Neilson's fills a unique niche in a small town

By Rebecca Rolwing/Oxford Eagle

OXFORD — It’s not the typical small town shopping experience, beginning with the very first moment standing at the storefront.

The large glass windows stretch across the entire front sidewalk holding bright lights and faceless mannequins that display all of the beautiful fashions and latest trends that catch the eye and leave shoppers begging for more.

It gives a special kind of feeling that small town Oxford has suddenly transformed into big city living.

Walking through the double-door entrance reveals a bright, open space housing an assortment of colorful items strategically placed to easily guide shoppers from one department through the next.

The unique charm of this 174-year-old, family-owned business is just one reason it has grown and prospered throughout the years as the oldest department store in the South.

Will Lewis Jr., owner of J.E. Neilson’s Department Store, recently said the store is quite different today from what it was when he first began working there in 1951.

“There was not that much emphasis on fashion,” he said. “We just had to cover the whole waterfront. We were the main store in town. We sold clothing for the whole family for all of their activities — work, play, school. We are much more upscale now.”

Lewis was in the 10th grade when he first began working at the store. His father, Will Lewis Sr., who worked at the store along with the Neilsons, made it clear it was time for his son to learn the tricks of the trade.

Lewis’ work in the beginning varied between the men’s department, shoe department, assisting in the receiving department and also with unloading merchandise.

“Things were much, much simpler back then,” he said. “Nobody had that much business. We weren’t all that busy.”

Lewis said when he first began working a few popular items Neilson’s carried included everyday clothing, such as overalls, work boots and hats.

At the time, hats were a big seller, he said. Neilson’s had a millinary (hats and various accessories made for women) department and even an on-sight milliner (hat maker) in earlier years.

Another big part of the business was carrying bolts of fabric and selling piece goods for women who made clothes.

In 1964, Lewis and his sister, Olivia Lewis Nabors, were offered the opportunity to buy two-thirds of the interest in the business and the building occupying the business from David Neilson Sr., who wished to retire. Will Lewis Sr. owned the remaining one-third of the interest.

By 1966, the sale was complete and Neilson’s was then under complete ownership of the Lewis family.

Lewis said he and his sister “saw lots of opportunity to modernize.”

In 1968, a ladies’ dress shop named Ruth’s, which sat on the current corner of Neilson’s, was struck by lightning and burned. The Lewises were able to purchase the property, rebuild and enlarge the store, creating the current men’s department.

“It was a great way to be able to modernize the business because we could allocate all of the space,” he said.

Since then, the store has gone through one other remodel in the early 1980s.

Through the years, Lewis said the “mix of the merchandise” has aided in the development of Neilson’s. They began to do away with items they could no longer compete with, such as informal work clothes, and transitioned into offering higher-end fashions.

“It (Oxford) is a college town and that market changes,” he said. “We had to evolve. We had to figure out what we could do best and do that.”

In the mid-1980s, the coming of the age of technology brought about the addition of computer systems to the store. Since its first system, Lewis said, the store has been through four to five generations of computers.

“In the last 20 years, Neilson’s has been in the forefront of the technological revolution,” he said.

The mass market of social media is where they are currently working to focus and target. Lewis said they plan to get more involved with social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.

“We’re going to need to do that — that’s the way of the future,” he said.

While change is inevitable for a store that will celebrate its 175th year in business next year, Lewis said some constants have remained the same through time.

Generations have produced dedicated and loyal employees for Neilson’s, many of whom have worked there a majority of their life.

“They provide the stability and the connection with the customer,” Lewis said.

Back in 1966, one employee, Willie Mae Mosby, was the first African-American retail clerk to be hired in Oxford. Mosby worked at Neilson’s for more than 35 years.

Customer service at Neilson’s hasn’t wavered over time, he said.

“We have, at any given time, 20 people working trying to help the person (shopper) find what they’re looking for,” he said.

Another factor that has remained over time is Neilson’s dedication to the Oxford community.

“All the owners ever wanted, myself included, was to have a store in Oxford that understands this particular town with the university being predominant in the town and the influence the university students and faculty have,” Lewis said.

“We’ve never wanted to go put a store in the next town or put a store in the mall. That’s just not our thing. In many ways we’ve changed, but in the whole concept of our business, it hasn’t changed that much, which is to be a small town store and nothing more.”