Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Remembering JB White Department Store (Updated and Corrected with New Photos)

Big city department stores throughout history tended to get the spotlight. Much of that is obvious: they are more recognizable, a symbol of that major city and they historically tended to be far more large and upscale than their small city counterparts. While it is worthwhile to remember the Marshall Fields and Rich's stores of the past, the smaller chains deserve some attention of their own. The one I am showing today is JB White...a major chain that served as the principal department store for two mid-sized cities in the South.  Founded by James Brice White in 1874, it was one of the first department stores in the country and established itself as the leading department store in Augusta, GA and Columbia, SC.


A view of the downtown store in Augusta prior to the removal of the signs on the outside.  This store operated until 1978.  Photo by C. Lewis.

Started in Augusta, GA the chain expanded to Columbia, SC prior to 1900 while maintaining its flagship in Augusta. Its flagship store was located on Broad St in Augusta, and it closed in 1978 when it was replaced with a new store at Regency Mall.  The last downtown flagship store opened in 1925 as a three story structure and was expanded to four stories in 1945 to compete with the arrival of Davison's of Atlanta [1].  White's also expanded to Aiken, SC early on as well, presumably in the 1920's.  They later went to Greenville in the 1940's (in the former Ivey-Keith location downtown) [2] .  Expansion to Spartanburg and Savannah would come much later.  In all, it was a store that was more fashion oriented than Belk, but less elegant than Rich's or Davison's in Atlanta during that period.  In other words, it was the ideal department store for both cities in that period.


An image of White's in Aiken.  This looks to have been a drawing of the store at a strip mall named Mitchell Shopping Center.  The White's would later move to a larger store at Heritage Square.  This image came from a yearbook and was submitted by Jarrett Edwards.


White's later location at Heritage Square in Aiken.  This store was demolished when the strip it was in was redeveloped for a Kroger and Home Depot.  It did not become Dillard's.  Photo by C. Lewis.

White's, unlike Rich's, was not passed on to subsequent family members after James Bryce White retired.  Instead, he sold the store in the early 1910's to HB Claflin Co., a company that owned other department stores including Lord & Taylor.  When HB Claflin later went bankrupt, the company was split into Associated Dry Goods and Mercantile Stores Company.  ADG covered larger market stores while Mercantile took the smaller markets, which White's fit cleanly into.  This began the chapter of JB White as a division of Mercantile Stores.  The Milliken Family owned the majority shares in Mercantile, so their influence would steer the direction of Mercantile's stores, including White's, throughout the remainder of its history.  Other major stores under the Mercantile banner included Castner-Knott of Nashville and Gayfer's of Mobile.  James Bryce White's retirement would see him spending the remainder of his years in Italy, but he continued to support the community that brought him his wealth through the construction of a YMCA in Augusta and the creation of a scholarship still offered each year to a student at Augusta State University [1].


This photo, apparently from the early 1990's, shows the JB White store at Dutch Square.  This is the only store I remember, and I seem to remember the logo was rather difficult to read at 6 years old.  Note that this is one of three different styles of logos used on their suburban locations.  Photo by C. Lewis.

White's first suburban expansion came in the early 1960's. Its first of such locations in Columbia was in 1961 at the original Richland Mall, a small open-air mall flanking the large two story White's. Its second came in 1963 with the opening of a two-story store at National Hills Shopping Center in Augusta...an otherwise small strip mall that also featured an A&P supermarket. White's also opened in a strip mall in Aiken somewhere in that same time period in Heritage Square Shopping Center.  In 1970, its largest suburban location yet opened up at Dutch Square Mall west of Columbia offering three levels of shopping as well as two suburban stores for Columbia.  By 1978, more stores were opened including Greenville at Greenville Mall and Regency Mall in Augusta.  The Regency store sadly replaced the downtown flagship.  Strangely, even though the chain was Augusta-based, the chain sought for an almost exclusive South Carolina strategy outside the city. This would not change until 1990 when JB White opened a store in Georgia at Savannah Mall.


This photo of White's at National Hills Shopping Center looks to date to the 80's.  This was such a classy logo, I can't understand why they did away with it.  Note there was no "JB" in front of this version of it.  Special thanks to Michael Lisicky for sharing this rare photo.



Unbelievably, it wasn't just Michael Lisicky that captured this store.  This photo by C. Lewis, an Augusta native, was captured in the same time period.  The store was clearly a hopping place that day!

