Sunday, May 9, 2010

Cullum's of Augusta

Cullum's of Augusta, GA was a store that historically would be easier to overlook if it had not been part of Georgia's most famous dead mall, but it is a store that deserves mention coming from an era where high class department stores found in only one city - possibly even one location - were once the norm.  In fact, it is the disappearance of stores like this that have left a void in smaller cities for people looking for high fashion merchandise when giants like Nordstrom and Neiman Marcus are most likely never going to consider coming to such places.  Cullum's was that for Augusta...a better shopping experience that was lost at the close of the modern era of retailing.


Cullum's got its start after 1944 when Saxon-Cullum, Augusta's oldest and most prominent department store, was sold to Davison-Paxon of Atlanta, later Davison's and Macy's.  It is assumed that the Saxon partner simply took the money and retired, but apparently the Cullum half of Saxon-Cullum took the cash earned from the sale to start their own department store in downtown Augusta, which became Cullum's.  The new Cullum's would cater to the elite of the city while Davison-Paxon would continue to market to the same carriage trade demographic previously held by Saxon-Cullum.  Thus, for 34 years Cullum's would become a relatively short-lived tradition in Broad St. retailing with the chain itself lasting a few years longer after the downtown store closed.


These two ads were from the Augusta Magazine in 1978 forwarded to me via Sandy Lewis promoting the opening of their Regency Mall store.  The first shows a beautiful drawing of the now long-abandoned store.  Their logo surprised me at how thin and stringy it looks...I didn't even realize I was looking at the name first time I saw it.

Cullum's popularity brought it to additional locations in Augusta and Aiken, SC.  A couple of these locations, however, were very small stores that would classify more as a shop than a department store, and all of these stores were located in strip malls in lieu of enclosed malls.  Other locations besides Broad St. included Kalmia Plaza (Aiken) and West Town Shopping Center (Martinez/West Augusta).  Smaller boutiques were also found at Daniel Village and National Hills Shopping Centers.  Two of those locations were aided by the presence of larger department stores with Kalmia having a Belk and National Hills having White's [1].  While malls were never previously a part of Cullum's history, their last location to open would be their only mall-based location.  That location was at the Regency Mall location in South Augusta, which opened with the mall in 1978.  Regency Mall would also draw the only other location of Ruben's, another standard of Downtown Augusta that remains to this day.


This pic shows a crowd of baby boomer teenagers waiting in a considerably long line for the showing of "A Hard Days Night" at the Miller Theater on Broad St.  The movie dates the image to 1964 with the Cullum's sign captured to the right of the theater.  This photo is also from Sandy Lewis.

The opening of Regency Mall in 1978 was devastating to downtown retail.  Nearly every major department store left Broad St. for the gleaming new mall, but little did people know the trouble that would come of the fact that Regency was poorly planned, poorly located and that it would be quickly supplanted by Augusta Mall.  For a city its size, two very large two-level shopping malls were bound to cannibalize each other, and Regency was in second place from the day Augusta Mall opened.  Nevertheless, then-new Regency took White's from downtown in an era of blind optimism in regards to malls.  Cullum's would also leave downtown to join the mall as well in a 60,000 square foot two-level junior anchor, and it was an unwise decision for the store.  After all, it was their largest suburban store that was also the furthest removed from its wealthy base.  The competition from Davison's and newcomer Rich's at Augusta Mall also pulled business away from the store meaning that it began struggling as it was unprepared for the newer mall environment.


This image, which looks far more recent, shows the lengthwise Cullum's sign on the side of the building on the right, though the other logo in the photo above is not visible anywhere.  Photo sent by Sandy Lewis.

Sometime in the early 1980's approaching its 40th anniversary, the entire Cullum's chain was liquidated.  While it is unclear what happened to the other locations, the Regency location was later sold to Greenville-based Meyers-Arnold, which opened in the former location around 1985.  Not only did Augusta lose a truly upscale department store, but this also spelled the beginning of troubles for Regency Mall as well.  Locals did not take to the unfamiliar and far more downscale Meyers-Arnold, which would soon be bought out itself by Upton's of Atlanta.  Today, residents of Augusta have to travel to Atlanta or Charleston to find a store like Cullum's, so for those that can remember it, it is a store that is undoubtedly lamented with nothing like it to take its place today.


