash registers. Sibley’s had thirty-four miles of this tubing, the largest pneumatic tube system in the world. A store clerk would write out a sales slip, put it with the customer’s money into the canister, placed the canister into the mouth of a tube, closed a flap, and it was whisked away to the “tube room” for processing. Then with a “whoosh” the change and receipt was shot back to the clerk. To my child’s eye it was like watching magic.
The downtown Sibley’s store was closed some years ago and the building has been used for several purposes since. This is what it looks like today – still an impressive edifice – but the magic is gone.