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.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Anniston retail notes: Wakefield's, Winn-Dixie, etc.

Lots of strange things happen retail-wise in second-tier markets.  You know, those cities that aren't big enough to have name recognition outside the state nor the population and incomes to support many big city establishments.  What I mean by that is that not only do retail chains often put their outpost stores in such markets, but such markets also feature a few peculiar stores of their own.  While this is far less true today than it was 20 years ago, Anniston proved to have a few treasures.

The first of these treasures is Wakefield's, a small department store chain that seems to be on the line of Kohl's or Peeble's, but located only in Alabama.  All of its stores, however, are known as Martin's except one...a free-standing vintage mid-century store close to downtown Anniston.  It is a complete mystery to me why there is one store called Wakefield's and all the others "Martin's Family Clothing".  They also operate "Martin's Baby Depot".  I personally like the Wakefield's name, sign and logo better.  The nearest Martin's is extremely close with a store in Oxford at Quintard Mall and also right across the street from it!  Martin's is also located in Rainbow City (suburb of Gadsden), Florence and Decatur.  The latter two are quite far removed from their obviously strong base in Anniston/Oxford.

A couple more views of Wakefield's.  Note the "W" over the doors on the second photo.  All other Wakefield's locations are known under the Martin's Family Clothing or Martin's Baby Depot names.

Martin's is located here in a small strip mall on Quintard Avenue.  This one is located across from Quintard Mall with some departments located in a store across the street inside Quintard Mall. 

Second, Winn-Dixie, long a staple of the South, has mostly been erased in the more populous areas due to the ever increasing dominance of Publix.  Winn-Dixie once coexisted peacefully with Publix, but not so anymore.  Winn-Dixie was in a difficult position with many antiquated stores and a market that catered to the same crowd that also buys groceries at Wal-Mart...oops.  They were also pushed back in their northernmost markets by the upscaling of Ingles (same demographic) and continued regional popularity of Harris Teeter.  Since then, Winn-Dixie has retracted, retrenched and reinvented themselves.  The Winn-Dixie I stopped at in Oxford was far superior to the older stores. It was very clean and well-stocked with an attractive, semi-upscale design.  However, Winn-Dixie also dominates the Anniston market in part because they have been snubbed by Publix there, which I'm sure that the management of Winn-Dixie is definitely not complaining about.  I, for one, am not comfortable with only one or two chains having a stranglehold on whole states and regions so I'm happy to see Winn-Dixie still around.  Unfortunately, competition Foodmax seems to have withered away in the same town, their parent company Bruno's almost fatally wounded by the expansion of Publix into Birmingham.  I visited one of those Foodmax locations in 2006, which felt like a firm step back to about 1991.  At one point, they had stores in the Atlanta market along with Bruno's.

This Winn-Dixie looks to be of very recent vintage, and it sports the newest logo.  It is located on the new Anniston By-Pass about a mile north of I-20.

Third, small cities tend to not get hung up on the replacement store bandwagon found in hotter retail markets.  This is evidenced by the Rite-Aid located across from Quintard Mall.  This is not a former Eckerd; this is an original Rite Aid located in a very small strip mall with only one other local shop.  Inside, the store is a mid-century treasure with wall displays apparently never updated from around 1972.  If you'll note in the photos, these displays also do not generally match up with the merchandise being sold underneath.  Note the Cokes underneath what says "video"...that is, unless they're secretly chilling vintage VHS tapes back in the freezer.

A couple outside shots of the vintage Rite-Aid across from Quintard Mall.  The only other tenant with Rite-Aid is a men's clothing store.

A look at the inside of the Rite-Aid.  The wall displays remind me of pictures I've seen of the wall displays inside the Montgomery Ward at long-abandoned Dixie Square Mall.  I like them, though.  They are delightfully tacky, cozy looking and vintage.  Owners, please do not ever change them as long as the store is there.

Fourth, speaking of drug stores, I wanted to show you a vintage franchised drug store I found downtown known as Wikle's Rexall Pharmacy.  This seems to be an extremely popular site to photograph in Alabama, so if you want any daytime shots, they can be easily found in a web search.  This one is one of those drug stores of baby boomer youth...the ones where you knew the pharmacist by name and the place felt like home as well as a treat to shop at with its quirky selection of merchandise and vintage feel inside.  That was the case with a pharmacy my family went to as a kid known as Bells Ferry Pharmacy.  It was a Rexall franchise like this one.  We knew the pharmacist personally like a relative and the place fit that description completely.  The pharmacist finally gave up and closed in the late 1990's after the place was robbed, and he worked a few years longer in a group of pharmacists with CVS.

A couple night shots of the Wikle Rexall drug store.  It is a registered historic site.

