I’m startled that it took me this long to notice the granddaddy of the Chapur stores on 58 x 63. It has a flamboyant, futuristic style that suggests the space age proudly being ushered in to old Centro. Look at how the letters hug the flared balconies. How did I walk right by without seeing? I was probably looking down, avoiding potholes, and battling pedestrians for space on the sidewalk. This has been a construction zone, also, so a stroll to admire the architecture is a little harder these days.
The building got me curious, and I started Googling about Chapur, and department stores in general. I’m just old enough to remember going to Atlantic City, Philadelphia or Allentown in the 1970s (they were in decline even then) to see Lit Bros., Hess’s, Strawbridge & Clothier, or Bamberger’s at the Deptford Mall where I would go in the 80s for my Bugle Boy jeans.
I grieve for the great American department store. Outside of New York City, the department store is an anachronism. A suburban Macy’s, the company that swallowed all our distinctive regional chains (Homberger’s, Bamberger’s, Wanamaker’s, Read’s, Jordan Marsh, Filene’s, Sage-Allen…) offers an afternoon no different than trolling for bargains at Marshall’s. My beloved Searstown is now a slum. On a recent weekday, the mannequin outside the Stamford, Conn., Macy’s men’s store looked like it had been roughed up by an affectionate labrador. The dressing room appears to have hosted a kegger. Even Lord & Taylor isn’t the place it used to be, devoid of helpful assistants or cashiers when you want one. The malls have given up on them, anchoring with stores like Target or Dick’s Sporting Goods these days. You never used to see a shopping cart in a mall.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that Mexico had department stores such as Sanborns and Liverpool. Lots of newcomers are astonished to find familiar big-box stores like Home Depot or Costco, but expats are obviously grateful for them. The Walmart and Sears stores are even a little nicer than their counterparts back home.
But the regional chains! I got curious about the Chapur, which started in the 1950s as a dry goods store opened by a family of Lebanese immigrants. I realized I actually passed its oldest branch many times without noticing it was a Chapur, still selling dry goods on 58 x 63. How is this possible? Because its C H A P U R sign is stretched the length of the block, and it’s crammed in a claustrophobic market neighborhood near the main square, an area that lately is particularly tough to walk through.
Once you stop and look, and if you don’t get trampled by shoppers, you can see its facade is pretty nifty-keen and kooky, and obviously erected when a motel in Wildwood, N.J., provided an appropriate aesthetic in the historic center. Not too far away is a more contemporary, monolithic store built in the 1980s, around the time department stores in the U.S. started to accelerate their decline. It this point Chapur expanded its line into appliances, furniture and electronics. Later, Chapur built what remains its largest branch, in Col. Mexico, which has a cafe. There’s something you don’t always see now. A department store lunch room used to be a necessary part of a department store when you’d be expected to spend the day there. Outside of the top-tier Nordstrom’s or Neiman Marcus, the department store is a relic of a gentler age. Those little cafes always seemed so chic to me as a kid, even the grill at Sear’s.
But the Gran Chapur, nice as it is, is nothing special after a youth misspent in suburban malls. In 2009, a Cancún store was added. When is the last time you’ve seen a new Macy’s or Penney’s?