Rich's Department Store
In 1867 Morris Rich, a Jewish Hungarian immigrant who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, borrowed $500 from his brother and opened a dry goods store on Whitehall Street in Atlanta. The store prospered in its first year, and the flourishing business required several expansions over the next five decades. In 1924 the downtown Atlanta store moved to its final location at the corner of Alabama and Broad streets. Rich's grew along with the city in the 1960s and 1970s, expanding into malls throughout metropolitan Atlanta.
A commitment to the community and excellent customer service reinforced Rich's role as an Atlanta institution. In 1914 a dramatic drop in the price of cotton financially crippled many Georgia farmers. To help ease the crisis, Rich's accepted bales of cotton as payment for merchandise, taking a financial loss. In another incident, when the city of Atlanta was unable to pay teachers' salaries during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Rich's agreed to cash the worthless checks until the city government could reimburse the store.
In the early 1920s, Rich's enacted a liberal exchange and credit policy whereby any item could be exchanged and nearly anybody could receive store credit. It was not uncommon for Rich's to provide refunds on merchandise not carried by its stores or to provide full refunds on noticeably used items. Rich's operated under the philosophy that all people were inherently honest and that going the extra mile for customers would benefit the company in the long run. Although this approach had many detractors, the store's continued sales growth helped prove the soundness of this philosophy and endeared Rich's to its customers.
Although possessing a reputation for being more tolerant toward African American customers than many other stores in the South, Rich's still found itself the target of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Local African American college students staged sit-ins at the store, in large part because of its prominence in the community. Well-known civil rights activist and sit-in participant Julian Bond later noted that "if Rich's went, so would everybody else," meaning that other stores would desegregate if Rich's did. The students targeted the Magnolia Room, Rich's segregated restaurant. In October 1960, several students, along with Martin Luther King Jr., were arrested while conducting a sit-in at the Magnolia Room. A boycott of the store followed the arrests, and by the fall of 1961, Rich's began to desegregate.
In 1975 Nathalie Dupree, a prominent Georgia chef, opened a cooking school at Rich's that ran for nearly ten years. Federated Department Stores acquired Rich's in 1976 and later merged with the
Henry Givens Baker, Rich's of Atlanta: The Story of a Store since 1867 (Atlanta: Foote and Davies, 1953).
Lisa Beverly Fellows, "Public Relations and Integration: A Multicultural Analysis of Rich's Department Store from 1960-1961" (master's thesis, University of Georgia, 1998).
Mark L. Gardner, "Rich's of Atlanta—Does a Change of Ownership Affect Corporate Culture?" Essays in Economic and Business History 11 (1993): 272-82.
Celestine Sibley, Dear Store: An Affectionate Portrait of Rich's (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1967).
Matthew Bailey, Georgia College and State University
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