Saturday, September 1, 2012

Dear Store

Rogers Department Store in downtown Florence, Ala., was a household name for this area for more than a century. Opened in 1894, the store remained independently owned and operated until 1998, when it was sold to the Dunlap Co., of Texas. In 2001, Dunlap announced it would close the landmark Florence store after 108 years of operation.

Rogers Department Store standing empty in the early 2000s. A men's clothing shop has recently occupied the first floor of the building.

Early 20th century street scene, Florence, Ala., shows Rogers Department before it burned in 1910.  Photo from Florence-Lauderdale Public Library.
During my growing up years, it was the only department store of its caliber and THE shopping destination. Sure, there was a Sears and and Penny’s, and Kreisman’s had beautiful clothing, but Rogers had everything.

People remembering the store invariable mention one thing: the wonderful smell that assailed you the minute you passed through the glass doors. No one has been able to define that scent. Some say it was the expensive perfume, but I believe it was the combination of perfume, leather, floor wax  and the scent of new merchandise, all blended together.

The three-story Art Deco style building featured pink marble floors that shone like mirrors. Gleaming chandeliers were hung from the high ceilings. There wasn’t an escalator to take you to higher floors, but instead an elevator framed in gleaming walnut and brass filigree panels. In charge was an elevator operator attired a formal military-style uniform featuring gold lanyards. Atop his head was a jaunty hat which he tipped as you entered. He wished you a good day when you exited. 

Oh, you felt so special when you shopped at Rogers. It was more than a shopping trip; it was an experience!

The first floor housed the cosmetic counter. In those days, Rogers was the only place in town selling top-line cosmetics and fragrances. Only there could you find the scents of the day, some of which included White Shoulders by Evyan; Guerlain; Lanvin; and in later days, Estee Lauder’s first scent, Youth Dew. You could buy Coty and Prince Matchabelli at Walgreens, but the expensive stuff could only be purchased at Rogers.

Perfume Ad from the 1960s for Guerlain Mitsouko.

Perfume Ad from the 1960s for Lanvin's Arpege.

Two cosmetic lines I recall that were available there were Charles of the Ritz and Alexandra de Markhoff; I’m sure there were others. As I child, I would stand and stare in awe and the finely turned out ladies of the town making their selections before the backlit glass cases filled with beautiful and colorful bottles and boxes.

Vintage photo of shoppers in Lewises Department Store in the 1950s.

Also on the first floor were the leather goods – wallets, gloves, key cases, belts – which were inside the glass cases and you could only get a closer look with the assistance of a salesperson. The case would be unlocked, the item withdrawn and placed atop the counter for the customer's closer inspection.

The stationery and paper product selections were in the middle of the store as you entered and I recall loving to find pretty boxes of gift cards and stationery on which to write letters to my pen pals. There also were scrapbooks, diaries, photo albums, fine writing pens and the like.

The back of the store housed men’s, women’s and children's shoes. In those days, the customer was seated and her foot measured for the correct fit before selections were brought out and presented for trying on.

Winding stairs led to the Mezzanine, where an endless variety of lush and beautiful fabrics were available to meet the needs of home seamstresses.  Cottons, linen, taffeta, velvet, velveteen, silk, beaded voile, pongee, seersucker – you name it -- were available. I remember spending many hours there selecting patterns and fabrics with mother, who, like many women of the era, sewed most of our clothes.

This is the way I recall lingerie and hosiery were displayed in Roger's.

The second floor was devoted to clothing for the entire family. One special memory is of the lingerie department, where women’s hosiery in those pre-pantyhose day were wrapped in tissue paper and sold by the box (of six, I think). You told the saleslady your size and I still can see her opening that box, folding back the tissue paper and running her hand inside the stocking so that my mother could better see the color and texture of the stocking before she made up her mind on which shade to buy.

The third floor was for housewares and the office, where you went to pay your monthly bill. Everyone had a Roger’s charge account because you received special in-store offers when you received your bill each month.

The book department was in the basement and this is where I loved to browse and where I bought my Nancy Drew books and the little cheap classics such as Tom Sawyer and Treasure Island. I still have them.

A typical department store window display at Christmas in the 1950s.

