WILMINGTON – There were only a dozen Belk stores in existence when the North Carolina-born department store opened its 13th in Wilmington in 1915.
William Henry Belk’s soon-to-be mammoth retailer started in Monroe in 1888 with a single location known as the New York Racket. By the turn of the century, the Belk brand already had a strong reputation in the Cape Fear, despite not having a location of its own.
It had branded itself through advertising partnerships with places like Gaylord’s department store, which built a storefront on North Front Street in 1900. That store was so tied to the Belk Bros. brand it became known as the Big Racket Store, according to local historian Beverly Tetterton’s book “Wilmington: Lost But Not Forgotten.”
In one of those funny ironic twists of fate in the history books, Gaylord’s prominent three-story building would become the first Wilmington home for Belk in 1915, kicking off a century-long relationship between the retailer and the Port City, where two of its stores still anchor major shopping centers.
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In January, after a year of weathering the financial repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Belk filed for bankruptcy, putting the future of the company in question.
At the time of the filing, Belk counted nearly 300 brick-and-mortar stores across 16 states, including the two in Wilmington at Independence Mall and Mayfaire Town Center.
For now, the company has shown confidence that an increase in in-person shopping will put it back on sturdier ground in the first quarter of the year. But the crack in the facade of a beloved 133-year-old North Carolina business calls attention to the roots it put down early on in Wilmington and how its various area locations remain hugely important pieces of history defined by their ties to the Belk name.
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When Belk opened in the North Front Street location in November 1915, it did so as Belk-Williams, founded as a partnership with local businessman J.C. Williams, a common practice that saw the flourishing company share the financial investment of entering a new community.
With a local name attached its own, it gave the new store a familiar face and a local stake in its success.
On social: Want more of Wilmington’s history? Like Cape Fear Unearthed on Facebook
“Historically, Belk and companies like it let the individual stores tailor their offering to the market,” said Adam Jones, a finance and economics professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “It personalized the experience for shoppers and it gave them that connection to the area.”
The arrival of Belk as the retail industry was changing was a seismic moment for the community, immediately connecting with shoppers and leaving Belk-Williams with the confidence to buy the building in 1918.
Ads ran in the newspapers daily touting replenished stock and the latest fashions, enticing consumers to break open their wallets and purses to keep up with society.
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“I don’t think you can underestimate the impact of Belk on the economy and the whole society of Wilmington,” said Gene Merritt, the founder of DARE (Downtown Area Revitalization Effort) in the 1970’s. “You had a lot of people that worked there and a lot of people who shopped there over the years. I can’t think of any other store like it that had the same impact it had for the community.”
Within a decade, Belk-Williams was already growing beyond its space in the Gaylord building, soon expanding to the neighboring A. David Building within the same block in 1926. The two buildings were connected by a convenient but long-lost overhead bridge, according to Tetterton.
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A new name arrives
It was in its first Wilmington home that, perhaps, the defining name of Belk’s early years in the area made his introduction into the business.
W.B. Beery began climbing the local company ladder in February 1919, on a path to take over the local branch from Williams after his death in 1943.
By then, the department store business was booming and Belk-Williams needed a new home. No expense was spared in building a four-story building not too far away at the corner of Second and Chestnut streets, which opened to much fanfare in 1951.
“It was a big deal to build that building, considering the size and where it was,” Merritt said. “It was a big statement they were making.”
With Beery now at the helm, the boldly big new store also deserved a new name – Belk-Beery.
At its downtown location, the store would become the anchor – along with Sears Roebuck and JCPenney – of the first heyday of downtown shopping.
Memories persist to this day of locals and tourists walking past the big show windows that lined the store’s street-level exterior, highlighting the latest apparel and the holiday spirit every year.
“If you ask a lot of people in this community what their memory of Belk would be, it would be those Christmas windows,” Merritt said. “They were part of downtown for almost three decades.”
The Belk-Beery building was where Eddie Lawler first got hired by the business as a stock boy and part-time salesman while in high school. He would return after college and a stint in the Navy, and worked for more than 30 years in the store. He retired as a division merchandise manager overseeing four stores.
