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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”
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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Other businesses that didn’t normally carry toys got them during the Christmas season. An automotive supply store called Western Auto, which was located at few different locations downtown between the ’50s and the ’80s, “at Christmas time they would get toys,” Henson said, “heavy machinery” toys like trucks or construction equipment.
“Another nice thing about going downtown,” Henson said, “that’s where all the restaurants were. I would go downtown and go Christmas shopping and I would just have lunch and spend the day.”
Shoppers ate at Saffo’s on Front Street, owned by Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo’s family, or at Futrell’s on Second and Princess streets, in the building where the restaurant manna is now. At a Princess Street restaurant called The Dixie − not the one that exists on Market Street, but a different Dixie − “You’d see all the lawyers and judges,” Henson said. “It was a bit more elegant.”
“Inevitably, I would run into (former Wilmington Mayor) J.E.L. Wade,” Henson said. “He was like Mr. Wilmington. He wanted to say hello to everyone but he didn’t know everybody’s name,” so he just said “Hi, Buddy” to everyone, earning the nickname J.E.L. “Hi Buddy” Wade.
If you didn’t see Wade downtown, Henson said, you’d see him playing Santa at the World’s Largest Living Christmas Tree in Hilton Park north of downtown, which was a destination for Wilmington families for decades.
By the 1950s, with the advent of Hanover Center and other suburban shopping centers, shopping began to move away from downtown. Still, downtown continued as a retail shopping destination for some time.
As late as the 1980s, those looking for a romantic gift could choose between three different jewelry stores on the first block of North Front Street: Reeds, Stanley’s and Kingoff’s.
Those looking for some holiday footwear could go to Su-Ann Shoes, located on the corner of Front and Princess streets where the Beer Barrio restaurant is now, from at least the 1950s through most of the 1990s.
You can still do all of your Christmas shopping in downtown Wilmington, of course. But these days it’d be at specialty stores and boutiques, rather than the mainstream retail outlets that once dominated downtown’s landscape.
Where they were
Downtown Wilmington’s history as a shopping and retail destination lives on, or at least the buildings do. Here’s where some of the major retailers downtown were located over the decades, with information gathered from Beverly Tetterton’s book “Wilmington: Lost But Not Forgotten.”
Location: 17-21 N. Front St. Then: From 1901 to 1973, S.H. Kress & Co. occupied the first floor. From 1976 to 1989, a Buy-Rite location operated there. Now: First floor hosts Port City Java coffee house and Port City Cheesesteak Co.
Location: Northeast corner of Second and Chestnut streets. Then: Belk-Beery occupied building from 1946 to 1979. Now: Main branch of New Hanover County Library has been there since the building was renovated in 1981.
Location: Southeast corner of Front and Grace streets. Then: The building was built in 1910 by the Einstein Bros., who were dry good merchants. In 1921, the building was purchased by Efird Department Stores, which operated it as Efird’s until the store closed in 1975. Now: Outdoor Equipped on the Front Street side, Hop Yard bottle shop on the Grace Street side. Offices on the upper floors.
Location: 110-112 N. Front St. Then: Built in 1880 as a dry goods store operated by Wilmington’s Bear Bros., the building was bought and renovated by Woolworth’s in 1915. Renovated in 1938, it remained a Woolworth’s until 1978. Now: Renovated into Front Street Centre in 1993, the building now hosts a bagel shop, the Modern Legend store and other businesses.