I like department stores. I like to walk through and look at the variety of merchandise on display.
Before the pandemic, department stores weren’t faring well. During the pandemic, many of them, like their clientele, were on life support. Brick-and-mortar buildings were no longer in favor, particularly with younger shoppers.
The greatest department store in the Southeast was Rich’s. It was our store. From the time they opened in 1867, they became a part of Atlanta, as it rose from the ashes of near destruction. Rich’s, in the early days, required a trip downtown, and most often we dressed up to go shopping there.
In neighborhoods and fair-sized towns in the South, there was another Southern institution, Belk. Depending on their local partner, the store might be shared with the name Gallant, Hudson, Matthews or Simpson, to name a few.
My mama’s first paying job was working at Belk-Gallant in downtown Monroe. The one in Georgia, not the one in North Carolina, where William Henry Belk entered the retail market with his first store, called “New York Racket.” Belk would quickly spread stores bearing his name with young partners all across the Southeast.
I think that my family’s loyalty to Belk stores was due to my mother’s first job and the fact that their stores were nearby. I can’t remember an early year of Vacation Bible School without a trip to Belk-Gallant to get a new pair of PF flyers. I remember one year I was trying hard not to bend up my sneakers and keep them looking new.
For those of you who might not remember Bible school of years past, we marched in behind someone carrying the U.S. flag, the Christian flag and the Bible. We pledged allegiance to each of them. That year, I sort of waddled in trying to keep my PF Flyers in mint condition.
When we lived in Atlanta, I remember a woman with thick hair piled on top of her head, who worked in the shoe department. She would sit me down, measure my foot and then return with my new PFs. She would check where my toe reached and would tell mama that I had a little room to grow.
When I became a teenager, I would shop on my own at the Belk in Monroe. Harold Sisk and his wife, Betty, ran the store. Harold could be a little cynical. I would try on a pair of pants that needed a little more room. Some things never change.
“You gonna wear ‘em like that?” he would ask. “I don’t think so,” he would say, answering his own question.
He made sure I looked nice. During the bicentennial year in 1976, I bought a pair of red, white and blue shoes. I thought I was quite patriotic. I looked more like Bozo than Uncle Sam.
In January 2021, Belk filed for reorganization under Chapter 11. It made me sad. They may survive, but probably without some of their existing stores. If there were a vaccine to make them better, I’d give them a healthy dose.
I want them to succeed. I hope they can find a model that will work. I still shop at Belk today, and perhaps I will for years to come. One day soon, the world’s most perfect grandson may need a good-looking sport coat, and I hope he can go and shop were Pa does.
Harris Blackwood is a Gainesville resident whose columns appear on the weekend Life page and on www.gainesvilletimes.com.