Last, I wanted to note a local Alabama barbeque chain known as Golden Rule Bar-B-Que.  This chain attempted very unsuccessfully to move into the Atlanta market, but it is a standard in Alabama.  According to the website, its first location was built exactly a century ago in Irondale north or Birmingham.  I also remember an earlier attempt they made in another part of the Atlanta area west of Marietta.  Their failure was quick and abyssmal both times, and part of that nowadays is due to the popularity of another Atlanta-grown barbeque chain known as Shane's Rib Shack.  Nevertheless, Golden Rule seems very popular in Alabama, so I'm wondering why they never caught on in Georgia...oh wait, I keep forgetting *slap*.  Inversely, Shane's does not appear to be in Alabama at all.  One location of Golden Rule I know of actually converted to Shane's, and it has been a major hit ever since it reopened as such.  I personally never tried Golden Rule, but I did not hear positive feedback from those who tried it locally.

A recently-constructed location of Golden Rule Bar-B-Que in Oxford.  This location was identical to the two closed Georgia locations.

In all, part of Anniston's interesting retail history may be attributed to its location on a historically popular route to Florida, US 431.  US 431 basically functions as a continuous suburban highway its entire length with endless shops, strip malls and stores extending from Anniston to Huntsville.  With this, there were a couple things I failed to cover such as the closed Food Town and Foodmax stores I saw as well as the presence of Rally's Hamburgers...the same thing as Checker's with a different name.  I would love to hear your comments and memories of the area as well.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Quintard Mall: Oxford, AL

I have to say that Quintard Mall is one of the strangest names for a mall.  Of course, that name refers to Quintard Ave, which is also US 431.  Quintard is also one of the earlier malls in the state, taking advantage of a dual economy of military (Fort McClellan & Anniston Army Depot) and college (Jacksonville State University).  It also was built to serve a small city located part ways between Atlanta and Birmingham with high visibility from I-20, and it helped usher in a small but notable retail strip stretching from downtown to I-20 just south of the mall.  I-20 at that point was partially completed, but the mall was also adjacent to US 78, which previously funneled traffic from Atlanta to Birmingham before it was completed. 

Generally serving a smaller population, the mall was likewise a very small center for years.   However, that changed dramatically when the mall was substantially expanded into a regional mall 30 years after it first opened.  Nevertheless, the construction of a large shopping mall further west of Atlanta and continued shifting of the population (and retail) east of Birmingham has eroded its market over time.  It would be interesting if we could look in an alternate universe to see how the mall would have done had that expansion happened much earlier.  The closure of Fort McClellan in 1999 also was not helpful to the mall, though the Anniston Army Depot continues to bring military money into the mall.  What was worse was construction of a new (and incomplete) US 431 by-pass lured significant new retail further east, meaning that the older Quintard Avenue retail strip is now forced to compete with a plethora of shiny new retail that all popped up on a by-pass still several years from completion.  This small exodus of several stores has leaders in both Oxford and Anniston worried, but the economy itself, not just the by-pass should take some blame.  Stores such as Circuit City and Foodmax had nothing to do with immediate competition.  Circuit City did not leave because of the by-pass, and Foodmax's parent company Bruno's is on the brink of extinction. 

A look along the original mall.  Center court is just ahead and Sears is right behind me.  The first photo is a small court on the Dillard's/theater wing.


Martin's Family Clothing has a mall entrance in both the old mall main concourse and along a side entryway near Sears.  It is a local Alabama chain headquartered in Anniston, next town up.


Now looking from center court to JCPenney.  JCPenney is the mall's only original large department store anchor, opening with the mall in 1970.


 A closer look at the JCPenney mall entrance, which obviously is not original.  I am betting the classic "Penney's" logo lasted here longer than most.


Looking back along the old mall from JCPenney.  Doomed Goody's is to the left, which is top priority for replacement.  I'm rooting for a nice bookstore.

This problem is not lost on the mall owners nor the city that Quinitard needs another boost, and they have indeed noted the effects not only outside, but also inside the mall.  Its last expansion was nearly ten years ago, but its first major competition set in only two years ago.  This is the fundamental weakness of small city malls: often the tenants choose a nearby strip mall or newer, larger shopping mall over the mall itself, but the owners of Quintard have not been afraid to continually reinvent the mall to keep it competitive.  Other malls such as Cookeville Mall in Cookeville, TN did not do likewise, and failed completely.  These instances are very serious.  Lack of action in the event of a sudden vacancy problem in the mall or hinterland surrounding the mall can empty a mall almost overnight.  However, previous malls on my blog also found themselves at a disadvantage such as Oglethorpe and Asheville Malls.  However, both were very proactive, and all prevailed against big threats to become completely dominate and much beloved in their markets.  I am pleased that Quintard and the city sees this themselves, because just recently plans were announced to expand and revitalize the mall yet again [2].

What was once the east entrance to the mall since 2000 now goes into what has become the heart of the mall.  The entrance into the newer wing of the mall begins with a ramp.