The 1990's saw the beginning of difficulties for White's along with the rest of Mercantile. Pressure to compete in an environment of department store consolidation finally was beginning to catch up with it and the Mercantile Stores company as a whole as the chain by then had more stores than shoppers. Nevertheless, new stores were constructed all the way until the sale of the company in 1998 to Dillard's. Stores built in that period included a store in West Columbia at Columbiana Centre Mall and at Westgate Mall in Spartanburg, both opening in 1995.  White's location at Greenville Mall was also extensively renovated and expanded in 1995 as part of the enormous effort to revive what had been a dated, dumpy and dead mall.  The last store that was built opened in 1998 at Augusta Mall. JB White moved to Augusta Mall to escape the troubled and failing Regency Mall, closing its older Regency location after only 20 years. This new store was nearly identical in design to the remodel at Greenville Mall.  Not long after that store opened, the chain was sold.


Michael Lisicky also took this later photo of J.B. White with its very plain and boring 90's logo on the same store at National Hills Shopping Center.  I absolutely cannot stand their later logo, so Mercantile was definitely not appealing to customer loyalty with that atrocity.  This style logo was also used on the store at Augusta Mall that is seen on the Wikipedia photograph.

After the sale, the stores did not exactly all convert to Dillard's. The problem was that Dillard's already had a presence in the Columbia market, so three of the stores instead went to Belk. Two of those were done to prevent overlap in the same mall. Not only was Belk trying to get re-established in the Columbia market, but also Dillard's was trying to solidify its own market in the region after purchasing the entire Ivey's chain 8 years before. Dillard's was also interested in a swap with Belk for stores in the Tidewater area, so this worked out well for both parties. Because of this, while all other stores converted to Dillard's, all of the Columbia locations instead became Belk.


The National Hills Store viewed here as Dillard's.  Photo by Jarrett Edwards taken shortly before the store closed.



A couple views inside the National Hills store.  The grainy quality is because they were camera phone pics blown up from very low resolution.  Both photos by Jarrett Edwards.

White's, like Rich's, had a very loyal following. Despite it resting under the Mercantile banner, the store maintained strong ties with the community.  The store strongly supported community events, and fashion director Marion White Linder (no relation) would do charity fashion shows in support of the local children's hospital.  The chain also promoted itself with popular midnight madness sales, and their return policy was comparable to Nordstrom today and Rich's in the 1970's.  Today, the store lives on primarily through the preservation efforts of the original downtown store. In 2007, the old downtown store was converted to condominiums with parts of the old painted sign and logos intact on the building.


The former JB White store at vacant Regency Mall in Augusta in 2003.  This store has been closed for 12 years now.


This photo really thrills me!  This was the same Regency Mall store in its much better days.  The photo looks to be about 1990 and it features a clear version of their second logo.  This photo is also courtesy of C. Lewis.


The second to last generation of White's at Columbiana Centre in Columbia.  A nearly identical store was added to Westgate Mall in Spartanburg the same year this store opened.

LIST OF FORMER WHITES LOCATIONS
(Known stores shown, please fill in on ones missing on this list)

AUGUSTA

Downtown/Broad Street (1925-1978)
National Hills Shopping Center (1963-1998, converted to Dillard's and closed as Dillard's in 2007)
Regency Mall (1978-1998)
Augusta Mall (1998, converted to Dillard's same year)

AIKEN

Heritage Square Shopping Center (Dates unknown)

COLUMBIA

Downtown (Dates unknown)
Richland Mall (1961, converted to Belk 1998)
Dutch Square Mall (1970, converted to Belk 1998)
Columbiana Centre Mall (1995, converted to Belk 1998)

GREENVILLE

Downtown (1940's-1978) [2]
Greenville Mall (1978, converted to Dillard's 1998 and demolished 2008)

SAVANNAH

Savannah Mall (1990, converted to Dillard's 1998)

REFERENCES

[1] Lewis, C. (2010, May 1). J B White. [Electronic mail message].
[2] Anonymous blog comment posted April 30, 2010.

21 comments:

  1. JB White did well; the one at Greenville Mall was in a B-grade mall and was pretty run-down, as was the mall, after 17 years of no renovations, but the store did a good business. If Dillard's hadn't bought it, the mall would probably still be in existence; the store tanked after it became a Dillard's.

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  2. Great profile, but White's was never at Aiken Mall. There is a strip center called Heritage Square in Aiken that was home to the White's store there.

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  3. J.B.White also had a downtown Greenville store. It moved into the former Ivey-Keith department store on North Main, once Ivey's opened its new Main Street showplace a block away. This was sometime in the late 40's.

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  4. I am a bit curious as to if the White's at Dutch Square was three levels to start with. It looks like a third floor was added later judging by the design.

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  5. I agree. The Dutch Square store does look like they tacked on a third level after it opened.

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  6. Here's a link to locations of JB Whites and other Mercantile banners, organized by division, at the time of Dillard's buyout.

    http://www.dshistory.com/chains/mercantile/

    I've often wondered if the Miliken's were the reason for J.B. White being skewed to expanding into South Carolina rather than Georgia, especially Greenville and Spartanburg. Albeit Augusta is from a secondary market viewpoint is isolated from Georgia's population centers, and Aiken and Columbia are relatively close. Macon and Athens would have been logical expansions besides the later Savannah expansion. Gainesville and LaGrange were the Georgia cities that had the greatest Miliken presence if that was one of the criteria for store location.

