Our trivia expert solves local mysteries of who, what, when, where, why, and why not.
Dear Vance,My family shopped all the time at a nice store on Union called Julius Lewis. Was he a real person?— H.M., Memphis
Dear H.M.: In the early 1900s, Memphis was fortunate to have a number of high-quality department stores up and down Main Street. The best-known was the Lauderdale Emporium, offering everything from Daimler-Benz automobiles to sterling-silver Kentucky Nip pitchers, but other big names come to mind: Goldsmith’s, Lowenstein’s, John Gerber, and of course Julius Lewis. And yes, each of those was named for a real person. In the case of Julius Lewis, he gets credit for “growing the brand” and expanding his stores well beyond the downtown shopping district. But he wasn’t the founder of the store.
That credit goes to Moses Lewis, who was born in Germany in 1850. Sometime in the late 1800s, he journeyed to Memphis and opened a dry-goods store on North Main Street, close to present-day Jackson Avenue. It was a humble start; Lewis had moved into a one-room building that had originally housed a grocery. Sometime around 1900, he moved to a much busier part of town — Beale Street — where he opened a much larger store just two doors east of Main Street. Shoppers still didn’t know it was “Julius Lewis.” For most of the store’s existence on Beale Street it was called simply Lewis’. As Moses’ children grew up and got involved, the name was changed to Lewis & Sons, and they began to focus on fine clothes.
Moses Lewis passed away in 1924, and the two sons, Julius and Samuel, kept the business humming on Beale Street for another decade, when they moved back to Main Street, into a much larger store at 145 South Main (now the Majestic Grille). That store, along with the other department stores up and down the street, made Main Street the place to shop in the 1940s. But it was the 1950s that saw the Lewis brand move into new territory.
On March 12, 1951, Julius Lewis, now the president of the firm, handed his 9-year-old granddaughter, Judith Brenner, a solid-gold key encrusted with diamonds. The girl used the fancy key (it had been a surprise gift from Julius’ wife, Lena) to unlock the doors to the brand-new Julius Lewis store at 1460 Union. Reporters and dignitaries were enthralled by the new store, with the Memphis Press-Scimitar proclaiming it “truly a beautiful store, the very last word in modern design.” Calling the architecture “Swedish modern,” staff writer Mary Allie Taylor noted the crab orchard stone and ranch brick on the exterior, but saved her praise for the interior: “a sweeping panorama of gay and interesting specialty shops, each a unit in itself and yet all coordinated through skillful blending of color schemes and fixtures. Curves, angles, and straight lines have been combined with deft touches of color to create unusual effects.”
Another reporter observed that “the interior would have qualified as a major florist show,” noting “$15,000 of flowers, each display a study in beauty and originality, one of the most striking being a pixie colony with a little house, a driftwood tree, and a dozen tiny figures at play amid white orchids and hyacinths.”
Although from the outside the store appeared to be just one story, a mezzanine level inside held more departments, a spacious lounge, tailor shops, and alteration rooms. The beauty salon, “with its décor of gray, dusty rose, and sunlight yellow, is a true beauty spot of the store.”
Even Mayor Watkins Overton, who attended the grand opening, was dazzled by it all, telling the newspapers that he had to keep looking out the door “to make sure this really was in Memphis.” The authors of Memphis: An Architectural Guide, though normally not complimentary of the development along Union Avenue, admitted that the Julius Lewis store had “architectural verve.”
Adding to the appeal was a rather quirky touch: The store employed twins Mildred and Margaret Poole, who worked together in the same department. “A man who came in to exchange a tie often was confused to find the salesgirl didn’t remember him from five minutes before,” observed a reporter, “until her double walked up.” Just five years later, Julius Lewis opened another store, this one back downtown at Main and Gayoso. Though considerably smaller than the Midtown branch, the new store presented the same ultra-modern exterior that was a hallmark of the company. This came as no surprise, apparently, to newspaper reporters, who noted, “Those who know Julius Lewis know he would build a fine store, comparable to his new store at 1460 Union, which is one of the show places of Memphis.”
Jack Lewis, grandson of founder Moses, took over the company when his father, Julius, retired and continued its expansion, opening a five-story building, as modern as all the others, in Eastgate Shopping Center. A few years later, another Julius Lewis store opened in Hickory Ridge Mall.
But then something happened — the same fate that affected all the other family-owned “big name” stores in Memphis. Shoppers wanted something new, perhaps drawn away by the sprawling shopping malls. Why drive to one store, when a trip to the mall could provide every shopping experience you could ever need, complete with a food court and even a movie theater? Stores that had survived a century and more — Goldsmith’s, Lowenstein’s, Bry’s, Gerber — struggled to survive and, one by one, they closed (or in the case of Goldsmith’s, were transformed into present-day Macy’s). There were other issues, too, explains Hal Lewis, the grandson of Julius Lewis, involving complicated investments, long lease arrangements, high rent payments at the mall, and more. All of this eventually spelled doom for his family’s store.
Julius Lewis closed its doors on Main Street, rented out space in the Eastgate store to other businesses (including a Quality Stamp redemption center), and shuttered its Hickory Ridge branch. Memphians were probably stunned by the news that such a venerable institution could just fade away, but when 1983 headlines announced, “Julius Lewis Seeks Help From Bankruptcy Court,” even the most diehard customers realized the end was near. New owners, including family members and out-of-state investors, tried to keep the company alive, but it was too late. Julius Lewis finally closed its main store on Union, the one our own mayor couldn’t believe was in Memphis. The building has survived, its striking exterior relatively unchanged, but the lovely interior gutted. It’s now home to Office Max.
PHOTOS COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES
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