The pandemic aside, holiday shopping simply isn’t what it used to be. For years, our options for in-person browsing have dwindled, with malls growing ever quieter and crowds moving to big-box stores — or forgoing stores altogether in favor of online shopping. From chains that have only recently closed to stores that have been gone for years, here are some of the places we especially miss during the holidays — including a once-ubiquitous discounter that families used to rely on for its robust layaway program, but is now on the brink of death.
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Kmarts are officially an endangered species. The chain’s last store in Michigan, where Kmart got its start, is closing down, and there will be only six Kmarts in the continental U.S. by the end of 2021, reports CNN Business. Those zombie stores bear little resemblance to the bustling discounter of yore, with its gimmicky blue-light specials that slashed prices for mere minutes after that tell-tale announcement: “Attention, Kmart shoppers …” Another thing that set Kmart apart: layaway, a welcome holiday helper for plenty of cash-strapped families.
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Like Kmart, this once-proud department store chain is a shadow of its former self, with fewer than 20 locations remaining when it once had more than 3,000. Judging by this crushing story from Forbes, the few holdouts are nothing like the Sears of yesteryear, which were packed with everything from Christmas trees to tools to cookware to lingerie. Perhaps our fondest memory: The iconic Sears Wish Book, with hundreds of pages of gifts for kids and adults alike.
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This iconic department store struggled mightily to stay afloat in recent years, but the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin, and it liquidated in 2020. There are a lot of memories to tug at our heartstrings, from the elegant New York City flagship with its stunning Christmas windows, to the impeccably dressed mannequins, to the bags with the famous scrawled logo.
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The loss of the nation’s most well-known toy store in 2018 left a Geoffrey Giraffe-sized hole in our hearts. The brand isn’t completely dead: You can still shop the website, and you can find it in certain Macy’s locations. Still, most kids will never get to dog-ear pages in the massive toy catalog or run mad through the endless aisles of goodies, an experience no toy section in a department store can ever hope to match.
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This long-gone five-and-dime, the last of which closed in 1997, seemed to have a little bit of everything. It was a place where shoppers could not only shop for others but grab a square meal at the lunch counter and pick up the decorations to make their own homes a holiday wonderland. (If you’re lucky, you may even still have one of these vintage Santa Trail toys in the attic or the basement.)
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One of the most prominent chains to liquidate last year, Pier 1 was a destination for decoration-happy shoppers during the holidays. Though it’s still doing business online, that’s no substitute for going into the store to pet the soft pillows, smell the candles, admire the glittery ornaments, and justify buying yet another twig-and-berry wreath.
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Call us sentimental, but we still love a good greeting card. Papyrus had plenty of unique ones, along with stationery, journals, wrapping paper, ornaments, and small gifts — in other words, all the stuff we love to browse during the holidays. While the store still has a modest online presence, all of its physical locations closed at the beginning of 2020 after its parent company declared bankruptcy.
It outlasted chief competitor Sharper Image, but Brookstone closed up shop in 2018. You can still buy online, but there was no better place at the mall to seek relief from boring clothes shopping. Brookstone had it all, from headphones with cat ears to zippy drones to swanky habitats for your sea monkeys. If you were really lucky, you could even take a break in one of the store’s unreasonably expensive massage chairs. (You can still snag one online for the low, low price of $10,000.)
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When you just didn’t know what to buy someone, there was a good chance Dean & DeLuca could come to the rescue. This high-end specialty grocery store went bankrupt in 2020, having closed its only remaining store before we could even say goodbye to treats like eggnog ganache truffles, caviar samplers, and unreasonably expensive hot chocolate.
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One of the most iconic of iconic department stores, Marshall Field’s is long gone, but never forgotten. Eventually swallowed up by the Macy’s juggernaut in 2006, it was synonymous with elegance and service; its Chicago flagship once covered 73 acres of floorspace and boasted the world’s largest indoor Christmas tree. Happily, Macy’s retained many of Marshall Field’s holiday traditions when it took over the space, including elaborate holiday windows.
