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

Reader Comments:
Dec 7, 2011 08:58 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I love reading stories about old Memphis. I was only 10 when this store closed and I don't ever remember our family shopping downtown. I know that I would have loved it. Thanks for the story.

Dec 8, 2011 11:59 am
 Posted by  Rick Hornsby

I was almost two years old when this picture was taken. Have a lot of memories of Gerbers - they had an excellent restaurant on the ground floor facing Front St. In the 40's and 50's our family always went downtown to shop - I think the original Oak Hall mens store was about a block north of Gerbers.

Dec 12, 2011 12:46 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

I loved to shop at Gerber's. They had lovely things and the Tea Room was 'the place' to have lunch, with floor models showing the latest fashions. I purchased my 1st fur jacket there - it stayed in the lay-a-way forever it seems like. Sure miss the good ole days. We would start at Goldsmith's and check out all the shops then end ip at Gerber's. Also, remember a ladies shop, called Lander's .... O' the good ole days

Dec 14, 2011 11:55 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

I worked at Gerber's for 6 months, in the mid 1960's. I was in the little boys' department. I made $40 per week. (Later I moved on to Southern Bell Tel. for $55 a week.)

Our department was next to Mr. Emile Bizot's offices, so we were always on our p's and q's.

As for my family shopping there in the 50's and 60's, we were Goldsmith's people.

And yes, Oak Hall was south of there on Main; My grandfather was head of the Alterations Department, where he made $80 a week.

Dec 21, 2011 07:01 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

I have visited Gerber's Dept. Store many times. My grandmother, Nannie E. Fuller, worked there in the Art Department for many years. She retired in the early or mid-sixties as best I can recall. I remember riding the bus downtown to shop and go to movies, and when I was old enough to drive, we used to "drag" Main Street. Tony Walton, Hickory, NC

Jan 1, 2012 09:38 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

I have a pair of shoes and a bag that was part of my mother's wedding ensemble in 1942. The label in the shoes Gerber's. I remember seeing the navy blue suit that went with the brown shoes--it was from another old Memphis store called Helen of Memphis. She used to tell me about growing up in Memphis and going downtown to shop. I love to imagine how it must have been. Thanks for posting these memories.

Jul 1, 2012 09:02 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I have fond memories of going to the Gerber's Tea Room with my mother in the early 1960's. I think I was asked to model some pre-teen clothes there once, but I was too afraid to do it. They had wonderful food, and it was the epitome of a southern Tea Room. They specialized in small corn muffins that were brought to your table by Black waitresses dressed in long skirts carrying baskets full of these hot muffins. My mother finagled the recipe out of them and made them for luncheons for years! I bought my wedding dress from Gerber's in 1968 for $150. It's a gorgeous dress. Ah, the memories!

Nov 19, 2013 10:39 am
 Posted by  Anonymous

I remember riding the bus with my grandmother downtown when we would visit in the summer. I must have been between 5 to 10 years old. We had to wear our Sunday white gloves! I remember eating at the Tea Room that looked just like a beautiful patio with the waitresses passing a basket of muffins and after eating they would roll a dessert cart to the table. It took me forever to decide! Beleive it or not, I even remember that under the table they had a hook for your purse. What found memories!

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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. 

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