Lessons from a Creaky Old Department Store

Gone.

Gone.

Last year, a fire totaled a landmark downtown Des Moines building, site of the former grand and glamorous Younkers Department Store. I was lucky enough to work there in the very late 1970s. Here’s a story I wrote about waiting tables in the coffee shop of the beautiful old store. 

During high school and college, my usual summer job was waitressing at Younkers Meadowlark, a coffeeshop in the suburban Merle Hay Mall location of the Younkers Department store. But in autumn, 1978, the suburban store had burned down. So, in the summer of 1979, I found myself slinging rarebit burgers at the Parkade Pantry, a street-level coffee shop in Younkers’ flagship store, one of the last remaining department stores in downtown Des Moines.

Me, and other Younkers waitresses taking a break in the bathrooms. PS: About those pea-green uniforms: They washed them every single day for us. Our manager once told us that the yearly cost for linens in the Younker restaurants was $250,000 a year.

Me, and other Younkers waitresses taking a break in the bathrooms. PS: About those pea-green uniforms: They washed them every single day for us. Our manager once told us that the yearly cost for linens in the Younker restaurants was $250,000 a year.

 

It was here I began to learn how much work goes into good food. The soups, the sweet rolls, rarebit sauces, and even the ice cream were all homemade upstairs in the massive kitchen of the store’s tea room and bakery. Regulars sat at my counter every day having their usual, which the old cook will begin preparing when she saw them walk through the door. Frank Miller, the Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist from The Des Moines Register, came in most mornings, turning his paper place mat over to doodle on it, giving me a glimpse of a future day’s cartoon as I poured his coffee.

In 1979, the old store itself was already a bit down-at-the-heels, with aging shop-clerks—tape measures in pockets—waiting for the daily dribble of an equally aging clientele.

But the Parkade Pantry still did a brisk business. It was the quintessential downtown diner/coffeeshop that you still yearn for but can never find. Every day saw a breakfast rush (with eggs any way, nailed every time) and a jam-packed lunch crowd (burgers covered in rarebit sauce was our specialty, though our hot-plate specials were killer, too).

But the afternoons—from 2 p.m. until close at 4:30—were pretty slow, with the occasional store clerk or office worker coming in for a slice of pie (homemade of course) or our famous sticky buns–fresh, warm cinnamon rolls–to savor during their all-to-brief break in the day.Screen shot 2014-03-30 at 11.00.34 AM

I can still see this regular customer: a thin, bespectacled lady with a few graying strands in her dark hair who seemed ancient at the time, but was probably younger than I am now.

Every single day, she’d come in at 3:30 on the dot for hot tea and a sticky bun. And she wanted her tea just so: Hot tea, in one of those cute little china pots we had, with two honey packets on the side.

“Don’t put the tea bag in the hot water, I’ll do it myself,” she would say. And if anything was served other than how she ordered it, she’d politely but firmly request it be re-done the way she had requested it.

“I asked you not to put the tea bag into the teapot. I prefer to do it myself so that the tea doesn’t get too strong. Will you please make it over?”

Screen shot 2014-03-30 at 11.09.53 AM

Tea. Always served in china tea pots. Photo source.

One day I served the hot water for the tea directly into a cup instead of in a the cute little china teapot, simply because all the china pots were still in the dish room after the lunch rush.

“I prefer that the hot water be served in the teapot, as usual.”

“GIVE IT A REST, FROSTY!” I’d think each time I grudgingly redid her order. I’d also say to myself: “If I ever turn into one of those picky old ladies, shoot me.” (Old, of course, was relative. Looking back, she was probably 35.)

So shoot me. I’ve become one of those people, especially when it comes to tea. (Please, steep in in a pot—it’s simply a question of keeping the water as hot as possible during the process).

That summer, I remember thinking things like, “Lady–with all the things that are going wrong in the world, you’re crabbing about getting the hot water for your tea in a cup rather than in a teapot?”

Then one day, toward the end of that summer, after I had served that woman her tea just so (in a pot, tea bag on the side, with two honey packs), I looked up from some cleaning task I was doing and caught a glimpse of her from across the room. There she was, in the quiet afternoon with the sun hitting her back through the window, staring contemplatively into space and sipping tea brewed just the way she liked it. She simply looked so….happy. Click here for more!

I finally got it.

Whether she was dealing with drudgery in some office or her own crabby clientele on the floor of one of the last remaining department stores downtown, this was a moment in her day she cherished—a moment where maybe—just maybe—things might go her way.

At that moment, I realized that I had a certain power that I never really understood that I had: With all the things that could go wrong in the world, I could actually do something that made someone else’s world just right–if even for a moment. And it took so little: hot water in a teapot, tea bag on the side, two packets of honey.

 

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21 comments to Lessons from a Creaky Old Department Store

  • Jackie

    I absolutely loved this story of a time in your life that you can remember so vividly. And the lesson learned, yes, you can have a positive impact on a person’s life in little ways that do matter. It’s beautiful !

  • Wendy B

    I was already a bit sad over the loss of the Younkers building, now even more so reading your memories and their reflections on life. I don’t have the memories of the tea room or restaurant like many people (I moved to the area much later than the “heyday”), but I guess I have a thing for nostalgia and love hearing people’s stories!

  • Beautiful story, Wini. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jim Nelson

    I think the last time I was in the Tea Room was a celebration by the Kappa Alpha Theta fraternity (sorority) at Drake. Our daughter, Kari, had prevailed upon me to make their kite boards, which were given to pledges going active by their pledge mothers. The young ladies decided to honor me by making me a “Theta Man.” An honor no longer given by dint of a decree by the national. So, I guess that makes me a member of a dying breed. I was really looking forward to the Tea Room’s revival.

