Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tapp's Department Store: A Lost Columbia Institution

Many outside department stores have attempted to dominate the market of Columbia.  White's out of Augusta was undoubtedly the most successful at doing this, and Rich's arrived with a bang in 1977, bringing three Richway locations along with them to the city.  However, the last store Columbia has been able to claim its own in any recent memory is Tapp's.  Tapp's, named for founder James Lemon Tapp, was like many homegrown department stores.  It had one dominant downtown department store and a very small suburban expansion in its later years.  It was considered the upscale department store in the city, while White's catered to a more middle-brow clientele.  A third store known as Berry's on Main also joined the original downtown line-up, though its existence was short-lived in comparison to Tapp's.

Photo of long-closed original downtown store taken on opposite corner of Main & Blanding.

Tapp's was a very distinctive store downtown, featuring a very early streamlined modern design completed in 1940.  That building was the second built since the store was first founded in 1903.  The downtown store was the first east of the Mississippi to offer an air-conditioned shopping experience, and a restaurant was included in the basement level .  In 1952, two additional stories were added to the downtown store [1].  This store still stands today at the intersection of Main St and Blanding St, and is the one pictured here.   More on the history of Tapp's [link].

Close-up of upper floors and logo.  Was this same logo used on the suburban stores or was this older?  For such a simple structure, it is elegant and classy.

Tapp's was very interesting in that its first ever store was not in South Carolina at all, but as actually in Dalton, GA in 1890. However, it was sold before 1900 [2]. Another store was operated in Charlotte in the mean time before coming to Columbia. [2] Fast forward to the late 20th century, Tapp's suburban expansion was somewhat haphazard.  It was first introduced outside of downtown at Trenholm Plaza in 1965. This is east of downtown in the more affluent area near present-day Richland Mall at the intersection of Forest Dr (SC 12) & Trenholm Rd.  Following that was the opening at Columbia's first enclosed shopping mall, Dutch Square, in 1970 as the mall's east anchor.  The last location to open in Columbia came in 1978 with the opening of a store at Woodhill Mall, a tiny mall also anchored by Richway.  All of Tapp's suburban stores were small one-level stores that were considerably smaller than the downtown flagship.  While that brought the chain to four total locations, the store would not expand again in Columbia past the late 1970's. However, a store would open in 1986 at Jessamine Mall (now Sumter Mall) in the location of the former Capitol Department Store. [2] It would be their last new store. In the article, James Tapp was quoted as "We have been competitive from the beginning. When we cease being competitive, we cease to exist". [2]

Street-level entrance and surrounding black tiles do not disappoint.  Is this building well-maintained or just well-preserved?  It looks almost like new.

Part of an ad announcing the opening of Tapp's last new store in Sumter, 1986.  The rest of the ad suggests the store was far less upscale than I originally thought.  The ad included Arrow shirts, Lee jeans, Izod and...Jams (yes that is LOL worthy).

Tapp's maintained its position on the Columbia retail scene for over 90 years, but the store was unable to compete with the glut of much larger new chain department stores in the city catering to a somewhat upscale demographic such as Dillard's and Birmingham, AL-based Parisian.  In September 1995, Tapp's announced it was ending business.  Unfortunately, its closure left a void on the city with the downtown store remaining vacant to this day.  Two suburban locations have since been torn down including the Dutch Square location and the store at Woodhill Mall.  The Dutch Square location was rebuilt as an AMC theater and Woodhill Mall was demolished in 2004 to make way for a regular strip mall.  The Trenholm Plaza location looks to have been since repurposed.

[1] Tapp's Department Store - 1644 Main St.  Live Columbia [Blog]. 18 August 2008.

[2] New Tapp's Store first outside of Columbia area. The Sumter Daily Item. 26 February 1986. Page 1B.


  1. I visited Columbia several times during 1991-1992. At that time, Macy*s and Tapps were both on Main Street, but the Belk adjacent to Macy*s had been closed.

    We visited Tapp's on Saturdays for lunch in their basement restaurant; while the food was nothing special, it was extremely inexpensive, and the place was always crowded...even on a Saturday. The housewares, luggage, and linen departments were also downstairs.

