Sometimes long goodbyes are the best kind.
Since announcing shortly before Thanksgiving that they would soon close their downtown Conway department store, Sam and Eileen Abrams have been sharing tears, stories, and fond farewells with customers who will be sad to see them go.
I’ve really been amazed and humbled by the response we’ve gotten. We were going to quietly retire, but instead people have come in and shopped and talked and reminisced and it’s really been a lovely thing.
Eileen Abrams, co-owner of Abrams Department Store
“I’ve really been amazed and humbled by the response we’ve gotten,” Eileen said during a recent still-busy Saturday. “We were going to quietly retire, but instead people have come in and shopped and talked and reminisced and it’s really been a lovely thing.”
The store has been a local landmark since Sam’s grandfather Aaron opened it in the early 1900’s. At one time there other Abrams shops throughout the Carolinas, but after the stock market crashed they all closed except the one in Conway. This one has persevered through tough economic times, devastating fires, and the growth of major chain discount stores. Three generations of Abrams have worked at the store and when they lock the doors for good, it will mark the end of an era.
At 74, Sam remembers sweeping the floors when he was just 10 years old.
“Back then people came in off the farms with their feet full of mud and sand and there was a lot of dirt on the floors. There was a lot of cleaning to do.”
He later went off to college, then went to work for James Cash Penney (who founded JC Penney) before coming back to the family business.
“Back then they actually trained you how to be a merchant at Penney. I was the No. 3 man in the four-and-a-half million dollar store in Greenville, North Carolina before I left there.”
He says returning to Conway was one of the best decisions he ever made.
His philosophy, and one that has kept customers coming back time and time again, has always been that it’s all about relationships.
It’s one day at a time and one customer at a time. And one customer becomes a friend at a time. It’s never been a numbers business. It’s been a relationship business. These people are like family.
Sam Abrams, co-owner of Abrams Department Store
“It’s one day at a time and one customer at a time. And one customer becomes a friend at a time. It’s never been a numbers business. It’s been a relationship business. These people are like family.”
Over the years the store has doubled in size and shifted in inventory, but the focus has remained the same; to meet the needs of the people it serves.
“It started from a store that was like a general store,” Eileen explained, “that had everything from shoes to outboard motors because people would ride up the Waccamaw River to shop. When Granddaddy saw that people didn’t use outboard motors anymore he put different things in the store.”
During the Depression when many other stores were forced out of business, Abrams reacted to the times.
“Granddaddy responded by becoming very value conscious to give people the best value for their money because money was so tight then,” Eileen continued. “He had ads that said, ‘Dresses for $2.98, but look like $4.98 values.’ You just have to laugh when you see this, but he responded to the times. That’s what people needed back then.”
Now, she points out, they carry designer labels.
“After the value conscious years went by, we started to realize that the public was interested in brands. They became brand conscious, the price wasn’t as important as having the alligator on the shirt or with Southern Tide, the fish on the shirt, or a certain brand.”
Through the years they’ve also paid attention to their ever-changing competition. At one time, Eileen recalled, they had an entire toy department full of bicycles. That was before Walmart.
“It didn’t take us long to realize we’re not going to try to compete with Walmart on a bicycle. We had the bicycle put together, pump up the tires, and wheel it out to the car. That’s the kind of service we gave. You got to Walmart you get it in a box. But when we realized we were making a $9 profit, it didn’t seem a sensible thing to continue with.”
While they did away with the toy department, they did add some unique hard-to-find items like Barbie Collectibles and the Walt Disney Classic Collection.
“When Walt Disney Classic Collection first came out, we saw it at the International Gift Market in Atlanta and we were just amazed by it,” Eileen remembered. “We said we’d love to have that in the store.”
While theirs was not the typical type of store that sold the collection, they convinced Disney to let them do it.
“Bottom line, we’re the only Gold Circle Disney Dealer in North and South Carolina.”
Those collectibles have helped attract a lot of out-of-town customers.
Their willingness to become a different kind of store has been a large part of their success, but so too, has been their sheer determination to persevere in the wake of tough times. The store has survived two major fires, one in 1940 and another in February of 1997.
“That fire (in 1997) started around the block,” Eileen said. She described the wind changing overnight causing the fire to change course, skipping over the corner and heading down the block toward Abrams. Firefighters were called in from Conway and surrounding areas. “They said we have to stop the fire at Abrams before it gets to the alley or it’s going to burn this whole town. So, everybody put water on the roof to stop it.”
The roof collapsed. Eileen says they lost half of everything and were heavily under-insured.
“It was a very difficult time. And talk about another humbling experience to know how many friends you have and how Conway can come and rally around. They came and helped us count inventory.”
The store closed for a month or so before reopening.
Their decision to close the store now came about two weeks before they announced it. They decided that, as they’re getting older, the six day a week, on-your-feet-constantly schedule is getting to be too much. Running a store like Abrams can’t be handled on a part-time basis, especially for Eileen and Sam who pride themselves on their hands-on service.
Customers like Bob Kirkland who has bought a number of dress hats, shoes and suits over the past 25 years, was disappointed to hear the news.
“Sam has always been able to get me what I wanted, whether he had it or had to order it. It’s a sad thing in Horry County and in Conway. These guys are phenomenal. This is a historical site in the clothing business and to see history close its doors, it’s not a good thing for folks like myself.”
The Meares family of Wilmington has been traveling to Conway for years to shop at Abrams.
“It breaks my heart,” noted Frank Meares, “because this has been a special road trip for us to come down here just to visit Sam and the store, and see all the Disney stuff and everything they have.”
His wife Chris said she understands why they’re closing, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
I’m gonna cry. I’m not kidding, they’re family. I mean, we’re from Wilmington and we make the drive just for them. They welcome you with open arms. They’re just sweet, sweet people.
Customer Chris Meares
“I’m gonna cry. I’m not kidding, they’re family. I mean, we’re from Wilmington and we make the drive just for them. They welcome you with open arms. They’re just sweet, sweet people.”
For Sam and Eileen, closing the store is bittersweet. While they’re looking forward to holidays off to spend more time with their children and grandchildren and possibly take a long awaited vacation, it’s almost too difficult to imagine life without the store.
“It’s sad,” Sam explained, “in that I’d love to continue, but my body’s not going to let me do it.”
And yet both he and Eileen agree that the only thing constant in life is change. For now, they’re both still a little too busy to think beyond selling their current inventory, then getting the store ready to lease or sell to someone else.
“Life is an adventure,” said Sam. “You take it one step at a time. That’s kind of the way I’m doing it now. You want to know when my last day is? I don’t have a last day until it’s all gone. It’s just one step at a time.”