This afternoon my wife Maggie and I attended a lecture and discussion on the history of Rich’s department stores by Smyrna resident Jeff Clemmons, author of a new book, “Rich’s: A Southern Institution.”
The event took place at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Midtown.
Rich’s was founded in 1867 by Morris Rich, a Hungarian Jewish immigrant who had moved to Atlanta from Cleveland, Ohio. He borrowed $500 from his brother William and opened a dry goods store downtown, and it later became a department store. Brothers Emanuel and Daniel also joined the business as it grew.
In a program moderated by the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Maria Saporta, Clemmons answered questions and talked about the book, published Aug. 7, and the history of Rich’s.
He had been writing articles about historic Atlanta buildings for Wikipedia when he got an email from publisher The History Press, which asked him if he was interested in writing a book about the department store. Though he was reared in Atlanta and even gives walking tours of the Midtown and SoNo (south of North Avenue) districts for the Atlanta Preservation Center, Clemmons had little experience with Rich’s.
“I had never done those things growing up,” he said of riding the Pink Pig and going to see the lighting of the Big Tree at Christmas.
Clemmons, 39, wrote the book in a year and a half, beginning in October 2010. He spent about nine months on research.
In a program moderated by the Atlanta Business Chronicle’s Maria Saporta, Clemmons answered questions and talked about the book and the history of Rich’s.
Saporta: “How did you tackle it?”
Clemmons: “It was overwhelming. I had to cut it down [from 1,000 pages] to get it to print. I went through the Rich’s papers at Emory University [in DeKalb County], through the papers at the Atlanta History Center [in Buckhead] and contacted the Rich Foundation.”
He also got help from the foundation’s Anne Berg, who gave Clemmons a unique introduction.
“She said, ‘I’ve got Walter Rich in the car and I want you to meet him,’” he said of the former Rich’s president, who died in 1947. “I thought she might have the urn with his ashes in it in the car. It was a portrait of Walter Rich.”
Two other books on Rich’s have been published: “Dear Store: An Affectionate Portrait of Rich’s” by Celestine Sibley in 1990 and “Rich’s of Atlanta: The Story of a Store since 1867” by Henry Givens Baker in 1953.
Clemmons also talked about other Rich’s traditions, including Penelope Penn, and the book delves into all of them.
In 1976 Rich’s was sold to Federated Department Stores. It was merged with New York-based R.H. Macy and Co., owner of Macy’s department stores, in 1994. Nine years later the two stores were integrated under the name Rich’s-Macy’s and in 2005 the company dropped “Rich’s” from the name.
Saporta: “It’s very interesting story. … Had Martin Luther King Jr., Lonnie King [and others] had not started to protest at Rich’s [in 1960], there would be no JFK as president. It started with the four students in North Carolina protesting at a Woolworth store.” She was referring to African Americans boycotting Rich’s for not serving them.
Said Clemmons, “Rich’s actually was the cause [of protests] in Knoxville, [Tenn.] before it happened in Atlanta. I talked to a lot of black patrons [for the Atlanta Rich’s stores] who said they were actually allowed to try on clothing and in the same section where white people could. During the protest, [then-president] Dick Rich was afraid the store would lose its white customer base.”
Clemmons also said the boycott ended in August 1961.
After the discussion, attendees, some of whom were former Rich’s employees, were asked to share their stories about the department store.
Some of them were wonderful. The museum even had a video booth set up for those who wanted to record their memories.
My memories of Rich’s are limited to Christmas, when I would always go to the Lenox or Cumberland mall locations to buy gifts for my family. I don’t recall going to the downtown store but I’m sure my mother, Lee, has stories to tell. I do remember the staff at Rich's always being nice and helpful.
My wife Maggie, who grew up in Buckhead, has many more memories of Rich’s. She recalled going to the downtown store to shop with her mother, Helen. She also recalled the Lenox location, which at one time had a grocery store on the basement level. Maggie and her mom would often end their shopping excursions by getting groceries before heading home.
What are your fondest Rich’s memories? I'm sure you have better ones than I do.
We welcome your comments.