My mama’s first job was as a sales clerk at the largest store, Gallant-Belk, in downtown Monroe, Ga.
The Belk chain began in Monroe, N.C., not long after the Civil War. The operation grew with partners, like Gallant, who had been a clerk in the company’s story in Charlotte. Other partners joined them, with names such as Kirkpatrick, Williams, Mathews Parks, Hudson, Leggett and Stevens.
When I was growing up in Atlanta, it was Belk-Gallant, with a local store on Campbellton Road. I can remember getting new camp shorts and a pair of PF Flyers in time for Vacation Bible School. I would get new jeans with double knees in time for the start of school.
Mama bought me a green coat with sleeves that were too long. She was sure I would grow into it. I wore out the rolled-up sleeves before I outgrew the coat.
I worked at Belk when I was in my 20s. It was Belk-Mathews in Macon.
This was in the era of parachute pants. I was a pretty good parachute pant salesman in the boys department. I also made sure they had a shirt, socks and underwear to accompany their purchase.
Grandmothers would come in and ask me if I thought their grandson would like the parachute pants.
“Why, yes ma’am. Every young fellow likes them,” I said with confidence.
Harold Sisk and his wife, Betty, ran our Belk store in Monroe when I was in high school. Harold was a great salesman. He was direct when dealing with a teenaged boy.
“You gonna wear ’em like that or like you’re supposed to?” he would ask as I tried on some pants.
He made sure you looked good.
I mention all this because I think the brick-and-mortar department store is getting some tough competition from the Internet. It’s not just Belk. It’s everybody who is in the department store business.
I am squarely in the corner of the retail store. I want to go in and look at the merchandise. I want to see how the material feels and how it is made. You just can’t do that on the Internet.
I particularly like a good sales clerk. For example, Eva was the woman who worked in the men’s department at a nearby store. She knew I wore shirts with big necks and short arms. She helped me sort through and find my size. She knew how much I liked a bargain.
One day, I learned she was gone. Eva, if you’re reading this, I miss you.
Another good retailer was a guy in Tifton named Dave Garrison. He lost a battle with cancer about three decades ago. No one has fit me as well in a suit since then. His wife eventually settled in Gainesville and goes to church with me.
All the Internet bargains can never replace the Sisks, Dave, Eva, Mikie Wolff, Jim Clayton, Art Kunzer, Charlie Frierson and all the great clothing merchants who have helped me throughout the years.
And to the lady at Belk-Gallant, whose name I never knew, those PF Flyers made me one fast kid.
Thank you all.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the Sunday Life page and on gainesvilletimes.com/harris.