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Elizabeth Cook: Everyone shopped downtown

Remember Casper’s Shoes? And Zimmerman’s?

Thinking about all the development about to happen in downtown Salisbury made me think of what the downtown was like when we moved here in 1977 as newlyweds.

Salisbury Mall was not on the drawing board yet. Concord had Carolina Hall, Charlotte had Eastland and Greensboro had Four Seasons. But Salisbury shoppers were still going downtown.

Belk was a major tenant in the 100 block of South Main Street, where Salisbury Square Antiques operated most recently. Other department stores had come and gone; the Empire Hotel once housed a Montgomery Ward, I think. But Belk-Harry, as it was called then, was a Salisbury institution.

So was Zimmerman’s in the 100 block of North Main, where you and I and thousands of other people bought our clothes and shoes for many years. 

My first job in Salisbury was working at the Fashion Garden on the Square, where Spanky’s is now. We had just moved to town for my husband Ed’s job with Carolina Rubber Hose. The Salisbury Post didn’t have an opening, so I fell back on what had been my summer job for several years, retail.

Fashion Garden owner Sandra Grant — a great boss, by the way — decorated the store with bright yellow walls and kelly green carpet to fit the “garden” theme. She carried quality lines of ladies’ clothing.

More important, the front windows offered a great view of downtown goings-on. I got my first lessons in who’s who in Salisbury working at the Fashion Garden.

I also learned who had the best barbecue at the time — T&F, around the corner on East Council — and the best (and maybe only) battered fries — Spencer’s Chicken and Oyster Shack. And Bill’s Bakery sold burgers on the only square burger buns I had ever seen, as delicious as they were novel.

I know all this because Sandra’s husband, Cary Grant, often brought us lunch. Their younger daughter, Simone, would come in after classes got out at Salisbury High — wearing her cheerleading uniform if it was game day.

I eventually got a chance to put my journalism degree to work, first at The Daily Independent in Kannapolis, then a couple of months later at the Salisbury Post. That was May 1978.

The retail business in downtown Salisbury continued to be a lively scene. Other women’s clothing stores included Underwood’s, Purcell’s Richard Dobkins, Tobias.

Oestreicher’s was gone by then, destroyed by fire several years before, but its legend seemed to grow by the year. “One of Carolina’s Finest” had been its motto, and the store carried the best of everything, to hear people tell it. Even furs.

Shoes were plentiful, what with Ralph Baker, Casper’s and Phil’s all selling shoes. Zimmerman’s had a big shoe department, too.

The only men’s store still around in the late 1970s was Trexler’s.

It was much the same in my hometown of Fredericksburg — a large Leggett’s (the Virginia version of Belk), a good selection of women’s clothing stores and maybe one good men’s clothing store.

I guess you’d call most of these businesses mom and pop stores, but that doesn’t connote the sophistication and smarts of many downtown business owners. Or the hard work. They didn’t have someone in a far-off business headquarters to give them guidance or keep them up to date on technology. They had to figure it out themselves. Fortunately, the only IT of the day was cash registers and adding machines. (Push-button phones had made rotary dials obsolete, at least.)

Then came the malling of America, followed by the outlet craze and big box stores. Now online shopping is changing the retail landscape. Something else will follow that.

The only constant is change.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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