Lipsitz: The long history and last hours of a Bay Street landmark

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Lipsitz: The long history and last hours of a Bay Street landmark

By MARTI COVINGTON mcovington@beaufortgazette.com 843-986-5502
Published Thursday, March 5, 2009 in The Beaufort Gazette  |  1185 Words  |  local_news

A stroll through Lipsitz Department Store in downtown Beaufort is like a trip in a time machine, taking a customer back to the days when mannequins modeled Buster Brown and Red Goose shoes and ladies bought boxed lingerie wrapped in tissue paper.
After 107 years at the corner of Bay and West streets, the local landmark closed for good at the end of February.
Since then, owner Lucille Lipsitz, her children and staff have spent their days preparing for the Saturday-morning auction, when the store's remaining inventory, fixtures and advertisements will be sold to the highest bidder.
Neil Lipsitz will still keep open Lipsitz Shoes, located across the street from his parent's former business.
Running the store on her own since Alzheimer's disease sent her husband, Joe Lipsitz, into a Veterans Administration nursing home in Walterboro last winter, Lucille Lipsitz decided it was time to retire -- despite a steady stream of business.
"The store has been a part of downtown Beaufort forever, but it's just too much for me here by myself ," said Lipsitz, 78. "I need some time. We're very sorry we're closing, and we just appreciate what the people have done for us."
To the thousands of customers and fans of the beloved department store who bought everything from lingerie to leotards and still send its staff Christmas and birthday cards every year, it was the Lipsitz family who provided something special.
"I loved Mr. and Mrs. Lipsitz," said author and novelist Pat Conroy, who graduated from Beaufort High School in 1963 and now lives on Fripp Island.
Conroy immortalized the couple in his 1995 novel "Beach Music," noting "Mrs. Lipsitz, who had fitted my shoes during my entire boyhood," in one passage.
THE BEGINNINGS OF 825 BAY STREET
The black letters of the Lipsitz sign are ingrained in the Beaufort psyche, and the building at 825 Bay St. that's been the store's location for more than a century has a lengthy history of its own.
Identified on the original town plan as Town Lot No. 7, documents indicate the space where Lipsitz now stands was owned at different times by 18th-century blacksmith Andrew Bell, merchant John S. Fyler and speculator George Holmes in the 19th century, according to Evan Thompson, executive director of the Historic Beaufort Foundation.
Lipsitz is "likely the third structure that has stood on the site," Thompson said.
It was Holmes who tore down two Civil War-era buildings owned by Fyler and built in 1883 the large, single space that became Lipsitz's home. The building is "downtown Beaufort's largest timber structure," Thompson said. In 1902, Max Lipsitz started the family's department store there.
"Until the (1920s), they had everything from groceries to bolts of materials and clothing," Joe Lipsitz, Max's son, said in a 2004 memoir.
Maxine Lutz of the Historic Beaufort Foundation helped pull together the account of Joe Lipsitz's life, much of which was dictated to his wife.
"In 1945, Ethel, Henry and I took over," Joe Lipsitz said, referring to his siblings. "We had five or six clerks working. As the town grew, more and more stores opened -- Belk, Kmart, Walmart, J.C. Penney. Now Lucille and I run the store. ... It's amazing to me how many tourists come in to talk with us."
'THE LIPSITZ GIRLS'
While Lucille and Joe Lipsitz owned and operated the department store for more than 60 years, two employees hired to lend a helping hand a few days a week became second mothers to Lipsitz children Neil, Barry, Sandra and Judy.
"We were like one big family," said longtime Beaufort resident Alene Moore, 92, who worked at Lipsitz from 1940 to 2005.
"I couldn't have asked for anybody being any better to me than they have. When one had troubles, we all had troubles. We laughed and we cried together."
Moore and Burton resident Effie Martin, 85, primarily worked in the shoe department, running an X-ray machine where children could see the bones in their feet and hand-fitting shoes on people of all ages.
"They're just like our own," Martin said of the Lipsitz family, which she got to know well while working in the store from 1943 to 1993 and still sees regularly.
"Last time I saw Mr. Joe, he says, 'These are our girls,' pointing at me and Alene. They include you in anything and everything they do," Martin said. "Never a Christmas or anything (went) by that they didn't take care of us and want us to go out."
Through decades working at Lipsitz, Moore and Martin helped the family take care of everyone from celebrities in town shooting movies, to lifelong Beaufortonians who browsed the shelves every week.
"That was just a second home to me," said Moore, who still maintains a close friendship with Martin. "We met so many people. When they see us out together, they say, 'There's the Lipsitz girls.' It feels good that people remember us that way. It really has been an inspiration to me."
CUSTOMERS REMEMBER
Since it was announced in early February that Lipsitz would close, community members have flocked to the store Web site, www.lipsitz-shoes.webs.com, Internet blogs and online social networks like Facebook to share memories.
Many recalled the high-backed, red-vinyl chairs where children used to sit to have their feet measured. Others talked about Lippy, a caged mynah bird Lucille Lipsitz won in a drawing. It greeted customers with "Hello, what ya want?" and cries of "Stride Rite" when they entered the store's shoe department.
Conroy remembered the day when Lucille Lipsitz, shocked by the size of his feet, loudly tried to fit him in a pair of shoes with D and EEE widths that were still too small.
"I'm trying to race out of the store, but before I could get out of there, Mrs. Lipsitz shouted out again and said, 'Wait a minute, Pat! I have a jumbo!," he said. "It was a perfect fit."
For Constance Tootle, 56, a trip to Lipsitz as a child meant a treat from the store's golden goose -- a plastic, golden egg filled with small trinkets.
"I can't imagine Beaufort without a Lipsitz," said Tootle, now the librarian at Elliott Elementary on Albacore Street, who took her children and grandchildren to the store for their first pairs of shoes.
"It's always been there," she said. "And invariably, you would look around different stores for something you wanted, and then you'd go there and one of the ladies would always open a bottom cabinet and pull it out ... and there it is -- whether you needed a toboggan or a little pair of socks with lace on them for your daughter."
Moore said the bond she shares with the Lipsitz family will survive another century and more, but she will miss the store and the good times they shared in it.
"But after it all, we'll still have Neil," she said.