Last week: Independence Mall welcomes new stores — and more to come
Even decades later, the memories of his time with Belk linger with Lawler, who called its leader, Mr. Beery, a community-minded man.
“It was the store in Wilmington for years,” he said. “Mr. Beery was all about the community from the start. He saw the role the store played for people and the community, and he always wanted to make sure we did what we needed to do to be involved.”
Under Beery, who died in 1961, and his son, W.B. Beery Jr., the brand flourished and would end up opening locations elsewhere, in addition to their flagship Wilmington store.
A changing industry
By the late 1970’s, the retail world was once again evolving. Malls were becoming the retail hubs as urban sprawl attracted stores away from the downtown areas of America that had nurtured them and took the shopping experience to the burgeoning suburbs.
In 1979, Belk-Beery took another big swing and left its downtown perch to become, arguably, the anchor of a new endeavor known as Independence Mall.
Two years later, the New Hanover County Public Library took over its former downtown space and switched the entrance to the opposite end of the building. The library remains there to this day.
Belk-Beery’s Independence Mall location has served Wilmingtonians for more than 40 years. In its first years, it added that localized touch of Wilmington-inspired murals to its exterior, making the national brand a local business.
But that has changed over time as Belk has maintained what dominance a department store can in an increasingly digital retail space.
After the Beerys sold their portion of the company to the national Belk corporation, the area location lost their local connections. They now live under the mothership company, something that Jones said is a reality for most brick-and-mortar retailers.
“That freedom to serve the local market as an individual is disappearing,” he said. “Retailers are moving toward more standardized big box stores and looking at different strategies. Do they tailor all the stores to their communities and be more expensive, or do they standardize and recognize more efficiencies in purchasing?”
What if they left?
In 2007, Belk recognized Wilmington was a strong enough market to maintain a second store at Mayfaire Town Center.
With both local stores known simply as Belk, the company’s recent bankruptcy filing becomes even more important in understanding what its future in Wilmington could look like.
But Jones cautions that Belk’s filing is not indicative of a company looking to shave off stores.
“The bankruptcy they are going through is a financial restructuring,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the stores will close. It means that someone else will own a larger chunk of the company than they used to.”
In other words, those who invested in the company will have their stake transferred over into a piece of ownership.
Jones said there’s plenty of consumer demand in Wilmington to sustain two stores and the consumer base is only expected to expand with the forecasted population growth. But with increased competition from online retailers and more local stores, the two Wilmington Belks won’t have it as easy in the coming years.
Not to mention with new owners in the mix, changes in how the company runs could be implemented with time.
“New owners come with new or different views on how the company should operate,” he said.
For now, Jones said Wilmington’s storied history with Belk is likely to continue. But he noted an interesting question does linger – if the Belks were to close, what goes in behind them?
Wilmington has already seen that answered for Belk-Williams’ first location. The Gaylord building eventually became a Walgreens before sitting dormant and vacant for four decades. Last month, East West Partners completed an extensive renovation of the building, which is now home to Common Desk’s modern co-working office space.
Although it is still the library, the Belk-Beery building remains a vital piece of the county’s prospective Project Grace redevelopment plan, a potential project it’s been kicking around for years that would possibly tear down the building as a part of a renovation of the entire block.
Even Belk’s current Independence Mall location stands at a crossroads as malls become a thing of the past. Brookfield Properties Retail is in the middle of renovating the mall with new stores, a refreshed design and a hope the shopping experience returns to its pre-COVID-19 levels.
Jones looks to the fates of the previous Belk locations and others like it (the former HH Gregg space at Mayfaire turning into a Flip-N-Fly Trampoline Park) as examples of a market increasingly reliant on experience-based businesses over traditional shopping.
Even if in-person shopping sees a resurgence in the coming months, it will never recapture the indelible role Belk played in Wilmington for its first half century or so. Right in the heart of downtown, Belk was at the center of the conversation and on the frontline of economic momentum.
Whether it holds firm or evolves to match the times remains to be seen. But Belk’s contributions to the Wilmington community are undeniable and still live on in current shoppers and past employees.
“Some of us former employees who are now old retirees used to meet once a month to keep everyone informed,” Lawler said. “That was before COVID, of course. But it was always a family. For us and the community.”
Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or [email protected].