A legend lives forever, but not so famous stores. Yet for those of us once spellbound by Rich’s, memories endure through corporate takeovers, Macy’s hyphenations, broken promises to not drop the Rich’s name, and finally, the demolition of the physical
building. More than a store, Rich’s was a magical experience, one never duplicated, even by today’s flashiest marketing campaigns.
Like many mid-century American cities, Atlanta boasted one department store that evoked elegance, style and sophistication. RICH’S – the very name, conjured a treasure palace 20 minutes north, up Interstate 85 from Forest Park, my provincial suburb. As a child in the 60’s, Rich’s, with its signature green swooping letter “R’s” and neon in-store signs, was the Emerald City.
I didn’t know about Morris Rich, a Yankee from Cleveland who borrowed $500 to open a dry goods store here in 1867 that would move to Alabama/Whitehall Streets in 1924, and from the 40’s through the 70’s, become as iconic to us as the Empire State Building.
I didn’t know of Rich’s humanitarian acts, unimaginable in corporate America today.
- 1914: Cotton prices plummeted, crippling Georgia farmers. Rich’s accepted cotton bales as payment for merchandise, at a great financial loss.
- 1930’s: In the Depression when Atlanta was unable to pay teachers’ salaries, Rich’s agreed to cash worthless checks until city government could reimbursement them.
That was long before my time.
My own experiences begin and end on the roof of that five story building, with a succession of milestone moments in the Store for Fashion, the Store for Homes and the “Crystal Bridge” that connected them. Below is my earliest, though hazy, as a six year old.
WHEN PIGS FLY
The night before we go to Christmas shop at Rich’s, I’m so thrilled, my head burns and I’m shivering. But I don’t say anything about that.
I wake up. White crescent moons curve the edges of my window. Snow, I wish, but it’s only frost. I’m not hungry. My stomach flips. I pretend to eat, but hide eggs under a spoon.
I get to dress up. My petticoat itches under my plaid silk dress with the back sash that always comes untied, but it’s okay.
Outside, the grass is crunchy cold. I see my breath and pretend to smoke like Mommy and her friends. I’m warm in my red coat and stretchy wool hat ties under my chin with a back cutout part for my ponytail. My bare legs are cold, but I love my new black patent leather shoes and lacy white ankle socks.
We drive toward to the tallest Christmas tree in the world, on top of Rich’s crystal bridge. How did it get there? It’s not lit up in daytime, but huge decorations sparkle in the sun like jewelry.
We eat lunch in the Magnolia Room, with a white tablecloth, near a man playing a grand piano. I’m not hungry, but boiled custard is cold and good. Models float around the tables, holding cards that say Regency Room and what the dresses are.
“Mrs. Lee!” A model in a blue wool suit speaks to Mommy. “My favorite English teacher. Remember, me, Barbara? I majored in English at the University, all because of you.”
“Barbara?” Mommy says. “The shy girl in saddle oxfords and bobby socks, always on the front row? What a transformation.”
She smiles, smoothing the side of her blonde French Twist under a round hat tilted to the side. An Emerald shaped diamond ring glitters on her hand.
“And is this Georgia?” She looks at me with eyes the same blue as her outfit. “I babysat you when you were little. I called you Miss Priss – you always wanted to play dress up. I’d bring clothes and ballet shoes and my majorette baton. We pretended it was a magic wand. Do you remember that?”
“Yes m’am,” I whisper, but I don’t really. I look down at my plate, scared to talk to a real model. She talks to Mommy.
“Well, congratulations. “Y’all are such a good looking couple.”
“You’ll get an invitation soon. It’s a Valentine’s wedding,” she says.
After lunch, we weave through so many people, to ride up to the roof. We wait in line so long I might faint. But finally we’re inside Pricilla the Pink Pig train that hangs from a rail. Bright pink, with big blue eyes and red lipstick, it glides us through the “Wonderland of Toys” that looks like Santa Claus’ workshop.
