Retail in RetrospectJulius Lewis
By Sandi Butler Hughes
For most of us Memphis shoppers of a certain age, Julius Lewis is remembered for the stunning mid-century modern building on Union Avenue as well as their array of fashions and accessories. However, like many of the locally-owned retail shops and stores, their origins are downtown on Main Street.
A German immigrant by the name of Moses Lewis journeyed to Memphis in the late 1800s and opened a dry goods store on North Main Street in the Pinch District. The business relocated to Beale Street as Lewis & Sons, and they began to focus on fine apparel. Eventually, the sons opened a larger store at 145 South Main, which had originally been a 1000-seat silent movie palace, The Majestic.
It was in 1951 when Julius Lewis expanded east to their flagship location at 1460 Union Avenue, and the retailer became a true fashion destination for Mid-South shoppers. It was also in the ‘50s that Charles Chandler graduated from Memphis Academy of Art (Memphis College of Art). He was quickly hired by Julius Lewis as their fashion illustrator and art director. Before photography was the norm in advertising, his illustrations and ad designs showcased the “foremost in apparel” for shoppers. The business grew farther east, and additional stores were opened in Eastgate Shopping Center and Hickory Ridge Mall. All of the Julius Lewis stores closed permanently in 1983, and Charles was at his drawing table until the end. Through the years, his thousands of miniature works of advertising art represented a lifestyle of beauty and elegance for Julius Lewis. He took his creativity to a former competitor where I had the honor of working with him in advertising at Goldsmith’s. His decades of experience and knowledge was a gift for this young copywriter.
Babbie Lovett, a Memphis fashion icon, recalls Julius Lewis as a wonderful place to shop. “One of the best things about maturity is having so many memories, and I remember Julius Lewis was a destination department store. They had a fine ladies department, a fabulous men’s store, and gifts were upstairs on the mezzanine,” she said of the Union Avenue location. Babbie also modeled frequently for Bobbye Weinberger, fashion coordinator for Julius Lewis. “Her fashion shows were always at the Holiday Inn Rivermont, and she loved using dogs in her shows. I remember for one show I walked down the runway with a Great Dane,” she laughed.
Much like the original Brodnax Jewelers (featured in “Retail In Retrospect” in our January/February 2022 issue) that transformed to Flight Restaurant, the OG downtown Julius Lewis can now be experienced as The Majestic Grille. The Union Avenue store survived for many years as an OfficeMax location, and work is progressing on the Gordon Food Service that will be the new occupant. While a wholesale food distributor does not have the same panache as Julius Lewis, at least the building remains and hints at a bygone era of mid-century style and grace.
Retail in Retrospect- Julius Lewis