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Among the last of its kind in North Carolina, a 66-year-old department store will close

An older white man with glasses, wearing a blue and orange plaid shirt and off-white khakis, stands among boxes, envelopes and an array of other supplies at the Fairmont Department Store.
Colin Campbell
Jay Capps, owner of the Fairmont Department Store, plans to shutter the longtime business and retire once he's sold off his inventory in the coming months.

One of the last remaining small-town department stores in North Carolina is closing its doors. The Fairmont Department Store has been a staple in the town near Lumberton since 1957.

Long before the rise of chain clothing stores and online shopping, nearly every town, big and small, had its own department store.

Jay Capps has worked behind the register at the Fairmont Department Store since the 1970s, when he took over the business founded by his father. He’s helped generations in this Robeson County town of about 2,000 people fill their wardrobes with everything from blue jeans to formalwear.

Now, he’s ready to retire. He’s covered the storefront with handwritten signs advertising going-out-of-business deals.

"There's nobody to take over the business," he said. "And I really didn't want my wife or family to have to deal with the inventory in here when it comes time — you don't know when the time will come, and maybe you can't do the job anymore."

A handwritten sign surrounded by racks of t-shirts and longsleeve shirts saying "Take additional 1/2 off our discount price" with 20% crossed off at the Fairmont Department Store.
Colin Campbell
Handwritten signs advertise going-out-of-business sales at the Fairmont Department Store.

Small town department stores are often a family business. In nearby Whiteville, the third-generation owners of JS Mann’s store decided to close the doors in 2020 after nearly a century in business.

And to the north in Elizabethtown, the Leinwand family’s department store is still going strong after 90 years. But many of their peers in eastern North Carolina towns are long gone.

Capps said he’s had to downsize the store over time and focus on men’s clothing.

"People’s shopping habits changed," he said. "(With) the internet, ladies get on there and have UPS and FedEx bringing stuff to the front porch ... rather than having to go out and shop. And that's also contributed to the demise of the local clothing stores."

He’ll miss seeing his regular customers.

"You become friends and you get to see them on a regular basis," Capps said. "I really have enjoyed it. It's been a fun job, almost like never having to really work, to tell you the truth."

While Capps is closing his doors, he’s optimistic about the future of downtown Fairmont. New restaurants and gift shops have opened on Main Street. The town has put up signs on nearby highways informing drivers that the “shortest route to the beach” runs through the center of town.

"We've got some young people who have come here with some good ideas and new, fresh ideas," he said. "And they're buying up these buildings, they're fixing the buildings. And there's some energy down here that has been gone for years."

"So I might be leaving at the wrong time, I don’t know," Capps added.

The storefront of the Fairmont Department Store showing white hand-written signs across large windows that say "Going out of business" and "Levi's jeans for $29.95."
Colin Campbell
The Fairmont Department Store has been an anchor of the Robeson County community's downtown since 1957 — when nearly every town had a similar department store.

Colin Campbell covers politics for WUNC as the station's capitol bureau chief.