    The main floor was long and narrow, with extremely high ceilings. Halfway down the southern wall was a two-tier staircase with a landing. What made this staircase remarkable was a huge cobalt blue floor-to-ceilng mirror.

    Men's wear was on the main floor, as well as women's accessories and cosmetics. Try as I might, I could never find anything to buy in Tapps, and it seemed by 1992 that their merchandise was, while not cheap by any means, short on variety as well as style.

    The Woodhill Mall store was utilitarian in every way, but the merchandise offered seemed to be an improvement over the downtown store.

    There was also a location east of Columbia in Sumter, South Carolina. Friends of mine are from Sumter, and I can find out where this was a downtown store, or a newer location in a strip center.

  2. That is one pretty Streamline Moderne store. Thanks for the information on Tapp's. I had been wondering about their history.

  3. Attractive building, the tall narrow design evokes the Ivey's in downtown Charlotte.

    Belk in Columbia was closed to inter-family rivalries. Macy's downtown store was from Davison's expansion to Columbia, as was Columbus and Athens. Athens, Augusta and Macon seemed to be the only outlying markets that Davison's had long-term success, though Augusta would be a victim of the Federated takeover of R.H. Macy's in which Rich's survived.

  4. I think Davison's/Macy's would have had a better chance at survival in Columbia if it had moved to a mall location. From what J.T. stated, they were going to relocate to Dutch Square save for the bankruptcy.

  5. I recall driving down Main Street in Columbia in the summer of 1995. Perhaps because of the heat, the whole street was dead to the world. Tapp's was still there, with "66 2/3% OFF" signs covering its windows. On the recommendation of a local who said that he'd rather shop at Belk's than Tapp's, I never went in, preferring Richland (Fasion) Mall and its Parisian. I do regret never having gone in the store, but it just looked odd from the outside, and there was little if any complementary retail on Main Street then, other than a nice jewelry store or two and Lourie's, which has since closed.

  6. Beware of claims about "firsts". Wasson's 1937 downtown store in Indianapolis claimed to be the first air conditioned department store in the East.

  7. The building was converted into apartments. I did visit the store while its open in the 90's. Inside was old and very dated. Tapps never updated their image, they still did business the same way they did it in the 50's. Their loyal clientel basically died off. The Sumter store was in a mall and it was an actually nice on the inside, but again, the merchandise was very basic.

  8. I can remember as a kid going to Tapp,s. That was in the 50's. The two things that stand out in my memory was a big white talking horse that was there on occasions. The other thing, the thing my family didn't believe until I found it on the internet, was the shoe department. They had a machine there that you would stand on and it would let you look at how the toes fit in the shoes by using a continuous x-ray!! My mom could look in one viewer, me in another and the salesman in a third. It's a wonder my toes haven't dropped off!

  9. I just wanted to let your readers know the Tapp's building is now being used as an arts center and event space on the main floor and basement levels. The upper floors have been refitted as apartment space.

  10. I have read that the 2nd and 3rd floors were added later. What were they used for at the time they were added. Iv'e read the history but that detail is not mentioned. Was the 1st. floor and the basement the only ones that were used for retail?


  11. what were the two added floors that were added later used for at the time they were added? I have read the history and it tells of them being added, but not what they were used for at the time they were added. I know that they are now used as apartments.

  12. Anyone remember the address of Belk's Dept Store on Main in Columbia? I worked there back mid-70's, moved away now I'm back and trying to figure out where it was. Surely it is not where the Columbia Museum of Art is now? Thanks!!!

    1. Actually, sadly, you are correct. It was torn down and the Museum of Art is built in its place. A friend of mine has a picture of it that was taken in the early 90's. It closed around 1992. Davison's (later Macy's) closed in 1993 with no replacement nearby and IIRC has also been demolished.

    2. I recall me on my dad's shoulders during the Columbia Christmas Parades.. standing in front of either Belk's Department store or Berry's on Main... I was born in Columbia in 1947.. left the area at age 17... returned in at age 58. What a drastic change to Downtown Columbia... only see the Capitol building.. Am glad they have retained some of the facades.
      My dad worked at the Greyhound Bus Station behind Tapp's ... also had an Aunt who worked in the Little Girls Dress Department for years.