For 125 years, Bergner’s department store has been a fixture in the shopping malls of Central Illinois. Now part of the bankrupt Bon-Ton group, Bergner’s stores, like so many other large retailers, will be shuttered by the end of the year. Bon-Ton is the owner of six different department store chains and all twelve Bergner’s locations in Illinois, and it will be liquidating its assets in the coming months.
Despite its assimilation into a national chain, the name itself carried meaning to the Central Illinois region. Though the current locations may no longer have the charm, elegance, or extravagance of the original, five-story downtown Peoria location, the name is recognizable and distinctly Illinois. All the while, the Bon-Ton-synchronized logo makes it recognizable to a Chicagoan like myself who has only known Carson Pirie Scott. The loss of Bergner’s, Carson Pirie Scott, and Marshall Fields (Sears may soon be added to this list as well) a decade ago represent a massive loss of Illinois retail institutions and, subsequently, a bit of our collective cultural identity. The concept of basing a regional identity on a store may seem silly and materialistic, but we do it all the time; Southerners love Publix, Californians love In-&-Out, and anyone from Philly will rave about Wawa.
Bergner’s originally occupied a large space within Urbana’s Lincoln Square Mall before finally vacating in 1999. The store, like the community it served, was constantly adapting to new trends and patterns. Twin cities consumers once frequented the various family-owned department stores in Downtown Champaign like Kuhn’s (founded in 1865) and Robeson (founded in 1875), then they flocked to Lincoln Square to experience regional chains. Shortly thereafter, Market Place Mall and North Prospect were the hot spots to find varied national retailers, and now, perhaps, the residents of C-U will no longer make the trip, but enjoy the convenience of online shopping.
While new retailers like H&M are moving into the mall, the loss of Bergner’s, a tenant occupying a large space, is a definite blow. Despite this, the impact on Market Place Mall will not be as severe as other locations in Illinois; Galesburg’s Sandburg Mall and Peru’s Mall, for instance, will now no longer have an anchor tenant, effectively cementing their status as a “dead mall.” Market Place has proven its ability to adapt in the past, securing two tenants to fill the former Sears space, but the task becomes more difficult as fewer shoppers and retailers seek brick-and-mortar locations.
Many malls have sought less traditional attractions to fill these spaces in order to survive in an ever-more competitive retail business. Online shopping has rendered many clothing retailers unprofitable, but certain experience and entertainment options simply cannot be found online. My local mall back home just lost its Lord & Taylor store but it will partially reopen as a Dave and Busters; although I wouldn’t say D&B is exactly my scene, entertainment options like these are becoming increasingly sought-after. Elsewhere in my suburban Chicago home, a trampoline park will replace another shuttered clothing store. Whatever your opinions of Market Place and the North Prospect area are, these places aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They are just changing.
There is no definitive plan for what will occupy the space next or if it will be better than Bergner’s, but it serves as an example of things to come. Perhaps there will no longer be a “Central Illinois brand,” but smaller local offerings like Kuhn’s and Champaign Surplus still allow us to shop locally, which directly contributes to the local economy, rather than your money going into the pockets of some nameless CEO in some distant office. Although Bergner’s may be gone, C-U’s distinct identity within the region remains very much present.