New Rich’s book portrays store’s special relationship with Atlanta

By Maria Saporta

Mention the simple word — Rich’s — and a flood of memories and emotions pour out.

That’s what happened Sunday afternoon at the Breman Museum in Midtown Atlanta at the launch of a new book — Rich’s: A Southern Institution — written by Jeff Clemmons and published by the History Press.

It was my pleasure to interview Clemmons and invite the audience to participate.

Book cover of “Rich’s: A Southern Institution.”

More than 250 people showed up to the museum Sunday to travel back to a simpler time when a department store was part of the fabric of the community and an integral part of our city’s soul.

Actually, it was journalist Celestine Sibley who captured the heart and soul of what Rich’s meant to Atlanta and its citizens.

Sibley’s book — Dear Store: An Affectionate Portrait of Rich’s — was full of stories of how Rich’s endeared itself to the community.

During the depression in the 1930s, Walter Rich read in the newspaper that the City of Atlanta “was too broke” to pay its school teachers. Walter Rich called the mayor, suggesting the teachers be paid in scrip. Rich’s would then cash the full value of the scrip without requiring them to shop at the store.

It was all part of Rich’s nine guidelines for how to run its business:

1. The customer is always right;

2. The customer makes her own adjustment;

3. Quality for quality, Rich’s will never be undersold;

4. Rich’s creates low prices;

5. Liberal credit;

6. Rich’s, the one-stop store;

7. Rich’s: community shopping center;

8. Atlanta born, Atlanta owned, Atlanta managed; and

9: A Southern institution since 1867.

Famous Rich’s clock at the main downtown store

Rich’s principles helped build customer loyalty. But that was only part of Rich’s legacy. The Pink Pig. The Great Tree Lighting Ceremony. The Rich’s clock. The Harvest Sale. The Magnolia Room. Rich’s Bake Shop (and coconut cake). Penelope Penn. Rich Bits. The Rich Foundation (which is the only entity that retains the Rich’s name today). Fashionata. The list goes on and on and on.

While Sibley conveyed depth of the emotional ties between Atlanta and Rich’s, Clemmons provides the nuts and bolts of the colorful department store’s history — presenting a rather complete treatment of the Atlanta Sit Ins when students from the Atlanta University complex sought to fully integrate the store in the early 1960s.

The new book details the role that Rich’s and the sit-ins played in helping get John F. Kennedy elected president in 1960s.

But it was the personal touches that set Rich’s apart.

Rich’s Great Tree rested atop the multi-story bridge over Forsyth Street became one of Atlanta’s greatest holiday traditions

An elderly gentleman at Sunday’s event recalled having bought an expensive $300 suit at Rich’s for a special occasion, but he realized that he didn’t like wearing the suit. A year later, while shopping at Rich’s, he mentioned his disappointment to a salesman. Rich’s ended up taking back the suit and refunding the money. Yet Rich’s ultimately won because the gentleman ended up spending his refund on two other suits.

Rich’s had a team of people who would keep up with birthdays and anniversaries of customers, and they would give a reminder call to see if a husband wanted to buy his wife a gift.

Both books provide the family tree of the Rich family — a store started by Hungarian Jewish immigrant Morris Rich with the help of his brothers. Multiple generations followed — and the Rich family members and close associates were leaders in the city’s close-knit power structure.

Rich’s remained a local institution until 1976 when it was acquired by Cincinnati-based Federated Department Stores. For several years, Federated kept most of Rich’s traditions in tact.

But as Federated ended up facing its own business challenges — eventually filing for bankruptcy protection in January, 1990 — the special relationship that Rich’s had with the community and its customers began to disappear.

Rich’s iconic downtown store in Atlanta has now become part of the Sam Nunn federal complex

Then on April 18, 1991, the company announced that the iconic downtown Rich’s store — a fixture in that location since 1924 — would be closed. The physical heart of Rich’s in Atlanta would become history.

After that, the downward spiral continued. More national mergers in the department store industry led to longtime competitor — Macy’s — and Rich’s being owned by the same parent. For a few years, the Atlanta stores were branded as Rich’s-Macy’s stores.

And then in January, 2005, Federated announced that it was dropping the Rich’s name from its stores — solidly making Macy’s the surviving brand.

“By March 6, Rich’s was history; the day before had been the last day of its existence,” Clemmons wrote in his book. “The store that Morris Rich had started in the aftermath of the American Civil War in Atlanta was less than three months shy of celebrating its 138th birthday. The store that had blossomed into a southern institution was no more.”

Without a doubt, when Rich’s disappeared from the Atlanta landscape — Atlanta lost a piece of its heart and soul.

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6 comments
T Young
T Young

My mom worked and dad met there as a waitress and busboy in the late 60's. Then my mom continued in the tea room, then bakery, to the Cookie Corner, BBQ Corner and even Baskin Robbns in Richs. I lived going to see her at work. We miss it so much!

Pleasant memories
Pleasant memories

In the mid 1960s. My grandfather worked in the parking garage of the downtown store. One December he worked as Santa. My parents took my brother and sisters to see him and sit on his lap. We were amazed that Santa knew so much about us. As a result I believed in Santa much longer than most children. ( And still do for that matter. ) I did not know until I was an adult that it was in it was my Grandfather.

John Wolfinger
John Wolfinger

I spent the bulk of my retail career in the downtown Rich's building -  working both for the department store itself (2nd floor SFH linens) and then for many years at the Richway offices which were also in that building (4th floor SFH).  Those were the best years of my working life, and I still miss riding the bus to downtown from VaHi.

Melinda K
Melinda K

My grandmother used to take me to the Magnolia Room for lunch.  It was a big deal - we would get all dressed up and go downtown to Rich's.  This was in the late 60s/early 70s.  It is one of my fondest memories.

Rob Augustine
Rob Augustine

Richs' was just fantastic. I went to high school in downtown Atlanta (St. Joseph's), and Rich's was a huge part of our lives downtown. Thanks for bringing this book to our attention as it will be a wonderful reminder of what once was. Unfortunately, our school closed in 1977 some years before Rich's. So for both institutions all we have left are written and digital memories. But they hold a special place in our hearts and minds as we remember what downtown Atlanta once was and what we hope it will become yet again.