Call us crazy, but we miss being able to quickly grab a pack of batteries, find a needed cable, or pick up a gift for a techie without going into a yawning big-box store. While Radio Shack still has authorized dealers across the country, it shuttered most of its company-owned stores in 2017, blaming the rise of e-commerce.
Most of us couldn’t afford to do much real Christmas shopping at this iconic New York department store, known for luxury goods with equally luxurious prices. But it was always fun seeing the zany spin it put on the holidays with its iconic window displays (example: 2017’s windows offered not wreaths and trees, but rainbow zebras and trippy giant mushrooms). Sadly, Barneys liquidated in 2019, licensing its name to rival Saks Fifth Avenue.
You can still pick up Sharper Image merchandise online and at places including Kohl’s and JCPenney, but its stores disappeared in 2008. We miss marveling at all the kooky products we never knew we needed, from coin sorters to levitating plants to a golf club drink dispenser that makes 18 holes way more fun.
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Like so many of the nation’s long-lost department stores, Jordan Marsh was more than a place to shop for gifts — simply going to the downtown Boston flagship was a holiday tradition for many families. The highlight: walking through the animatronic Enchanted Village, where robotic holiday revelers prepared for the holidays in a quaint Victorian town. (The good news: You can still find it at a local furniture retailer.)
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Rural America needed to shop, too, and it could do that at Stage Stores, which favored small-town locations over larger metros that already had plenty of retail. Part department store, part discounter, Stage ran a host of chains, including Goody’s, Palais Royal, Peebles, and Gordmans. All liquidated and shut down last summer, after the pandemic dealt an insurmountable blow to business.
Whether you shopped at Sam Goody, which went bankrupt in 2006, or another now-defunct record chain like Camelot Music, Media Play, or Tower Records, chances are it’s been a long time since you browsed for music in a bricks-and-mortar store. But these shops were always there for us, especially at the holidays when we wanted to wrap up a cassette or a boxed set of CDs for that special someone. Somehow, giving an Apple gift card or Spotify subscription just isn’t the same.
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It’s not just Bon-Ton we miss, but all the stores under its umbrella, including Carson’s, Herberger’s, Boston Store, Elder-Beerman, and others. Holiday trips to these department-store stalwarts were always something special. At one Pennsylvania Bon-Ton, Santa even arrived by plane and used a fire-department ladder to make a dramatic climb up to his perch in the store.
The recent loss of this famous discounter has been a blow to many thrifty New Yorkers, especially since it managed to pull through even after its Lower Manhattan flagship was damaged on 9/11. Coronavirus proved a more formidable foe, leaving shoppers to wistfully remember the designer duds they scored here for a song. The retailer may yet return, but its story is still being written.
Henri Bendel’s lineup of handbags, jewelry, and other high-end accessories sure made for fun browsing, and the decked-out store also sold plenty of ornaments and whimsical snow globes every holiday season. Still, even a Fifth Avenue flagship couldn’t save this retailer, which was forced to end its 123-year run in 2018 when parent company L Brands decided to focus on its other chains, including Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works.
This recently bankrupt off-price retailer wasn’t so much a place we looked for gifts as a place we splurged on a little something for ourselves without feeling too guilty. There was a bit of everything, including jewelry and home goods, but the store’s bread-and-butter customers were older women looking for a deal on apparel. But with browsing a no-go during the pandemic, the chain was forced to close its doors in 2020.
This five-and-dime put up an admirable fight, lasting well into the ’90s before declaring bankruptcy and eventually dwindling to just a handful of stores. At one time, there were 2,500 Ben Franklins in towns across America, selling everything from candy and toys to craft supplies and Christmas decorations. Sadly, like Woolworth’s, they simply couldn’t compete with the rise of Walmart and its big-box ilk.
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