  • Chris P

    I feel such a loss. My Mother-in-law, my girls and I had some wonderful times in the Tea Room. I loved Christmas at the downtown store, meeting Santa and snacking or lunching there. My ex and the father of my girls worked there many, many years ago. I worked for Younkers at Valley West part-time, but our Hall-of-Fame celebrations were in the tea room and I looked forward to that event for the 5 or 6 years I worked there. My older daughters had proms and other events there. Part of our family history and our lives.

  • Lovely post. Thanks for sharing your memories of this building – a place so rich in memories for so many here. And yes, I do totally agree with you about the tea though I turn into a fussy woman if a tea bag is put in tepid water minutes after the fact, instead of boiling water right from the pot 😉

  • Wow, that brought tears to my eyes. Perfect end to reading many articles of Younkers. You certainly caught the poignant spirit. Your writing is exquisitely beautiful.

  • This story brought back so many similar memories for me. My Mother would take my sister and me to The Bird Cage at Lord & Taylor. Does anyone remember when that was a really nice, classy place? No fast food then, no way. It was the Bala Cynwyd store, outside of Philadelphia, and oh I loved it so. Tea served in pots, and real tea sandwiches and homemade coconut cake (that was my favorite ever….) No, these days you get styrofoam and Lipton tea (at best). And then, I went on to work at department stores that are now long closed.
    Hmmmm. We are certainly sounding “of a certain age”!!! But I love love to hear the stories and to remember.

  • Wini

    Thank you, everyone, for your kind comments.

    I’m still in mourning over the loss of our icon!

    XXOO

  • Enjoyed reading about your experiences and love the photo of you ladies in your pea green uniforms. Sorry to hear about what happened to the store.

  • Nancy Scott

    Such wonderful memories of the Tea Room. My Mother-inLaw brought me there on my first visit to meet them. It became a weekly trip after I married for the style show. We always later took my daughter in her stroller. I left Des Moines in 1991 and the fire made me sad. Thanks for the Turkey Divan recipe–takes me back! Will look for more from you.

  • Phillip L. Baird

    Yes, Yes, being a transplanted IOWAN to Minnesota I do remember the magnificent original department store in Des Moines. Here in St. Paul & Minneapolis the original Dayton Department Stores are now lost to Macy’s what can’t even begin to equal to Dayton’s. The River Room and Rail room of the St. Paul Store is long gone. The Oak Room Grill in the MPLS main store is…..well it’s not like it used to be. Grand department stores are a thing of the past and elegance in shopping and dining are remnants of past decency. Guess there are no tea rooms to go to on line. Even the high class St. Paul Hotel Grill, some folks arrive and look like slobs and eat that way. But then again they think I am a relic of the 19th century. Y’all enjoy now…..

  • The best department store in the 30s, 40s and 50s….During my 3 years at Roosevelt High School, I took the street car from Windsor Heights downtown to work at Younker’s in the 2nd floor Blouse Department on the nights the store was open, after school hours, and on Saturdays. I loved it there. They were a fair- employment business with many perks.
    Our 1945 class graduation dinner was held in the Younker’s Tearoom, a most glamorous occasion.
    Following graduation I was a secretary at Meredith Publishing Company, earning money to enter college a while later.
    Des Moines is my hometown, but I have been a dispalced mid-southerer for a number of years. What wonderful memories. February 8, 2017

    • Wini

      What a great story! Thanks so much for sharing it with me! Sadly, our downtown is not what it used to be—but there are many great things to love here all the same. You should visit and see how it changed!

      PS: I’m a TRHS alumna as well! And worked many, many years as a food-writer (freelance) for Meredith corporation.

      Thanks again for writing.

  • Matthew

    Hi Wini, if you have more stories about Younkers would you be willing to share with me? I am writing something. I don’t know what to call it yet, a novel? Anyways I am 21 and I’ve never had the opportunity to set foot in a tea room of any kind like the one at Younkers. I ran across your blog doing research.

    • Wini

      Hi Matthew! I don’t know exactly what you’re looking for. I’m writing an extended memoir about Younker’s, and I’ll let you know when it’s published. Have you seen Vicki Ingham’s book on the store? She did a great job with its history. It’s here (affiliate link): http://amzn.to/2vUgUWd

  • Jan

    I go back and reread this story when I’m feeling homesick. I,too, worked there during the late 60s, early 70s. Dorrie taught me how to wait the counter my first day. Maxine and Darlene were the managers.Pat was a cook and her sis Sandra was a waitress. Of course, Margaret and Mary handled the booths- their rightful domain having been there since the beginning! Chicken dinners were 79 cents! We hated the basketball tournaments because the kids didn’t tip…LOL. I later worked in the kitchen the following summer, taking over everyone’s station when they went on vacation. Then I was lured to Fanny Farmer’s by a quarter an hour raise. Downtown DSM was the place to be in those days, where all my friends hung out or worked. Yes, I also waited on Frank Miller who visited daily, sometimes Am and Pm. Wally who owned the card shop on the corner was another regular. I was terrified to wait on the store detectives – quite intimidating but Cathy, who was British, was always kind. Oh, yeah, I made $1.10 hour then, big money in those days. Thanks for an excellent trip down Memory Lane..

  • Wini

    Hi Jan! Sorry for the late reply–I was on vacation. What great memories! Isn’t it amazing how you can remember the names of these people after all these years? I can remember the names and faces of almost everyone I worked with back in the days–and I often wonder what happened to them all.

    Thanks for this. You definitely worked for Younker’s in its Hey-Day!

  • […] The Late, Great Younker’s Department Store. Read my ode to working in the famous tea room. […]

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