Attempting to get back on track with refocusing on the title of this blog, I just got done reading Celestine Sibley’s 1967 book Dear Store, which was put out as part of Rich’s centennial celebration 45 years ago. This book has been recommended repeatedly on the “Remembering Rich’s” Facebook group of which I’m a subscriber, and when one of the members alerted us that a few copies were being hawked on Amazon for less than $10, I jumped on the opportunity to read it. (The book’s been out of print for years…the cheapest copy on Amazon currently is almost $40.) I realized a few pages into the book that I was having a lot of trouble getting into it; it actually took me almost two weeks to finish the less than 150 pages. I finally concluded that I was missing a key ingredient to having a vested interest in Rich’s: I never had the pleasure of shopping there.
Being a South Georgia boy, I only got up to Atlanta 2-3 times a year when I was growing up, if that. Once I skedaddled off to junior college a few miles below Atlanta, I was a poor college student who wouldn’t have dared stepped foot in a department store! Since Rich’s was bought out by Macy’s in 2005–when I was living in Nashville–I never shopped there as an adult, either. However, when I moved down to Alpharetta from Nashville in ’06, I found these 3-D murals on the exterior of the former Rich’s/now Macy’s at North Point Mall that fascinated me every time I went in the store from the parking lot. Here’s a few of the murals, which Macy’s has thus far preserved to the delight of Rich’s die-hard fans:
Rich’s was founded in a small, wooden storefront in the still reeling-from-Sherman’s-march Atlanta by Morris Reich, a 20 year-old Jewish immigrant from Hungary, in 1867. (Like many immigrants, Morris and his family Americanized their last name after immigrating.) Morris Rich purposely did his best to ingratiate himself to war-ravaged Atlantans, as he knew that was the only way that he and his business would survive there for any length of time. Over the years, he took cotton and other crops as payment, and he was also very generous with establishing store credit for his customers. Perhaps he was just in the right place at the right time, but by 1924 his wooden storefront called M. Rich Dry Goods had evolved into the grand Rich’s most native Atlantans remember so fondly. In fact, Rich’s was the first department store in the world to be air conditioned, which made many a Southern shopper happy in the mid-20s when it was installed.
Anecdotes throughout Dear Store are a testament to not only the business savvy of the Riches (Morris, his brothers, and their sons and grandsons who took over), but more importantly their graciousness to their customers and the entire city of Atlanta. Countless millions of dollars were donated by the Riches to Emory, Georgia Tech, Grady Hospital, 4-H clubs, churches, veterans…the list goes on and on. In regards to accepting cotton as store currency in 1931, Walter Rich (Morris’s nephew) is quoted in Dear Store as saying the following:
“You know Atlanta and Rich’s are so bound together, so united, so part and parcel of my mental picture that it is very nearly impossible for me to regard one without the other. All my life I have been a part of Rich’s, and all my life Rich’s has been bone and sinew of the civic and economic life of Atlanta. Today, as always, with me the two are merged. We of Rich’s simply regard this merchandise-for-cotton plan as our bit in the present difficulty. If it is as helpful as we are certain it will be, this Southern institution will proudly add another service stripe to those we’ve earned previously in our sixty-four years of campaigning as good soldiers in the cause of Atlanta, Georgia and the entire South.”
When Walter Rich died in 1947, his Rich’s employees published an “In Memoriam” booklet in which the following was shared:
“Mr. Walter was a genius in sensing the trend of the market and the wishes of his customers. But his was an even greater gift for getting along with people. He loved people, and he especially loved those at Rich’s, four thousand strong in 1947. He was our staunch friend (and sometimes severest critic). To us he was simply ‘Mr. Walter’. We depended on him for help in our troubles, for inspiration, for guidance. We went to his office at any time of day, to ask his advice or help. We were never made to wait; we were never turned away. He set standards for his personnel that were sometimes hard to live up to. But he provided us with every convenience, every comfort, every measure for our security. Our well-being was always his first concern.”
How often can that be said of a boss lording over 4,000 employees? Most CEOs in 2012 could take a page from this 1947 tribute, I believe.
The fond memories of Rich’s I’ve learned about from Dear Store and the nearly 2,000 members of the “Remembering Rich’s” Facebook page are both legendary and mythical: the Pink Pig ride on the roof of the downtown Rich’s (it’s still in operation every Christmas season at Macy’s Lenox Square!); the coconut cake, chicken salad, etc. from the Magnolia Room of the store; Hollywood celebrities like Billie Burke, Gloria Swanson, and Liz Taylor visiting the store for special appearances; an annual, joint birthday party for those turning 80+, complete with Confederate bunting and “Dixie” being played; fashion shows staged at the Fox by longtime Rich’s fashion director Sol Kent and featuring designers such as Bill Blass in person; Nathalie Dupree’s cooking shows and classes; and–last but not least–the Rich’s Great Tree which was ceremoniously lit every Thanksgiving night downtown, complete with choirs singing on the four levels of the Crystal Bridge above Forsyth Street. Arguably the fondest of all the memories, Celestine Sibley actually used that scene on the dust jacket cover of Dear Store:
Macy’s, in the former Rich’s at Lenox Square, still has a Great Tree lighting on Thanksgiving night, complete with a celebrity concert each year. But obviously the spectacle lacks the character and, well, quaintness of the choirs singing on multi-coloured, stained glass levels above an otherwise pitch black Forsyth Street. (The City of Atlanta would cut all the Forsyth Street street lights off for the 30-minute duration of the downtown ceremony back in the day…how cool is that?) Much like the memories of the mesmerizing tree lighting and heavenly coconut cake, Rich’s itself now seems like only a Faulkner-esque, Southern myth. Did people really used to get that dressed up to go downtown and shop, dine, and trade cotton for merchandise at the newly air-conditioned Rich’s? Indeed they did, at that dear store that so many customers loved. The rich memories of the generosity of the Riches and the grandness of Rich’s will live on for a long time to come in the hearts of the Southerners who are fortunate enough to remember shopping, working, dining, and meeting up there.
Finally, a non-paid advert for a *new book* on Rich’s which comes out this week…author Jeff Clemmons is a member of the “Remembering Rich’s” Facebook group and recently posted this digital flyer for his book signing at the Bremen Museum of Jewish Heritage in Atlanta later this month. If anyone in Atlanta is able to attend, I’m sure a great time will be had by all. And there’ll be coconut cake!
Hope all my readers are having a splendid August! Remember to take the time every day to be thankful for the simple things in life (like air conditioning and coconut cake, for starters), and treasure the unique memories you’ve accumulated during your lifetime. Our sharing of the vast and varied human experience amongst ourselves is what unites us all together in the end.