Saturday, December 12, 2009

Ruben's Department Store: A Rare Downtown Augusta Legacy

A recent contributor to my blog, Jarrett Edwards, was pointing out to me all of the interesting quirks in Augusta, GA retail.  As it is, you do not really know what is in a city until you talk to the locals.  Augusta is a city that has truly had its ups and downs retail-wise.  As to ups, it has wildly successful Augusta Mall as well as a huge retail hinterland surrounding the city extending into Columbia County and Aiken, SC.  As to downs, it saw two malls come and go, its major downtown department stores vanish and has so far failed to construct a planned lifestyle center, which unfortunately put the death knell in the historic National Hills Shopping Center.  With the grimmer side of retail, it is fascinating to see a true department store fluke survive and thrive.

Photo from "Metro Spirit" article "Downtown Devotion" from 11/24/09.  See link to article below.

This department store is Ruben's: a distinct old-fashioned downtown department store founded in 1898 that continues to operate today.  I tend to wonder how that is possible in today's day and age, but as people rediscover downtown these relics are also rediscovering business that malls long took away.  With that, Ruben's is very unique in how it hung on during the mall era up to the disheartening period of final consolidations that took down the department stores of lore such as Rich's, Marshall Field's and others.  In fact, these malls nearly erased stores like Ruben's from the 60's to the 90's, but a similar small downtown department store known as Mansour's in LaGrange, GA also survived into the 21st century.

Ruben's did not pass over the mall era, though.  According to the article (and Jarrett Edwards), it was one of those mall tenants at Regency Mall, the city's first mall.  However, it never built a huge department store there, instead operating as an inline tenant.  When that location closed after 15 years, the owners who remain in the same family continue to operate the historic store.  It should be noted, though, that Ruben's survives because of its savvy business model that filled a niche that large department stores have failed miserably at: fitting big and tall, and aiming at maximum customer satisfaction such as offering layaway and in-house alterations.  This business model is part of what brought JCPenney from the brink of extinction in 2000 to the raucous comeback it has made since then.

Kudos to this small family owned department store for keeping history alive.  I remember when Rich's finally was rebadged Macy's in 2004 how bittersweet the Rich family descendants were of selling off the family store, effectively selling out the rights and say-so a big part of the city of Atlanta's history.  That sale happened over 30 years ago.  I am glad to see that one held strong.

An article published only a couple weeks ago details this store, which is the last of a legacy of department stores in the city which once also included J.B. White, Cullum's and Davison's.  This article details Ruben's as well as many other downtown Augusta establishments that held strong through the late 20th century retail earthquakes to come out alive and well.


  1. Ah yes, Ruben's, I am honestly surprised the place is still open given the style of clothing they carry, early 1950's anyone?

    Anywho, I know you probably don't take 'requests', but since your blog started as GA Retail Memories, I can't help but wonder why there is but one mention of Augusta. I personally would love to see a write up on the Augusta Mall, Regency Mall, Shoppes at Port Royal, Aiken Mall, etc.

    But anyway, great site!!!

  2. I kind of figured Ruben's was a relic, but I thought it was fascinating that such a store like that still exists nonetheless.

    As to requests, I most certainly DO take requests, and I take submissions as well. I honestly need to make a page on here crediting all of the contributors to the blog to show that their effort really helped. If things turn around, I will be able to cover Central/S GA by summer if I go alone, but that can change with submissions.

    One of the major reasons I renamed my blog was that it was going to be impossible for me to do a statewide page in a timely manner since I live pretty far north, have very specific priorities and I'm short of money these days. These places are priorities for me, but I have a lot to cover and Augusta in general was frustrating for me lately. I also had to skip over Macon when I went to Savannah last...too little money and not enough time. That doesn't mean nothing was covered in between. I will be posting more Georgia stuff by April.

    As to Augusta, I went through it en route to Columbia, but I had to drive 90 miles into Atlanta first, and with so much to cover in Columbia I did not have enough time to get to Augusta. It was a completely exhausting trip since I was not able to stay overnight.

    Here's what I have right now. I took 10 pics of Regency Mall in 2003 and was instrumental in bringing attention to it (I had the first post about it). I do know there is one missing piece of information about Regency Mall, but I really have nothing special to offer other than that. A friend of mine also got pics of Rich's at Augusta Mall in 2005...something else on the backburner. I know what I need to do in Augusta, but if I am going to get to this during this year I will probably need some help. BTW, I rarely do any posts without photos or newspaper scans.

  3. I lived in Augusta during the Shops at Port Royal era. There were two sit-down restaurants: a Japanese place and Fatty Arbuckle's, which also had a location at the mall in Hilton Head. A men's shop named Jagurs carried high-end European suits and sportswear, and Ashby's sold high-end women's clothing.

    I have some photos of Augusta Mall from 1983 that I really ought to scan and send to you.

  4. Mike, thanks for all your comments...all of those were very interesting. Yes, I would absolutely LOVE original photos of Augusta Mall. I have exterior photos of Rich's and Davison's at the mall that would be published with that post if you sent them, so feel free to send me whatever you have...including additional exterior photos of those stores if you have them.

  5. "JT"...not sure if you got my previous post thanking you for the nice article about Ruben's
    Please contact me so we can talk about retailing in general.
    Thank You,
    Bonnie Ruben