This image from Jarrett Edwards is apparently from a yearbook, and it suggests the elegance that this store once had.  I tend to wonder, though, if the claim here that a high brow magazine rated it "Fashion Store of the Century" is true.  If so, this must have been a veritable Neiman Marcus, Jr.


Upton's, the last tenant in the old Cullum's at Regency Mall, closed in 1993.  This means that this store has been abandoned for 17 years, though the mall continued to operate until 2002.  Meyers-Arnold was also here briefly before Upton's arrived.  This photo is from 2003, 10 years after the store first closed.  Apparently Upton's just wasn't what people were looking for in Augusta.

[1] Lewis, C. (2010, May 3). J B White. [Electronic mail message].

4 comments:

  1. Sounds like a really swanky place. Too bad things went sour for them.

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  2. All things being equal, in 1977, that Regency Mall would fail while Augusta Mall would grow and succeed could not have been foreseen. The main factor in Augusta Mall's favor was it was closer to Augusta's "better neighborhoods" and the rapidly growing Columbia County suburbs. Better interstate access was certainly a factor as well.

    On paper, Regency, with established local favorites of JB White, Belk and Cullum's should have succeeded. Montgomery Ward, always the 3rd ranked catalog mass merchant after Sears and JCPenney, was the weak retail link. It was likely not the first choice as JCPenney had committed to Augusta Mall while Sears stayed downtown. Davison's and Rich's were Atlanta department stores which gave Augusta Mall a level of excitement that Regency couldn't rival, but Augustans would ultimately turn to their local stalworts, which should have keep the two malls thriving.

    Ultimately, changing demographics off Deans Bridge Road/South Augusta would send Regency into decline, a change that wasn't expected in the 1970's as suburbs were still almost exclusively white bread. Regency was still successful until the late 80s' with the demise of Cullum's. Montgomery Ward's was always a poor performer there, while Belk lost its Augusta niche to Rich's and Davison's/Macy's. That Belk continues in North Augusta and Aiken, keeps the loyalist satisfied, though the RiverWatch location seems to be on perpetual hold. Once JB White jumped ship to rival Augusta Mall, Regency was doomed.

    Meyer's-Arnold and then Upton's were a step down from Cullum's, so the Cullum's loyalist were lost. Augusta's well heeled no longer had a reason to go to Regency Mall. Combine that with a shifting demographic that would ultimately scare away the mainstream shopper and Regency Mall was doomed.

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  3. To add to Ken's point, while JCPenney had committed to Augusta Mall, it didn't open for many years afterward. There was a mall entrance on the first floor and a self-serve post office across what would be the second floor store entrance.

    The West Town Shopping Center Cullum's followed the same path as Regency: Meyers/Arnold then Uptons then closed.

    I worked at JBWhite at Regency in 1990, then moved to Savannah when their store opened there. The difference between Regency and Augusta Malls were literally night and day. Regency had dark brown walls, orange carpet, and very little natural light. Augusta Mall was white and pale grey and seemed bright and cheerful.

    I've heard from long-time Augustans that they never forgave Belk for closing their stores at Daniel Village and Southgate (a half mile from Regency) six months before the mall location opened. The Daniel Village store became JBWhite For The Home.

    My memory of the non-anchor stores was that they catered to people with a little bit of money and no sense - poor people looking to spend what was left of their paycheck, and soldiers from Fort Gordon who didn't have to send money home to their families. Jewelry, home decor, electronics, and clothing all seemed to focus on the loudest and most tasteless bang for one's buck.

    Ken is being polite when he describes "a shifting demographic that would ultimately scare away the mainstream shopper." A 16-year-old girl was kidnapped from the parking lot and found murdered in 1986. Another woman was shot by a man who had hidden in her car.

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  4. How about a story about the way the mall location Really closed. Well dressed thugs walking in during business hours, telling everyone to leave, this store is closed as of now.

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