Everywhere I look – Kewpies Dolls, model airplanes, Raggedy Ann and Andy, G.I. Joes and Yankee/Rebel soldiers. All the stuff they show on T.V. commercials from the Popeye Club. My best friend Susie wants an Easy Bake Oven, for us to cook stuff, but cooking’s no fun and the thought of food makes me sick. She wants a Betsy-Wetsy doll too, but to me, feeding, burping and cleaning wet diapers is just yucky.
Finally, we get to the best – the Barbies. Tall, perfect Barbie, her long blonde hair, pointy eyelashes, tippy toe feet, and so many outfits – Stewardess Barbie, Tennis Barbie and my favorite – a red velvet strapless dress with a long white shiny skirt.
“When I grow up, I want to be Barbie, a movie star a bride or a nurse or waitress – just to dress up in pretty dresses or uniforms,” I say.
“Nurse might be the best,” she says. “Or a teacher. But then you wouldn’t have a uniform.”
We don’t buy anything that day, except a coconut cake from the bakery. Presents wait – surprises, from Santa Claus.
It’s almost dark when we drive away. I’m tired, but up on my knees in the front seat of our white Impala, looking back as the giant Christmas tree lights up the city sky. My eyes water, as it shrinks and disappears. I felt good in Rich’s, on the Pink Pig but now my head hurts worse, so I lie down in Mommy’s lap and sleep so hard.
Then I’m back in a Pink Pig, but this one is flying so fast, screaming loud noise and flashing lights that hurt. And we’re heading into town, because I see the Christmas tree.
I wake up in a place I don’t know, like my head has a knife through it – that bad. A white dress nurse with a pointy hat stands over me with my Daddy. Mommy is smoking and talking to a white coat doctor, at the door.
I throw up in a pan off the side of a bedrail, then fall back and close my eyes. They think I’m asleep but I’m awake and I hear “Sleeping sickness.” Something like “Mengitis” or “Inslitis” I think they say I might die.
I sleep and sleep, but sometimes at night, I wake up and see the Rich’s Christmas tree outside my window. I make wishes to not die and go home.
Days and days go by, bad, especially the shots in my back, when they send my parents out of the room.
But one day, I wake up. My head’s better, but bright lights swim around and stuff in the room has colored circles.
Through the window, the Rich’s Christmas tree limbs blow like arms waving hello. .
Mommy sits on my bed.
“Hey sleepyhead,” she says. “It’s Christmas Day.”
“It is?” I never knew what days were. Christmas? If they make parents leave, Santa would never come here.
“You have a visitor,” she says, nodding toward the door.
I don’t believe it. I must be sleeping still and dreaming. An angel walks into my room, in a bride dress. Blonde hair falls over her white shoulders.
“Who do you think I am, Miss Priss?”
She smiles her blue eyes.
“I have some things for you,” she says.
She leans over me and pins something on my hospital gown. She pulls it up so I can read it. “Graduation Day – and the name of the Hospital.”
“You’ve graduated,” Mommy says. “We’re going home tomorrow.”
“I have another one,” Bride Barbie says.
She clips a pin on the other side, twice as big as the other one, her diamond ring sparkling.
“Your Mom said you forgot this at Rich’s. Everybody gets one.”
“I RODE THE PINK PIG” the big pin says.
“You deserve it honey,” Mommy says. “You’ve had a wild ride. Santa couldn’t come to the hospital, but he came to the house last night.”
“Do you think he left Barbies?”
“Is that what you want most,” Bride Barbie says.
“Yes,” I say. “But not a Nurse Barbie, if they have those.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” Mommy says. “We’ve seen enough nurses.”
And I don’t want to be one when I grow up anymore, I think, even with the uniform.
“Oh, I forgot.” Bride Barbie says. “I have one more little gift for you.”
She holds a green envelope, sealed in a gold wax circle with “R.” on it. “I’ll open it for you,”
It’s a card with a picture of the Rich’s Christmas tree and Priscilla the Pink Pig.
It says: “Georgia – Get well soon. Love, Priscilla, and you’re your friends at Rich’s, Merry Christmas!” Signed, in real handwriting:
Richard H. Rich, President, Rich’s Department stores.