Close-up of the ramp into the newer mall, which comes into a strangely placed court area that functions on one side as a very small food court.


More detail of the main court coming from the wing off the original east mall entrance.  This distinct little court is cozy.

Quintard Mall has been around quite awhile.  It is one of the oldest malls in the state still operational, opening for business in 1970.  It is also unique in that the mall is apparently still operated locally in lieu of being part of a major mall conglomerate such as Simon or GGP.  The mall is today owned by the James Grimmer family.  He also helped in construction of Eastwood Mall, Alabama's first mall and the South's first enclosed mall [1].  Quite a few malls of this vintage did not make it this far, so Quintard has done very well remaining viable for nearly 40 years.  Its anchors today include Sears, JCPenney and Dillard's in addition to a 12 screen theater and junior anchor Martin's Family Clothing.  Goody's also operated as a junior anchor, but closed with the chain early this year.  A Garfield's Restaurant and Pub was in the mall as well, also apparently closing with the chain.  Bankruptcies are leaving voids in many malls that are proving difficult to fill with fewer and fewer chain stores available to choose from enhanced by a malnourished economy, and this proves even tougher in second-tier markets.  I do want to note, however, that the vacancies in the mall mostly had to do with corporate liquidation.


A look along the 2000 wing, which increased the size of the mall by 2/3.  It is anchored by Dillard's and AmStar 12 Cinemas.


Southeast entrance wing near Dillard's.  The military tends to dominate this wing, which is not surprising considering the strong military history of the area.


The new main entrance wing with Gap on the left.

Now-closed Garfield's Restaurant.  The only other location I have seen was at Biltmore Square Mall.  I know very little about this chain.

Historically, Quintard was much smaller.  It was originally a straight up-and-down mall directly aligned north-to-south connecting Britt's Department Store and JCPenney.  At less than 300,000 square feet, it also had less than 30 inline stores.  The original mall reminded me significantly of just-mentioned Cookeville Mall, which is part of why I brought it up.  However, different from Cookeville Mall, both anchors were constructed as two level stores, but only Britt's operated its second level originally.  Britts today is Sears.  Sears left downtown Anniston in 1983, moving into the former Britt's location after it closed [1].  Both Britt's/Sears and JCPenney are two levels, but neither Sears nor JCPenney operated the second level for many years.  Sears reopened the second level in 1997, and they also expanded the store as well [1].  It appears, however, that JCPenney either removed or never even constructed an escalator well while today Sears operates a two level store.  Both Martin's and Goody's also located in this original part of the mall as well.

Quintard Mall definitely has an interesting (and jagged) layout.  The original mall is quite obvious from this map.  Notice how incredibly small it was.

The first 30 years of the mall's existance were also pretty static.  The mall gained a small renovation in 1985, but this was the only undertaking for yet another 15 years.  This was when owners replaced the original polished concrete floors with terrazzo floors [1].  In 1991, the owners began work on an attempt to turn Quintard into a major regional mall in lieu of a small local mall.  This was a long and harrowing process, as owners had to go through many hurdles to obtain permits to build over a creek flowing along the then-eastern side of the mall.  That was the same situation that delayed completion of Arbor Place Mall in Douglasville, GA as well.  The original expansion was to have Gayfer's department store anchoring the new eastern end of the mall.  However, Gayfer's was bought out in 1998 by Dillard's.  Regardless, Dillard's did not fail on their obligation to join the mall.  Dillard's at this location is quite unusual, and it is even more unusual to have a small city mall that is not anchored by Belk in the South.  Work on the addition was completed in August 2000, completing the long anticipated addition [1].  This addition was very well received, and when completed the mall was more than doubled in size to just shy of 800,000 square feet.  AmStar Cinemas, the 12 screen theater, also was included in the new addition.  The 2000 wing is also elevated above the original mall, possibly due to concerns of flooding and difficulties surrounding capping Snow Creek.  This addition to the mall was extremely important.  The original mall was so vastly undersized that it would have definitely failed had that addition not been built when it was.

Dillard's mall entrance features a very strange angle.  It is also one of the smallest I've seen with only one level of shopping.  Dillard's has a more unusual assortment of locations in the state since they came here largely through buying out Gayfer's and Castner-Knott's parent company.  This store was slated to be Gayfer's.

Quintard Mall in terms of store offerings, though, seems to be a mixed bag.  The newer part of the mall definitely fits every definition of a successful, conventional mall.  However, the older part of the mall truly seems to be having some vacancy issues.  The poor store setup in the older mall I think is partly responsible for this.  Martin's and Goody's were not exactly the best traffic generators, and Goody's bankruptcy has had a drastic effect on malls in this South overall.  It was a weak junior anchor at best, but its closure has dumped several malls into the murky "dying mall" category when they otherwise just had a few vacancies.  Almost every second-tier mall had one, too, which was what was an even bigger issue.  Since these took up significant mall space, these mall owners are all still left at a quandary on what to do with this space, but apparently a plan is in place through a public-private partnership in conjunction with the City of Oxford exploring ideas on what to do with the mall [2].

