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Opinion | The Loneliness of One-Click Shopping

By 1912, the shop had moved into a resplendent new building, a four-story terra-cotta extravaganza with 27 departments spread across 37,000 square feet (bedding and housewares, stationery, cloaks and suits, corsets). Elevators were operated by smartly clad women; the mezzanine tearoom became a central meeting place. Musicians entertained shoppers on Friday and Saturdays. And every Christmas season, the store installed elaborate window displays and hosted a parade that culminated with Santa Claus being lifted over the crowd on a hook-and-ladder fire truck.

This was America’s golden era of department stores, when the average visit by shoppers lasted an astonishing two hours: New York had, among others, Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s, Chicago had Marshall Field, Philadelphia had Wanamaker’s. The Grumbacher family’s bold premise was that a small city like York deserved such bounty, too. The shoppers agreed.

The Bon-Ton expanded into many other small cities as the company was passed down to Max’s widow, Daisy, and his sons Tom and Richard. Among them were Hanover, Pa; Hagerstown, Md.; and Martinsburg, W.Va. Later, as suburban flight set in, stores opened in malls and shopping centers. In 1991, Tom’s son Tim took the company public, helping fuel further expansion.

Throughout the growth, the company retained a personal touch. It was famously lenient in its return policy, according to a commemorative history issued on its 100th anniversary. A “Charity Day” preceded store openings, when local groups could sell tickets for a preview visit. Stores offered fashion seminars and held champagne receptions for new product lines.

The end came startlingly swiftly. Struggling under the debt of its expansion, the company tried its best to adapt to the rise of e-commerce. But those champagne receptions didn’t translate to the virtual world, and it was impossible to compete with a giant like Amazon, which had capitalized on advantages such as skirting sales taxes in many states and getting bulk discounts from the Postal Service. The Bon-Ton declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early 2018 and closed its stores that summer. A tech firm later purchased the brand for its e-commerce sites.

Last year, I went to York to meet with Tim Grumbacher and his wife, Debra Simon, who succeeded him as company chairman when he retired. The old flagship store with its terra-cotta facade now holds the county’s human-services offices: adult probation, the drug and alcohol commission, mental-health case management. When I told the deputy sheriff working security why I was there, he regaled me with recollections from his childhood, of the pretty women in the cosmetics department, of being told, when he didn’t know what size socks he needed, to ball up his fist for a proxy measurement.

Over lunch at a Panera, I asked Mr. Grumbacher and Ms. Simon what had come of the three Bon-Tons in the York suburbs. They struggled to agree on what remained at the former site of one of them, the Galleria mall, most of which was now empty.

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