Lost Memphis: Main Street and the John Gerber Department Store



Downtown Memphis has certainly made a dramatic comeback after years of dormancy and neglect, but I have to wonder if Main Street will ever resume its rightful place as THE place to shop during the holidays.

Just look at this nice scene, showing Main Street on a rainy December night in 1937. You're looking south from Court Square, with the Kress Building in the distance a ways. Bright window displays along the street attract shoppers, the glow from neon signs and street lights bounces off the wet pavement, and wreaths, bells, stars, and reindeer add a festive touch. On the corner, a herd of camels — both neon and painted versions — parade across the facade of Gerber's Department Store.

John Gerber opened his first store at this location way back in 1880. It expanded greatly over the years, eventually taking up most of the block. In 1949, Gerber's added the first escalators most Memphians had ever seen, an innovation so unique that newspapers devoted stories to the "new moving stairs" and Mayor Watkins Overton himself snipped a ribbon to officially start them moving.

The Memphis Press-Scimitar, noting Gerber's "characteristic thoughtfulness of the convenience, comfort, and safety of customers," gushed that the five escalators "can move the entire population of Memphis in less than 80 hours." That seems a bit hard to believe. I wish they had actually tried it, just to make sure, though such a stampede through the store seems neither convenient, comfortable, or safe.

When retailers began to abandon Main Street in the 1960s, in the wake of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Gerber's struggled to survive. An early-morning fire on December 29, 1968, did more than one million dollars' damage and closed the store for four months. Just three years later, another blaze struck, and again the owners rebuilt and reopened. By then, though, shoppers had discovered newer, larger stores and shopping malls out east, and Gerber's was doomed.

Owners eventually decided the Main Street landmark "had not contributed to the company's profits in a meaningful way" and closed the doors for good in 1974. One by one, other Gerber's locations around the city closed too. The downtown building was pulled down in the mid-1980s, and was at first replaced with a parking lot. A hotel stands on the site today.

PHOTO COURTESY SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MEMPHIS LIBRARIES

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Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and MBQ: Inside Memphis Business.  Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

You can find him from time to time in the pages of the Memphis Flyer and MBQ, on WKNO television, and on Facebook. When he is not exploring the highways and byways of Memphis, he spends his time sleeping, napping, and dozing.

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