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  7. Apologies here on the post. Some facts I can't get straight information about such as Greenville before Greenville Mall and the exact date that JB White sold out to Mercantile. There is not much available online about it, so if you can get some absolute information please set me straight.

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  8. One more thing...if that wasn't White's in at least one of the two Dillard's stores that (were) at Aiken Mall...then were those always Dillard's or were they something else? They definitely do not look like the typical Dillard's stores.

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  9. Belk was at Kalmia Plaza on US 1/78 West in a typical 1970's style Belk. If White's were in Heritage Square, which seems to have been rebuilt for the Home Depot/Kroger center, then Aiken Mall was built later than I realized. I had though Aiken Mall dated to the 1980-82 timeframe, but appears to be closer to 88. An aerial view of the mall, the Belk appears to be an addition, and not the typical small town Belk exterior.

    The stores don't look like typical Dillard's, and I hope I'm remembering correctly, the smaller store was Upton's at one point, possibly beginning as a Meyers-Arnold, as they had reached to Augusta in Regency Mall. The faux Doric entrances don't really work with the red/brown brick and brutalist box design of either store.

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  10. Aiken Mall opened in 1991, anchored by Belk, JCPenney, Sears, Brendle's and Phar-Mar. Brandle's and Phar-Mar had closed by the late '90s, so Dillard's opened a "double-header" in the empty anchors around 2000.

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  11. I don't know the exact year when the Aiken Mall opened, all I know is that it was sometime in the 80s, I really don't know much about the history of the stores there either, they've all been the same for as long as I can remember. But, I do know that Whites was never in the mall.

    I remember the Whites in Heritage Square in Aiken, I used to go there to get my hair cut back in the 90s. Back in the early 90s, Heritage square had a Whites and the second location of Aiken's only Wal-Mart (the first was in Mitchell Center further down the road), and yes, Heritage was demolished and a new Kroger and Home Depot built in it's place.

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  12. The White's store in Aiken was, back in the '60s and '70s, in another shopping strip on Whiskey Rd, the name of which escapes me at the moment. (It's the same strip that the old Woodruff Drugs was in.) The building is now a pet supply store, SuperPetz I believe.

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    1. The original White's in Aiken was located downtown on a side street. I can't remember the name of the street, however, I was a little girl in the early 1950's and remember my Mother shopping at this store. We would visit my Aunt was a sales clerk in the make-up department. Sometime in the 1960's the store moved to the Mitchell Shopping Center and remained there until it moved to the Heritage Square.

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  13. Steven, thanks for clearing up that it was Brendles and not Uptons at Aiken Mall. I had forgotten about Pharmor being there. Heritage Square being redeveloped destroys a piece of the JB White puzzle. Was the downtown Aiken Whites a full-line store or a small clothing oriented store?

    Did Walmart originate in Aiken as an Edwards/Big K?

    Aiken seems unique in being considered part of a metro the size of Augusta, yet much of the economy has long developed independent of Augusta. It's relation to Augusta is more similar to that of Dalton, GA and Cleveland, TN to Chattanooga rather than as a suburb. Since metros are defined by counties, the geographical accident of South Carolina counties being much larger than Georgia counties resulted in Aiken County with the suburb of North Augusta and the county seat of Aiken being in the same metro while Dalton and Cleveland are classified as, albeit small, as their own metros.

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  14. Living near Dutch Square, I 'grew up' at White's in Columbia and later worked there. We knew customers by name and knew when they would be there. The entire store was shocked when the chain was sold and we were in limbo while the deals were going on between Dillard's and Belk. The days of changing over to Belk the entire atmosphere changed. Our regular customers were no longer old friends, but new management was in charge so they felt so distant and we were having to turn down people for credit who had shopped with us several times a week for years.

    I REALLY miss the old White's. Belk will NEVER be like it was.

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  15. I agree, I really miss White's. I worked at the Richland Mall store back in '81-82. Boy would we have crowd's on rainy Saturday mornings!! And I definitely remember The Moonlight Madness sales! We even had a great restaurant upstairs next to the Baby Dept. It later was closed when they did renovations at that store. At that time the Dutch Square store was only 2 story. I believe in the late 80's, if I remember correctly, or very early 90's when they added the 3rd floor. My sister-in-law worked for a time at the downtown Belk, and I definitely felt a stuffiness from the staff there. They weren't as nice and friendly as the staff at JB White's. I loved working in the Linen Dept. It was a great store to work for~!!!!!!

