By JACK WEATHERLY
Neilson’s Department Store in Oxford was founded nine years before Ole Miss and 30 years before collegiate football – and, the retailer claims, before any other department store in the South.
It has been in operation since 1839, save for a few years during the Civil War after U.S. Grant burned it and the rest of the square to the ground.
Owner Will Lewis said the distinction of being first is based on a publication called the Department Store Journal, which reported that in the 1920s, after “presumably making a survey . . . of all the stores around. And we came out tops in the South, just a little bit ahead of Charleston, South Carolina and New Orleans.”
“It does give us something to hang our hat on. My father dug that up and I wish I had a copy of it.” He said he has not been able to find it on the Internet.
The store will celebrate its 175th birthday on Sept. 3, two days before Ole Miss kicks off its 2015 season at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
But despite all that tradition, the store is changing, Will Lewis said in an interview.
For one thing, the interior has a new look thanks to a $1 million makeover carried out this summer.
And for the past year, it has had a general manager, Lane Wilson, from Dallas.
The small independent has survived though its competition has obviously changed over the years.
Not too many years ago, the store had to worry about the big stores in Memphis – Lowenstein’s, Goldsmith’s, Gerber’s and so.
Then came the catalogues, only to be succeeded by the Internet, which is the biggest competition today.
But the store, rebuilt in 1895, has 17,000 square feet of sales space and takes up half of the eastern side of the square, which gives it obvious advantages. The university, in one way or another – students, faculty and others – accounts for about 50 percent of its business, Lewis said.
The store employs 34, with 10 positions full time, he said.
Lewis, 79, is the second generation of his family to run the store. His father started working for Neilson’s in 1912, ran it through the Depression and World War II, then bought out the founding family in 1967, his son said.
Now his daughter, Amanda Lewis Hyneman, is in charge, he said.
One might presume that the family is died-in-the-wool when it comes to social change. (It displays a copy of a typewritten letter from William Faulkner in 1941 defending, in his inimitable way, why he can’t send any more than $10 on his bill.)
But it has pulled its state flag off its roof and replaced it with the “magnolia flag,” which was the official state banner from 1861 until the Legislature in 1894 sanctioned the current one, which is under fire all across the state, from places and people unimaginable before the murder of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. in June by a suspect wanting to start a “race war.”
The Oxford City Council joined other cities in the state striking the colors of the state flag, which has the Confederate battle flag as its top-left corner.
Which is not to say that Neilson’s isn’t a Hotty Toddy go-to place for upscale Rebel wear.
“It’s no doubt that Ole Miss students are social and very fashion-conscious,” he said.
Oxford has been a destination city and its economy is burgeoning, he said.
A coffee shop, called The Shelter, will soon open under separate management, in what had previously been the children’s department and had also functioned as a storm shelter, he said.
The store will be open on Sundays during the fall, he said.