Julius Lewis wasn’t the founder of the department store that Memphians remember fondly.
That credit goes to Moses Lewis, born in Germany in 1850, who journeyed to Memphis and opened a one-room dry-goods store on North Main Street. Around 1900, he moved to a much busier part of town — Beale Street — where he opened the curiously named New York Bankrupt Store.
It’s hard to believe such a business would survive. Who would admit to their friends their clothes came from the New York Bankrupt Store? So patrons began to call it simply Lewis’ and — as Moses’ children got involved — the name changed to Lewis & Sons.
Moses Lewis passed away in 1924, and those two sons, Julius and Samuel, kept the business humming for another decade, when the elder son took over the firm and moved it back to Main Street, into a much larger store at 145 South Main. That store, along with the other department stores nearby, made Main Street the place to be — and shop — in the 1940s.
But it was the 1950s that saw the Lewis brand move into new territory.
On March 12, 1951, Julius Lewis handed his 9-year-old granddaughter, Judith Brenner, a solid-gold key encrusted with diamonds to unlock the doors to the brand-new Julius Lewis store at 1460 Union. Reporters and dignitaries were enthralled by the building, with the Memphis Press-Scimitar calling it “truly a beautiful store, the very last word in modern design.”
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.”
Although the store appeared to be just one story, a mezzanine level inside held more departments, a spacious lounge, tailor shops, alteration rooms, and a beauty salon.
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.”
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 in Eastgate Shopping Center.
But then something happened — the same fate that affected other family-owned “big name” stores in Memphis. Shoppers wanted something new, perhaps drawn away by the sprawling shopping malls. Goldsmith’s, Lowenstein’s, Bry’s, Gerber — struggled to survive and, one by one, they failed and closed.
Julius Lewis shuttered its Main Street store and rented space at Eastgate to other businesses (including a Quality Stamp redemption center). When 1983 headlines announced, “Julius Lewis Seeks Help From Bankruptcy Court,” even the die-hard customers realized the end was near. New owners, including family members, tried to keep the company alive, but it was too late.
Julius Lewis finally closed its beautiful store on Union, the one our own mayor couldn’t believe was in Memphis. The building has survived, its striking exterior relatively unchanged, but it’s now home to OfficeMax.