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  16. Barely related to JB White but becoming an elementary teacher my mom worked for several years at a chain of department stores known as Joslins in Colorado. The connection is both stores were related under Mercantile and both converted to Dillards(Belk simply doesn't exist in CO, NM, or WY).

    An odd question here I have too is why does such a big Southern mall like Augusta Mall lack a Belk? I wondered if JB White history has anything to do with it.

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  17. I can speak with accuracy concerning JB White stores. I was employed with the JB White from 1976 until 1975. I worked my way through college starting as a part-time stockboy and ending up as a senior divisional merchandise manager running at $50 million division. To answer some of your questions concerning their stores. The Dutch square store was originally two floors. During my tenure, two floors were added. The third floor was an additional floor for selling merchandise while the fourth floor not open to public was a state-of-the-art advertising and production studio along with offices. The store at Richland Mall on Forrest Dr. was originally a two floor store in a small strip shopping center. A developer called Hooker-Barnes tore down the existing complex and rebuilt a high end fashion mall around the JB White building. After construction, the developer went bankrupt in the mall never did get leased to capacity. Concerning the store in Aiken South Carolina, it started out in downtown Aiken before moving to a small strip center called Whiskey Village. Around 1978 Whites moved to its final location in Aiken and the new Heritage Square complex. As far as the direction of growth and location of the JB White stores, you have to know that JB White was part of Mercantile stores which consisted of many different groups of stores throughout the country. In the Tennessee area, we have stores under the name of Castner-Knott. In Alabama and Georgia ( Columbus area), we have stores called Gayfers. All groups of stores were ran out of the same corporate buying office originally located in New York City but later relocated to Fairfield Ohio. Each group of stores have their own president, buyers and merchandisers, advertising office, accounting office, shipping and receiving compliments. Each group operated independently of their sister groups. The buyers and merchandisers would be in New York with our corporate buyers to shop the market, but each group of stores had the authority concerning their own operation. The JB quite group of stores and our parent company Mercantile stores did not go out of business because of bad business or reduced sales. It simply was sold because the Milliken's no longer wanted to be involved with the retail operation. As a matter of fact, the few stores I have knowledge of word extremely profitable with very high sales per square foot until they were sold. After that, the same stores sales plummeted. The store in Aiken South Carolina should never have left Heritage Square after becoming Dillards. Heritage Square being located on the corner of Whiskey Road and Pine Log Rd was the busiest intersection in Aiken County. The Aiken Mall always has been a dead mall. Relocating their store to the mall once the kiss of death for Dillard's. I was told a few years back that the Dillard's store was not doing half the business that was previously been done by JB White. I cannot attest to the accuracy of that statement other than to say that every time I go into a store is like walking into a ghost town. If Mercantile stores would not have sold out to Dillard's, everyone of the various groups of stores including JB White would still be dominating their local market. By this time, there would probably be at least 5 to 6 additional JB White Stores.

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  18. The above poster is correct concerning the Aiken White's location. Like another poster, I also got haircuts at the Aiken White's when I was a kid in the 90s. I remember the lady who did it left a few years before the store closed because she said there were 'too many Chiefs and not enough Indians', I didn't know what that meant at the time. When White's was sold to Dillards in 98, the location at Heritage Square became Dillards until they relocated to Aiken Mall in 2000. I remember that the Heritage Square center had a WalMart and a White's, like everyone said. The WalMart moved and their space was torn down first for the Home Depot, the White's/Dillards stayed for a few more years.

    This newspaper article talks about the move: http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/2000/03/21/bus_285179.shtml Ironically, the Dillards website has a picture of the storefront from the Heritage Square location on the webpage for the Aiken store.

    I am also very interested about the history of the Aiken Mall as well (mainly because I work at the Belk there). The Belk has often confused me, as I have often wondered if the store was originally supposed to be 2 floors, because all our offices are located on a 2nd floor that only covers about a fourth of the footprint of the store, all the rest is just empty space. Maybe the store was supposed to be 2 floors but was scaled back for some reason. The outside entrances also confuse me, I actually think that the entire mall may have been built by a developer and then leased out, since the entrances of none of the anchors look like entrances of their respective stores but instead all match each other. I may have to do a little digging on the history of the Aiken Mall, and snap some photos of it as well. I'll submit it if you're interested...

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  19. My family and I lived in Glen Hills, Augusta during the mid 60s.I was in my teens. I remember that we shopped at White's especially during Christmas. All the furniture and merchandize was beautifully staged and displayed. It was a joy going from one floor to the other and marveling at every single object thing in site. I also remember how elegant things were wrapped. Those were the good old days, indeed..

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  20. It is omitted that there was a JB White home store at the Daniel Village shopping center. The store had previously been a Belk that JB White took over in the late 70's when Belk closed their Daniel Village and Southgate locations to move into Regency Mall. This JB White location, I believe, closed in the early 90's.

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