Sears mall entrance.  It is nice to see it does not have the ugly tiles that most I've seen do have.  This store distinctly did not open as Sears, but instead as J.J. Newberry's ill-fated attempt at a department store, Britt's.  I think it looks classy, but would look even better if Sears returned to their 1950's script logo.

Inside Sears, I took this picture of the narrow gauge escalators.  These definitely do not look like 1997 escalators, suggesting they were original to Britts and hidden from view for years before the second level was reopened.

Next to Sears entrance is the northwest entrance corridor.  This is very original including the long brick wall (indeed wasted space) and second entrance to junior anchor Martin's in the background.

Nevertheless, Anniston is a decent sized city, and the mall is in a good location, so I think a few ideas could alleviate this.  I hope that Goody's can quickly be filled.  One quick, but not the best, solution to Goody's in my opinion is to encourage junior anchor Martin's to expand their store that is partly across Quintard Ave. into the former Goody's.  Martin's is strange in how they have part of their store in the mall and part in a strip mall across from it.  A second (and better) idea is to lure Borders or Barnes & Noble into the mall in the former Goody's location.  All Barnes & Noble locations are over 50 miles from the mall, and Jacksonville State students might appreciate having one of these at the mall.  Borders is even less available with the nearest location at the mall in Douglasville.  This is the perfect location for either of these two.  The former Garfield's, also, might be a good fit for one of these book stores, assuming Martin's takes up the former Goody's.  However, Martin's may not be the best choice to drive traffic into the old part of the mall, and I have another idea for the Garfield's area.

An older-style mall entrance is found at the northwest entrance adjacent to Sears.  Note the plaque in the first photo, which lists the owners and date of original mall construction.  I think those are a really nice touch.  I wish all malls did that.


An updated entrance flanks the east entrance to the mall.  The owners made sure that the addition to the mall matched the original mall in brick and design.

Martin's is marked outside the mall as a junior anchor.  That "M" looks sinister to me.

A more drastic consideration for Quintard is to move JCPenney to the wing next to Dillard's as a new mall anchor and add a second level to the original mall, chain bookstore included.  JCPenney would be built into that mall wing, absorbing that ailing entrance wing as part of the store with the rest of the store extending into the parking lot...essentially a built-in anchor.  The existing JCPenney would become either Belk or Macy's, provided a commitment was obtained from either.  One of those two anchors is necessary to make the mall super-regional, and Belk or Macy's would be willing to use the second level that is needed to draw more interest.  This second level is important, because it would make it possible to construct an effective second level into the mall between Sears and existing JCPenney.  In addition, the new Border's/Barnes & Noble should be constructed with two levels as a junior anchor, tying the upper and lower level together.  On top of this, I would consider bucking the trend of plain, pasty malls and would do a showy renovation with lots of color and cutting edge architectural touches to make the center stand out.  In addition, a large fountain should be constructed in the main court of the old mall or the smaller court at the start of the new wing (if it is not already was hard to tell with the Christmas display).  While none of these suggestions are likely, this is what I think would make me want to spend my money at Quintard in lieu of making the trip to Birmingham or Douglasville.


Sears (former Britts), JCPenney and Dillard's.  Dillard's has the usual stucco arch, but it looks quite different with only one level.  JCPenney definitely looks two levels to me, but I could still be wrong.  Because only one level is used, it looks much bigger from the outside than inside.

With all of this considering, Quintard is a very interesting mall and with a few changes it would become a lot more interesting and a real destination.  It is currently not my favorite in design, but its history is long and fascinating.  I also love the spunkiness of its forward planning and small scale ownership.  All of this I had no idea about when I visited.  While it may not be Riverchase or Arbor Place, I hope that the people in the city will continue to patronize this classic retail center, because it is a decent mall compared to the typical small city malls I know of that offer a boring design flanked by a few low end stores and anchor choices uninteresting to the under 30 crowd.  I also hope that the mall will solicit from the public what stores they would like to see in the mall like the survey that was offered at Mount Berry Square in Rome, GA.  Anniston is an interesting town in the most scenic part of Alabama.  I think the mall alone should not have to market the place.  I believe the city itself should strive to make itself more of a destination for both jobs and retail.  It has always been one of my favorite parts of the state, so likewise I hope for continued success of their one and only mall.

[1] Dube, Kathryn.  "Ten Years and $40 Million Later, Alabama mall gets expansion".  Shopping Centers Today.  May 2001.  "

[2] Whisenhunt, Dan. "Quintard Mall: Exciting news is coming soon". Anniston Star. 17 June 2009.