Shop ‘til you drop!

By ELIJAH JONES,

Everybody, it seems, is shopping online these days.  Americans spent a record $9.4 billion dollars on this year's Cyber Monday. 

Hey, who needs to drive to the mall when you can click on Amazon, find and buy whatever you need, then have it delivered to your front door? I'm even seeing commercials for one company that sells cars online.  That's right, cars!

I was late to the party, when it came to getting my driver's license.  Most of my high school classmates were already driving, or had cars of their own, when I attended Blair High School (Hattiesburg High).  Me?  I was still on foot or using public transit to get around town.  Thankfully, in the old days, when it came to Christmas shopping, just about everything we needed could be found downtown.  The days long before Hattiesburg got its very first enclosed shopping center, Cloverleaf Mall, on Broadway Drive.

When it opened in 1974, many local retailers moved to Cloverleaf Mall, while maintaining their historic stores downtown.  A partial list includes names you locals will remember: Smart Shoe Store, The Vogue (my mother's favorite), Mississippi Britches and, of course, Hattiesburg's premier locally-owned department stores, Fine-Bros. Matison and the iconic Waldoff's.  Those stores, and others, kept their downtown locations, for as long as they could.  

When the mall opened, national chain-stores had begun to proliferate in Hattiesburg.  With Christmas upon us, I'm thinking about those times, before I could drive, when I would visit many of the new stores, getting there by bus, or on foot.  While reminiscing, it dawned on me, most of our original big-box chains are gone.  But, I'm wondering, how many of my fellow old-timers remember some of them?  Join me on this trip down Hattiesburg's shopping-memories lane.  (Bear with me, it gets a little tricky.)

Before Walmart Supercenters, the Kroger supermarket chain took a stab at combining groceries with a discount department store.  Kroger Family Center was located on Broadway Drive, now home to Salvage World, just behind Dean McCrary Kia.  My mother shopped at Kroger sometimes.  But she never liked the idea of having groceries and clothing sold under the same roof.  (Good thing Walmart didn't listen to her.)  After Kroger closed, the building took on a couple of other incarnations, including a Fred's discount store, Delchamp's supermarket and, before it became Salvage World, you'll remember it as Dirt Cheap.

Still on Broadway Drive, across from Cloverleaf Mall, who remembers Grant's department store?  There was also a Big Star supermarket located in what was then called Grant's Plaza.  After the Grant's chain went belly-up, the building became home to K-Mart, which later moved to a new from-the-ground-up location, on the U.S. 98/Hardy St. retail corridor.  

The new K-Mart Supercenter, not able to withstand the challenge of Walmart's own Supercenter, lasted a few years before the building became home to a Gander Mountain sporting goods store.  After they closed, today's MisKelly Furniture and a Treasure Hunt store moved in.  Confused yet?  (I told you it would get tricky.) But wait, there's more.

Westwood Square, across U.S. 98 from MisKelley's , wasn't always home to Winn-Dixie.  It started out as an oddly-named store, Aim For The Best.  (Remember them?)  They were part of the long-gone TG&Y family of discount stores.  There was also a K&B drugs, now home to Harbor Freight. 

Who doesn't remember our area's former discount store icon, Gibson's, on Pine Street?  There was a Sunflower supermarket next door.  A question for you: who briefly occupied the spot after Gibson's closed?  If you'll recall, JCPenney was one of the last big retailers to keep its home in downtown Hattiesburg.  Long before the business explosion on U.S. 98, Hattiesburg's retail market had begun moving south, along Broadway Drive, before shifting west.  In preparation for its move to what would be the expanded Cloverleaf Mall, JCPenney temporarily occupied the old Gibson's store.  Wait, I'm not finished.

Strickland's Furniture has been at its present location, U.S. 49 and the Hwy. 11 bypass, for decades.  But can you remember who was there first?  (This may be a tough one.)  Got it yet? It was home to a Howard Bros. Discount store. (Whatever happened to that chain?)

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the discount store where I was hired for my very first hourly job, another one everyone remembers, Rose's department store.  Rose's anchored what was then called University Mall.  There was also an A&P supermarket, K&B drugs and Wilson's, later to be known as Service Merchandise.  Baskin-Robbins ice cream has survived as the center's lone original tenant. University was a strip shopping center, but the first in Hattiesburg to use "Mall" in its name, even before Cloverleaf Mall.    After Rose's, the location became home to a store bearing the Hudson family name and, later, was home to a Dirt Cheap closeout store.  I'm sure you'll agree, Hattiesburg's retail history wouldn't be complete without bringing Hudson's into the mix.  Back in the day, Hudson't Mercantile, a collection of stores, bearing the Hudson name, served as "downtown" for the Palmer's Crossing community.  I remember many a Saturday afternoon visit with my family to "Palmer's," exploring the Hudson stores.  Always an adventure, you never knew what you might find. 

