Yesterday my folksannounced they were closing the doors of our retail store in Birmingham Alabama that opened in 1922. It's really hard for me to write this even as we speak because of the history in terms of what Cotton's Department Store meant to our family and the community. So I will have to share a lot of what was written in the local newspaper and said by family and friends and can maybe talk more freely in the comments. Writing has always been cathartic for me but now I find it difficult to find the exact right words to describe how I feel.
Cotton's opened as a dry goods store at 400 19th St. in Ensley in 1922, four days after founders Mitchell and Ida Cotton wed. Mitchell Cotton, who immigrated to the U.S. from Estonia as a toddler, ran the store with his wife until just after the second world war.
In about 1949 their children Bert Cotton Sr. and Merle Schultz took over, with Merle's husband Howard Schultz. In 1980, a generation later, Rhonda and Harry left careers in Atlanta to take the helm, though 88-year-old Howard Schultz is still often in the store on Saturdays.
The store earned a reputation for stellar customer service, and for a willingness to extend credit to customers who might not be able to get it elsewhere. Regular customers still drive from all around the metro area because of the store's selection of dresses and hats.
My father's quote was very poignant.
"Ninety years," Harry Weinberg said. "We had some good years. We really did."As kids we often helped in the store during holidays and summer breaks and tried to learn about the business. But what we learned more than anything else was a strong work ethic and how to treat all people equally. I pursued a career in law upon the encouragement of my family as retail meant six days a week with a lot of late hours during the holiday season and little time for vacations and travel.
My wife who is African American shared these thoughts on her facebook page
This is so iconic in my life because I remember my family shopping there long before I became a part of the family.. Cotton's was a part of history because they were the only store in Birmingham that would hire African American clerks and also one of the only stores to give Blacks credit.. We ask that you come down and support the final months of this 90 plus years of tradition. We also ask for your prayers as our family move to the next chapter of their lives..As a child I can remember that the store was frequented by white and black customers in the 1980's but it seemed by the 1990's a majority of the customers were black as more shopping centers opened in the white suburbs. While many white business owners closed or moved to the suburbs,my family remained which to me has always been a true testament to their character. When I graduated from law school and moved back to the Birmingham area I was involved in discussions that focused on plans for a resurgence of the Ensley area. There had been hopes for that tall building in the picture to be converted into senior housing. However, these plans were halted by the down turn in the economy and then the Tornados that completely destroyed several communities between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa to the west.
I know in my heart that my folks will be fine as they are tired. They will have more time to spend with their two granddaughters, my sisters kids, and hopefully more grandchildren over the next few years. My dad said in a television interview that he had hoped to stay open for another 5-7 years and under better circumstances. I so wish that were the case, but I know that we cannot sustain and just hope that they can liquidate in a timely manner.
As I was drafting this, I just got notification of another very heartfelt message that came through from an old friend - and the tears roll as I'm sure they will over the next few months.
"Cotton's will certainly be missed in downtown Ensley. Thank you to the Cotton and Weinberg families for their many years of dedicated service to the community. Martin Weinberg and Angela Webb-weinberg let your family know we love them...Easter Sunday in Birmingham, woman strolling around town in those great hats, will never be the same."
Thanks in advance for your prayers and support. I also want to add that we have had loyal employees - many who were there for decades and we ask for your prayers for them as well.
*If anyone has any interest in doing any follow up stories or helping us get some media attention to the economy aspect of a 90 year old business closing its doors please pass this along.
7:12 PM PT: Thank you so much. I am going to document as much of the oral and written history over the next few months.
Sun Oct 14, 2012 at 6:47 AM PT: Wow. I appreciate still being up on the rec list. I had trouble sleeping last night. As,so many have said such a sad time but also uplifting and powerful. What a dichotomy.