Carson's has always been one of Karen Wassilak's go-to stores. It's where she bought jeans, shoes, makeup and even her mother-of-the-bride dress. The Algonquin shopper was saddened Wednesday as she walked through the retail institution at Spring Hill Mall for the final time.

She joined other loyalists as they remembered previous trips to the retailer that was expected to close all its remaining stores at the end of the day after liquidation sales started in April, when bankrupt parent company Bon-Ton Stores failed to find a bidder willing to keep the business going.

After hearing all Carson's would be shutting down, Wassilak visited several stores in the area searching for specific brands affiliated with the company.

"I just can't believe this could happen," Wassilak said as she stood in the West Dundee store. "I hate to see it go."

"This is the place that I registered for my wedding, to get good china," mourned Christine Hecht of Arlington Heights, who was making a final visit to Carson's in Randhurst Village in Mount Prospect.

"Carson's is a Chicago icon," agreed Bettina Fergus of Mount Prospect, who was shopping with Hecht and reminisced about the holiday lights in the windows of the former Carson's on State Street in Chicago.

The signs around the store say it all as the Carson's Pirie Scott store at Randhurst Mall in Mount Prospect is packing up shop here and across the country. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

For many shoppers, Carson's has been a reliable place to purchase quality clothing for any occasion: work, weddings, a daughter's first communion. It's a place where employees would help a customer find the perfect outfit for a special event, or where friends would mingle as they tried on different pieces.

But on Wednesday, bare clothing racks and empty shelves cluttered the space. Signs indicating that "Everything must go!" hung from the ceilings while a handful of customers combed through the few items that remained.

At Spring Hill, Lisa Bushy of Crystal Lake measured shelves that previously displayed clothing but now were for sale. The other store furniture, display stands and T-shaped clothing racks also were up for grabs.

McHenry resident Catherine Erwin said shoppers are losing a personal touch they can't get from shopping online.

"It's a real shame," she said. "A lot of people I knew when they were first starting their careers would need to go get at least one really good suit. Where did you go? You went to (Marshall) Field's, you went to Carson's. Those are the places you went to find those nicer pieces."

The closing marks the end of more than 160 years in operation for the one-time retail institution that faces the same struggles as other iconic stores.

Bon-Ton operated 260 stores in 24 states, largely in the Northeast and Midwest, when it filed for bankruptcy in January. In addition to Carson's, the company owned the Bon-Ton, Bergner's, Boston Store and Elder-Beerman nameplates.

Maria Lapalombella of Wheeling walks out with a store fixture for her daughter on Carson's Pirie Scott's last day at Randhurst Mall in Mount Prospect. "I feel a little bit sad. It's been 130 years from what I read and heard," she said. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Carson's had 30 stores in Illinois, of which 26 were in the Chicago area. Most of the suburban stores were in shopping malls including Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills, Randhurst Village in Mount Prospect, Stratford Square Mall in Bloomingdale, Yorktown Center in Lombard and Fox Valley Mall in Aurora.

A handful of stores in the area closed earlier this year, including Carson's at Streets of Woodfield in Schaumburg and clearance centers in Morton Grove and Aurora, as well as Carson's in Danville and DeKalb, at Riverside Plaza in Chicago and a Bergner's store in Peoria.

The sale and closings will quietly mark the end of a company started in 1854 in Amboy, Illinois, by Samuel Carson and John T. Pirie. The company relocated to Chicago in the late 1860s, where it grew into Carson Pirie Scott & Co. department store with the help of partner Robert Scott, who joined the duo in 1890, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

Christine Hecht of Arlington Heights, left, and Bettina Fergus of Mount Prospect shop for bargains on the last day for the Carson's Pirie Scott store at Randhurst Mall in Mount Prospect. "Carson's is a Chicago icon, Fergus said. "It has always been a staple store." Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

Carson's was a major presence on Chicago's State Street for much of the 20th century, alongside other retail giants like Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Marshall Field & Co. At its peak, Carson's employed 8,000 people and did around $150 million in annual sales.

• Daily Herald business writer Kim Mikus contributed to this report.