Main Street icon closes

John Graham tenure in Waynesville comes to an end
By Vicki Hyatt | Apr 19, 2017
The crew at John Graham has collectively spent nearly 125 years working on Main Street in Waynesville. From left are Evelyn Fouts, 19 years; Shelby Moore, 56 years; Jane Green, 10 years; Aretha Gudger, three years, and Ada Messer, 35 years.

Former store manager Paul Murdock remembers the exact day the John Graham store opened in Waynesville.

“It was Sept. 11, 1969,” Murdock recalled.

“We started remodeling the building where Peebles Kimbrell was on July 3, 1969, and opened for business Sept. 11, 1969. It was a Thursday, and we had a tremendous amount of business that day.”

After a 48-year run on Waynesville’s Main Street, John Graham is closing at the end of the business day Saturday, April 22.

Gregg Graham, who operates department stores in four other locations in North and South Carolina, said he hates to see the store close.

“Waynesville has been a very good town for us,” he said. “But it has gone from having a real downtown local flavor to having more of a tourist vibe. As a result, there are less people looking for things they need. Our store is very utilitarian.”

At one point, the 130-year old Carolina Cash (a company so-named because no credit was accepted at the time) had 12 John Graham stores, including one in Canton that closed in the mid-1980s. Graham said someone from the Spartanburg, South Carolina, headquarters was in the mountains almost weekly making deliveries or tending to business needs.

When the Waynesville store opened, it was a full department store, with home furnishings, work clothes and children’s clothing in the basement level, while dress clothing, shoes and lingerie were at street level.

“Easter was always a big shopping time,” said Shelby Moore, who worked in the building at 101 No. Main St. before John Graham ever opened there. “People used to dress up for church. The whole family would come in and get everything from shoes up to the hat.”

Back then, ladies hats, as well as gloves, were essentials for well-dressed women, and being well-dressed included wearing dresses to church. John Graham had a full array of women’s dresses that would fit any size, Moore recalled.

“The misses dresses came in half-sizes back then,” Moore said. “For some, they fit just a little bit better.”

But if a clothing item didn’t fit exactly right, it wasn’t a problem at John Graham. The price of an item included an alteration if it was needed, and there was enough work to keep a person busy full-time.

“At one time we had 188 dresses along that wall,” said Ada Messer, who has worked at the store for the past 30 years, and, like Moore, for Peebles Kimbrell before that. “We sold a lot of men’s dress suits, too.”

When customers entered John Graham, they knew service was a top priority.

“We would measure people for their shoes and help them find something that would fit,” Moore said. “We made a lot of friends.”

The store friends weren’t limited to just Waynesville. Shoppers from across Western North Carolina would come into the store regularly, and then there were the summer residents who would stop in when they first arrived in town and make sure they didn’t leave without one last visit.

In addition to stocking inventory for all members of the family, the store was known for carrying everyday items needed by people, from cotton slips, house dresses and sturdy shoes to a vast array of work clothes for all ages. Many of the items became ones customers could find nowhere else, and the store employees were even shipping the hard-to-find items to out-of-town customers upon request.

Business was so strong in the 1970s that John Graham opened a junior’s clothing store on Main Street. Moore was the manager at The Shack and recalled working with many of the teenagers who came in for everything from cheerleading outfits to formal wear along with the latest teen fashions. Back then, gunny-sack dresses were all the rage, as were the short skirts and tight-fitting jeans — the kind with the zipper at the ankle.

One customer, she remembered, was able to get a pair of jeans on, but couldn’t get them off after the zipper broke. Moore ended up cutting them off the customer and then having the alteration lady make shorts out of them.

She recalled a young man who saw a gunny-sack dress in the store window who told her he wanted to buy it for the girl he was going to ask to marry him.

A change

After spending 56 years in the retail business in downtown Waynesville, Moore is almost a walking history book.

“I can tell you every store that used to be here,” she said.

She, like other John Graham employees, are sad to see the store close, but understands that times do change.

“People’s shopping habits change and a lot of people buy online,” she said. “A lot of the manufacturers we used to buy from are no longer in business. You can’t go back to the past.”

Murdock and his wife, Lila, who also worked at the Waynesville store, left in the mid-1990s to work at the home office in Spartanburg, and later moved on to other retail opportunities.

“I wish I had a record of all the high school and college students that would work for us during the year and got their career started at john Graham,” Murdock said.

Some of his most memorable times at the store include the first day of June when the store would always have a women’s dress sale, the numerous sidewalk sales and the store’s birthday party every September.

“We were right next door to Belk when we first came,” Murdock said. “They moved out and things changed drastically. The foot traffic was a lot less, but our business actually increased when they left.”

Murdock was gone 20 years before coming back to Waynesville in 2013. He said the downtown area was one he barely recognized upon his return.

“Every store was full of retail of some sort,” he said of Waynesville in the 1990s. “Now it is much more tourist oriented with gift shops and restaurants.”

Bradley Graham has been working with the family business for as long as he can remember.

He started out with items as basic as sorting hangers, and then graduated to the warehouse. When was proficient at driving, he helped drive supplies to the company stores around the region, including deliveries to Waynesville.

After receiving a business degree, he continued with the family business, and has been to Waynesville regularly through the years.

“It’s a timing thing,” he said. “We love the mountains and hate to leave. This place has been good to us for 48 years. Everything has a beginning and an end.”