Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fascinating look at the Thalhimer family of Virginia...

Having grown up mostly in Virginia in the 70s and 80s, I often shopped at the Thalhimers department store at Coliseum Mall in Hampton, Virginia.  Since I was a kid back then, I didn't know anything about Thalhimers or any of the other venerable department stores that were around back in the day.  I just know my mom would shop there with me when I managed to convince her to take me to the mall instead of AAFES for my school clothes.  When I got older, I used to go shopping with my former best friend and her mother and we'd have lunch at Thalhimers very cool medieval themed restaurant, The Sword and the Kilt.  It was the first place I ever had a popover.

Sadly, back in the early 1990s, Thalhimers was lost in a hostile takeover.  The May Company, which bought a number of historic department store brands in those days, pretty much ruined Thalhimers to the point at which it was no longer recognizable.  It finally died a pitiful death after 150 years of business, mostly in Virginia and North Carolina.

I don't know what prompted me to research Thalhimers, but I somehow ended up finding out about Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt's 2010 book, Finding Thalhimers.  I downloaded the book and just finished it today.  I feel like I've learned a lot about the history of a local retail giant with a fascinating history.  Reading Smartt's descriptions of the years when the business was booming made me wish I were older so I could have seen more of it for myself.

As you might guess by her name, Smartt is herself a member of the Thalhimer family and grew up watching her dad go to work at "The Store".  Smartt fantasized about one day being president of her family's business, but unfortunately, it was not to be.  Discount chains like Wal-Mart, Target, and even K-Mart spelled death for many department stores.

Finding Thalhimers is about more than just a retail department store chain.  It's also about the fascinating history of the Thalhimer family, which originated in Tairnbach, a tiny town not too far from Heidelberg, Germany.  Since I am currently living near Stuttgart and have visited Heidelberg, this part of the story was especially interesting.  I learned things I never knew.  For instance, Smartt writes that her family is Jewish and back in the 1800s, Jews were not allowed to have last names.  When the law changed, the parents of the man who would found Thalhimers in Richmond, Virginia, decided to give themselves a name that reflected their origin in Germany.

Smartt then takes readers on a journey across the Atlantic Ocean.  Her ancestors landed in New Orleans and made their way to Richmond, where they would have a profound effect on the local economy and the city's development.  I enjoyed reading about how Thalhimers had a friendly rivalry with Miller & Rhodes, another venerable Virginia department store institution.  I remember shopping there as a kid, too.  Unfortunately, they also perished just a couple of years before Thalhimers did.

I enjoyed reading about how the name Thalhimer was originally spelled Thalheimer.  Thanks to a sign painter's slopping spelling, the brand's name changed forever.  Smartt's book touches on so many notable times in history, too.  She writes about an ancestor who spent three months with a friend driving around Europe in his father's Chevrolet, making sure to avoid the political unrest in Germany that was going on during the 1930s.  The young man visited stores, collected ideas for the business and products to be offered, and had a good time being young.

Smartt writes about the civil rights era of the early 1960s, when Thalhimers and Miller & Rhodes were targeted for sit ins.  I was impressed by how Thalhimers handled the racial tensions of the times.  And she reminds readers that her family once owned the Golden Skillet fried chicken restaurants that once dotted the land.  I used to love Golden Skillet chicken, though it never ended up being the next KFC as some in the family had predicted.

Smartt also writes about some of the business deals her ancestors made, some of which were very shrewd and kind of fascinating.  As someone who grew up visiting Richmond and the surrounding areas, I was very intrigued by her descriptions of what it was like there as the Thalhimer family built their business.  They made some amazing deals that netted huge profits.  I almost got the sense that things might have been different for the Thalhimer family had they focused on what the Walton family was doing.  But that would have certainly upset many of their loyal fans.

I could tell this project was a labor of love for Elizabeth Thalhimer Smartt, who is just three years younger than I am.  Her writing style is very loving and warm-- almost reverent-- and she clearly enjoyed talking to many of her relatives and people who were involved in Thalhimers' success.  I got the sense that she enjoys a close bond with her family, especially her dad.  I was impressed by how she pieced together her family's history and was able to trace it all the way to their origins in Germany, which she visited with her parents, husband, and sister.

Overall, I really enjoyed Smartt's book, though I get the sense that she writes the story while wearing rose colored glasses.  I can't really blame her, since she's writing about her family.  But naturally, it's not the most objective look at the Thalhimer family.  I'm sure there are people out there who might have a different take on some of the stories Smartt shares.  I have no horse in that race, though, so I'll just say I really enjoyed reading this book and am happy to recommend it, especially to Virginia and North Carolina natives who remember Thalhimers.  It's also a good read for aspiring businesspeople.

 

2 comments:

  1. I'd never heard of Thalhimer's stores, but I asked my mom, and she had shopped there as a child.

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    Replies
    1. They were very nice stores. I miss places like that.

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