The store was a place of special excitement during the Christmas season, as displays were placed throughout the store. The hustle and bustle of the shoppers, the music that wafted through the sound system and the frantic activity at the gift-wrapping station was enough to get even the biggest Scrooge excited about the holiday season.

More about the store’s history
In 1894, when B.A. Rogers and T.M. Rogers Sr. opened The Surprise Store on Court Street in Florence, it sold only general merchandise. The store later took the Rogers' name, and its product lines changed as society's shopping trends changed. A fire occurred at the store in 1910, and it was rebuilt as a two-story building. In 1948, a third floor was added.

The opening of the first mall on the outskirts of town in the 1970s was the beginning of the end for the downtown Rogers store. Although they opened a store opened in the mall, it never captured the magic of the downtown location. Of course, the loyal still shopped downtown, but times were changing and fewer people went downtown anymore. The merchandise became of poorer quality as well. By the 1970s I had moved away, but on my visits home we would usually visit Rogers, but it had become a sad substitute for its former glory days.

Stores No More
Maybe I became nostalgic about Rogers after I made a quick trip to a department store a couple of days ago. The contrast between now and then is so stark that I started thinking about Rogers, performed a bit of research and wanted to post this and ask if you have similar memories of shopping in earlier years.


  1. What an amazing, bitter-sweet post. We just don't know how to do things these days do we?

    1. We just don't have stores like that any more. But at least we have our memories.

  2. I really enjoyed this post.
    We still have a department store, Stockmann, now 150 years old, which shared the same concept as your Roger´s Department Store in the early years.
    Only nowadays, it is still going strong, situated in the very center of Helsinki, being perhaps the largest department store in Scandinavia.
    Things are going well for the store. Business is good. The store has been able to manage through the rough times. There is a continuous renovation going on in some part of the huge store complex.
    It is the only department store I go to.
    I buy my books, cosmetics and stockings/tights from the store.
    Everything else is bought from the small shops near by, as they have more special things.
    Right now, however, I buy very little of everything. Sometimes I find something interesting via internet, not only the online shops, and if it interests me a lot, I might try to acquire it.
    But, in general, I honestly do a lot less shopping these days than earlier.
    One reason for this might be, that I simply have all I need.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the post. You are lucky to have Stockmann. So many of our old stores are now closed. In the larger cities there is Macy's, Neiman Marcas, Nordstrom and the like but they don't hold the magic of the stores of the past. I am very much like you: don't want much, don't buy much. But sometimes it's fun to just browse and enjoy the sight.

  3. How well I remember Rogers. Things were so tastefully displayed it made you want it so bad - especially at Christmas. When I started working I would go there and put things on lay-away for a month or so until I had enough money to take it home, that was the days of matched skirt/sweater sets. The amount was not as great on the racks like you see now and you had to get your size when the merchandise first came in. I remember buying my first nice "all weather" coat there. Also, it is where I purchased my first nice dishes and stemware after I got married. It was SO special and educational to me to see all the pretty things displayed in Rogers.

    1. Ah yes, the lay-away; a great way to get things without having to pay all at once and prevent using the charge. I do remember all the beautiful china and glassware they had.

  4. Thanks for the lovely travel back in time. Great memories of the days when fancy department stores had Stationery and Fabric departments. (Even Sears and Penney's had Fabric department, but of course, their fabric was no where near as special, or expensive.)
    My children don't understand what it was like to actually have someone help you make your purchases. They are impressed with Nordstrom's, since they never experienced I. Magnin's. (One of my boyfriends grew up with all I. Magnin's - even their toilet paper came from there.)
    I blame the end of the high quality downtown department store such as Roger's, on expensive parking. As much as I love downtown shopping, the high cost of parking has to be added to the cost of the merchandise, so the malls usually win.

  5. Like you, I believe having someone "help you" was the reason shopping in those stores made one feel special. I'm sure downtown parking expense was one of the great contributors to the death of the great downtown department stores; that, plus changing lifestyles and shopping habits. I have actually had dreams about Rogers Department Store. It's hard to even describe the fondness I had for this store; represented a way of life and of course, fond memories of my childhood and growing up years.


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