University Mall has undergone a major facelift, going all upscale on us.  The center added what is now Corner Market's flagship store, a Starbuck's Coffee, along with new, upscale restaurants.  Those impressive upgrades brought on a name change, as today's Midtown Market became Hattiesburg's premier shopping center, east of I-59.

Now, let's see how many remember this one.  Way back in the day, at U.S. 49 & I-59, where Cracker Barrel is located, there were grand plans for the site.  Hattiesburg's retail market would attempt a northward push.  It all began with a spanking new Woolco Department Store.  

We oldsters will remember Woolco as the big-box offshoot of the F.W. Woolworth chain of five-and-dime stores.  Their downtown store was a staple for buying gifts for the classmate's whose name I'd pull at Christmas, when I was in grade school at Eureka Elementary School.  (Did your grade school practice that tradition?)    

Back at Woolco on U.S. 49, the store had a supermarket partner, Delchamp's. The two stores were the beginning elements of what was to be Hattiesburg's next great shopping center, Broadacres Mall.  The former multi-screen Broadacres Cinema, now home to Word of Faith Christian Center, would be joined by a big-name retailer.  

Broadacres Mall would be home to a new Gayfer's department store.  The Mobile, Alabama-based retailer had stores in Jackson, at Jackson Mall, as well as the Gulf Coast's Edgewater Plaza.  (Now called Edgewater Mall.)

Allow me this little aside to the story.  When I was a teenager, I loved visiting Gayfer's Mississippi stores and was "jealous" Hattiesburg didn't have one.  I actually wrote Gayfer's home office in Mobile, asking them to please build a Gayfer's in Hattiesburg.  I was so excited (we're talking the 1970's) when I read Gayfer's would indeed be locating a store in Hattiesburg, thinking I may have had something to do with it.  (Probably not the case but, hey, let me have that one, okay?)  

I don't know the details but, sadly, Broadacres never became the premier shopping center planned for the site.  Our new Gayfer's store never materialized.  It wasn't until 1995 and the opening of Turtle Creek Mall, Hattiesburg got its first Gayfer's.  The chain was one of the  gulf south's classic retailers and, I'm betting, many of us still miss them.

Gayfer's disappearance was no fault of ours, gobbled up by the Profitt's chain, which also took ownership of Mississippi's own Jackson-based upscale retailer, McRae's.  Profitt's owned another high-end deep-south chain, Parisian.  They've all vanished from the retail scene, as the former Gayer's store now bears the Belk nameplate.  I'll remind you, it's not the first time the Belk name has been part of the Hattiesburg retail landscape.  50 years ago, there was Belk-Whitley on Pine Street in downtown Hattiesburg, a mid-range department store, like JCPenney.  In Hattiesburg, Belk-Whitley was best-known as the go-to place for purchasing Boy Scouts uniforms.  

Whew, my head is spinning!  Lots of shopping memories there, right?  I should add, I'm one of those old-school shoppers, still preferring brick-and-mortar retail over shopping online.  And, I know, the future is catching up with me.  When it comes to retail, online companies, like Amazon, are wreaking havoc on in-store sales.  Could it be we're witnessing the slow-motion end of brick-and-mortar stores?  

Oh, I understand, people like the convenience of ordering what they need from their PC's, laptops and smartphones.  (Just watch out for those thieving porch pirates, once your order arrives.)

As for me, convenience will never replace the fun of going to the mall.  Okay, it may take a minute-or-two to find a parking space, but I get just as frustrated wrestling with a keyboard and those ubiquitous passwords.  The reward is, I get to see and touch what I buy, before making a purchase.  I also enjoy the intimacy of talking to a salesperson or running into a friend I may not have seen in a while. 

Online shopping and smartphones.  They're eliminating the pleasure of one-on-one human contact.  Like the kind you used to get when running into someone you knew, while selecting that new outfit at Waldoff's, downtown on Pine Street.

MERRY CHRISTMAS, Y'ALL!  And once you find that parking space, do say hello when you run into me at the mall.

Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of the Hattiesburg Public School System and the University of Southern Mississippi. Send him an email at: djhubtown@aol.com