PEORIA — "A department store is a theatrical stage — ever changing." That's what Thomas Liston, chairman of the board at Bergner's, told the Peoria Journal Star's Sharon Oberholtzer in a 1981 article.
In 2018, news that the curtain is coming down on that stage would no doubt have disheartened Liston who died at the age of 97 in 2016.
The Bon Ton Stores, the conglomerate that owns Bergner's, became the latest retail casualty this week when the firm announced it would be closing its stores by the end of summer.
Bergner's was just one of the department stores under the Bon Ton banner. Others included the Boston Store, Carson's, Herberger's and Younkers.
But when Liston was president and chairman/CEO of Bergner's — from 1959 to 1983 — the store was a Peoria-based standalone success story.
Bergner's started back in 1889, moving to the corner of Adams and Fulton in 1906, a year after the Schipper & Block store (later to become the Block & Kuhl) opened across the street.
Bergner's held that spot until 1986, outlasting all the other department stores in Downtown Peoria (unless you count Sears as a department store that carried on down the street into the 90s).
A highly-decorated fighter pilot during World War II, Liston left aviation for retail after the war but kept flying, learning the trade at trendy operations like Bloomingdale's in New York City and Mandel Brothers in Chicago.
At Bergner's, Liston understood retail was changing. He saw the need to provide customers convenience. He overhauled the store's return policy. He emphasized fashion, competing with upscale shops in Chicago.
Bergner's boomed under his leadership. Liston grew the business from three stores to 23 with combined sales of $200 million before he retired in 1983,
Things weren't the same after Liston left. They changed again a few years later when Bergner's was purchased and the headquarters moved to Milwaukee.
But Peorians still remember Bergner's features such as Peanut Butter Heaven and the talking Christmas tree. Old-timers can talk about the shop windows at the Bergner's store that were dressed up —and animated — during the holiday season.
Retail is going through a difficult time right now. The old guard is crashing to the floor while the so-called shopping experience is now directed by digital devices.
"Buying a sweater on your laptop is infinitely easier than traipsing to a store and searching nine floors," noted Nancy MacDonell in Wall Street Journal earlier this month.
"But online shopping is also lonelier, less fun and, for anyone who stares at a screen all day, suspiciously like work," she added.
She holds out hope that we might not lose everything that a trip to a full-service store once brought. "Going to a department store is also a chance to practice civil behavior, to appreciate beautiful things, to feel a connection to others," stated MacDonell.
Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter@SteveTarter and facebook.com/tartersource.