Christmas shopping in downtown Wilmington through the decades

Christmas is the stuff of which core memories are made.

Mine include a Christmas shopping trip with my mom to the Belk-Beery department store, back when it was in downtown Wilmington, with the entrance at Second and Chestnut streets. The toy department was downstairs, as I recall, and it must’ve been Christmas of 1977 or ’78, which was right before the store closed in 1979 and moved to the then-new Independence Mall. (I’d later go on to form more core memories in the old Belk-Beery building after it was transformed into the main branch of the New Hanover County Library in 1981.)

These days, of course, there’s no shortage of places to shop for Christmas presents in the Wilmington area. (If you still choose to do your shopping in-store, that is, as opposed to online.) From Mayfaire to College Road to Monkey Junction to Hanover Center, which has “only” been around since 1956, the options are plentiful.

Christmas decorations in downtown Wilmington, 1960s. Taken from Front Street at Chestnut Street looking north.

Up until the latter part of the 20th century, however, if you lived in Wilmington, Christmas shopping almost certainly meant a trip downtown.

“It was the place. It was where everyone went,” said Gene Merritt, a lifelong Wilmingtonian who graduated from New Hanover High School in 1962. “Those (other) options weren’t available then. All the shopping was done downtown.”

And back then, when they went out to shop, people dressed up, Merritt said: “My mother never went shopping anywhere without gloves, high heels and a hat.”

Wilmington's first Belk store opened as Belk Williams in 1915 at 210 N. Front St. It's pictured here in 1940.

For most of the 20th century, multiple department stores were located downtown. In addition to Belk’s, which started on North Front Street as Belk-Williams in 1915, there was also Efird’s on North Front Street from 1921 to 1975, as well as J.C. Penney and Sears on the 200 block of North Front.

In “Wilmington: Lost But Not Forgotten,” Wilmington historian Beverly Tetterton notes that, “At the time, shoppers still lived within walking distance of downtown. Teenage girls were known to shop (at Belk’s) every day after school.”

Tetterton notes that Efird’s began in 1910 as Einstein Bros., which sold both foreign and domestic dry goods “and were famous for their large selection of toys imported from Germany.”

In this 1956 photo, to the right of the old Bijou movie theater on the 200 block of North Front Street was a J.C. Penney location.

There were “five-and-dime” stores like Woolworth’s, which, from 1915 through the 1970s, was in the North Front Street building where Front Street Centre is now. Kress, later Buy-Rite, was on the ground floor of the Masonic Temple building from 1901 until Buy-Rite closed in 1989.

Merritt said many stores would up their game for the Christmas shopping crowds by installing elaborate window displays.

In this undated photo taken on the 200 block of North Front Street looking north to Grace, you can see signs for both Sears (to the left) and Efird's department stores.

“Everyone decorated their windows,” Merritt said. “That was a big deal.”

The Christmas window display at Belk’s was especially elaborate, said Wilmington historian and author Elaine Henson, a 1963 graduate of New Hanover High School.

“Belk’s display was magical,” Henson said, calling it “Disney-like. It was mechanical, the characters would move.”

Display window of the Belk-Beery department store in downtown Wilmington decorated for Christmas in 1960.

Families would make special trips downtown just to see it, and “you would get out of the car and push your face up to the glass,” Henson said.

Henson also confirms my admittedly gauzy memory of the toy department at Belk’s being downstairs.

“Most of the toys were in Belk’s basement,” she said. “They called it Toyland. During (most of) the year, that was the bargain basement. They didn’t have so many toys during the year, but during Christmas time they did.”

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