Organizing “Return to Rich’s: The story behind the Story”, at the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum through May 27, 2014, must have been an exceptional challenge. The flourishing of the beloved department store, which was founded in 1867 and operated in various forms until 2005, was so inextricably linked to the growth of Atlanta that it’s an unenviably vast and intricate story to try to tell.
The visually exciting exhibition is an excellent opportunity to revisit the department store that, as any longtime Atlantan will tell you, was not just a place to shop, but a destination, a landmark, an institution whose commercial, cultural and civic philosophies didn’t just run parallel with the city’s but were often one and the same. The relationship was such that, in 1949, the Saturday Evening Post declared Rich’s “the store that married a city.” Those who remember Rich’s will enjoy a walk down memory lane at the exhibition, and newer residents will want to come to learn more about their old spouse.
The exhibit includes photos of the founding family, old credit cards and advertisements, news clippings and an ancient car from the Pink Pig monorail kids would ride during the winter holidays. And, of course, clothing — ranging from homey 19th-century dresses patterned after the clothing sold in Rich’s early years to gorgeous numbers targeting the Paris fashion-conscious and such notables as Margaret Mitchell, who wore the coat on view at the red-carpet Atlanta premiere of “Gone With the Wind.”
Rich’s was founded just after the Civil War as the M. Rich & Co. dry goods store. Jewish immigrant Mauritius Reich, later anglicized to Morris Rich, had left his native Hungary in 1859. After various stints as a door-to-door salesman in Columbus, Ohio, and then in cities around the South, he arrived in Atlanta, a railroad town ideally positioned to become a central player in the post–Civil War economic recovery. Dry goods were a common line of business for Jewish entrepreneurs at the time, but what became extraordinary about the business he created and ran with his brothers was the way in which, as it grew, it began to shape the economic, political and cultural climate of the city itself.
The savvy Rich brothers developed a philosophy of commerce that emphasized a holistic and positive experience for the customer, a presciently modern “Mad Men”–like recognition that the sale of an item entails far more than just the exchange of money for goods. In its heyday in the early to mid-20th century, it wasn’t just a place to come buy things; it offered nearly every sort of service imaginable: child-care, a lending library, party planning, a gardening center, free classes in knitting, dressmaking, canning and bridge, all of them ensuring that Atlantans developed connections to the business.
Rich’s became famous for its liberal credit and refund policies (initially, farmers could pay their bills when the crops were harvested). Legend has it the return policy was so generous you could return anything to Rich’s, including products you hadn’t bought there. (In the exhibition, look for the old sheet music for a novelty song in which a woman tries to get Rich’s to take her husband back.)
The number of “firsts in Atlanta” that Rich’s was responsible for is jaw-droppingly long. It owned the first air-conditioned store and was the first to establish a 40-hour work week for employees with time and a half for overtime. Rich’s donated the High Museum’s first work of modern art, “Composition,” a small beechwood sculpture by Henry Moore, which is part of the exhibition. The company introduced television to Atlanta, and since there weren’t any stations to broadcast content to potential customers’ new TVs, they created a station.
After a while, it becomes clear that the store’s character and Atlanta’s character — forward-looking, commercial, affable — are the same. It’s a chicken-egg question to ask which came first; the point is, they share DNA. The hired server is also the kind friend. The sales pitch doesn’t differ much from the neighborly conversation. These are not just presciently modern attitudes that the Rich brothers adopted in the 19th century; they are 21st-century ideas. For better or worse, they are still here; they even still seem like the way of our future.
A display about Rich’s Magnolia Room, the epitome of fine dining in Atlanta for many years, delves into its history as a focal point of the civil rights movement. It’s a painful irony to see the image on the the old Magnolia Room’s menu of a black woman serving a large bowl of steaming soup to a table of white patrons, while Br’er Rabbit hops across the cover of the kids’ menu. Such images of black culture were offered up for the delectation of a whites-only patronage.
In an accompanying video interview, Lonnie C. King Jr., coauthor with other Atlanta University Center students of “An Appeal for Human Rights,” the manifesto of the Atlanta Student Movement for civil rights, recounts a sit-in at Rich’s Magnolia Room, during which students and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were infamously arrested in 1960 before the Nixon-Kennedy general election. Rich’s eating facilities finally began desegregating by late summer 1961. The protestors knew that, as with so many things, what Rich’s did, Atlanta would follow.
Rich’s and Atlanta clearly shared notions of progress, most significantly the idea that commercial success and economic development are unmitigated goods. Why the Rich brothers developed their particular, successful, often outrageously generous philosophy of business is explained as an understanding of the importance of customer loyalty and the Jewish concept of tzedakah, a concept of justice that includes acts of pure charity.
I found myself wondering, however, whether the exhibit’s upbeat focus might be glossing over a more complicated picture, not just of modern branding, but of the realities of a Jewish business trying to make a place for itself in an often hostile South. I wondered, too, about the personalities and character of the members of the Rich dynasty.
Guest curator Catherine Lewis — director of the Museum of History and Holocaust Education and executive director of Museums, Archives & Rare Books at Kennesaw State University — added more personal texture through audio and oral histories solicited from former shoppers and employees, which are accessible by scan code or by dialing on your cell phone. Visitors can, and do, add their own memories in short texts that are hung in the gallery. But perhaps such an insider’s history of the creatives behind Rich’s has simply been lost to time.
Things there inevitably take on an elegiac tone: most Atlantans have a nostalgic mood when talking about the store. But as the exhibition makes clear, in some ways Rich’s will always be with us. At the entrance to the exhibition, a 1967 quote from one-time Rich’s president Dick Rich puts it succinctly: “Rich’s is related to Atlanta. It came out of the same cradle, and it has known the same joys and severe tragedies . . . Rich’s and Atlanta are kissing kin.”
By the time most visitors leave the exhibition, they are likely to agree that this is not hyperbole, but plain, unvarnished fact.
Want to see the coat Margaret Mitchell wore to the premiere of “Gone With the Wind”? Famed fashion guru Sol Kent with Fashionata models? These pictures and more are in our Facebook photo gallery.