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Opinion
Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: Belk And Charlotte, Intertwined

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WIndyshadow32
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Wikimedia Commons
Charlotte-based Belk is filing for bankruptcy, but it says it plans to keep its stores open.

In uptown Charlotte 50 years ago, there were no Hornets and no Panthers, no Bank of America or Wells Fargo. Really, there were just two names that mattered to our city back then: Ivey’s and Belk.

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They were both department stores, and in some ways they were the center of life in the city. Countless Charlotteans bought their wedding dresses or prom outfits there. Many Charlotte old-timers remember the stores as where they saw their first elevator or ate their first fancy meal.

But if you’ve arrived here in the last generation, you might not know Ivey’s at all. The whole chain closed in 1990. And now Belk, one of our final old icons, is filing for bankruptcy.

The company says it’s not planning to lay off any of its 20,000 employees, or close any of its 300 stores across 16 Southern states. But you don’t file for bankruptcy if you’re financially healthy. Belk is in trouble. As are department stores all across America.

Department stores once built grand things. There was the Sears Tower in Chicago. There’s still Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York. And in a lot of Southern towns, the Belk store was the grandest place there was. Belk often partnered with local retailers. In my hometown in Georgia, the store was called Belk Hudson. It was the anchor store in our mall, and I still have dreams sometimes of walking through the aisles, looking at clothes we couldn’t quite afford.

Belk was an aspirational place. And its success helped Charlotte reach its aspirations. John Belk, a member of the store’s founding family, was mayor of Charlotte from 1969 to 1977. The John Belk Freeway around uptown is named for him. The Belk family helped build SouthPark, donated land for UNC Charlotte and the Blumenthal Arts Center, and even sponsored Charlotte’s college football bowl game for nine years. Charlotte as we know it wouldn’t exist without Belk.

But department stores nationwide were crashing even before the pandemic sent shoppers home. Belk was slow out of the gate to online shopping, but it’s not clear if that would have mattered – people have moved their dollars to hypermarkets like Walmart and Target and especially Amazon. Some analysts think the entire model of shopping malls is outdated, and that most malls might be gone in the next 10 or 20 years. That’s not good news for Belk, to say the least.

William Henry Belk opened his first store in Monroe in 1888. It cost him $1,250. When the Belk family sold it to a private equity firm in 2015, they got $3 billion. The Belks and Charlotte helped make each other. And even if these are Belk’s waning days, it’s been an awfully good run.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section at wfae.org. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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