Tuesday, July 27, 2010

27 July 1882: Michael Brothers Open for Business

On this day in 1882, Simon and Moses G. Michael went into the dry goods business as Michael Brothers. Simon was 23 and M. G. was 20. Their store was on the corner of Jackson and Broad Streets, taking half a floor of a two-story wooden building that also housed the city jail and police court.

Within three years, their business grew large enough that they needed the whole building, so the police court and jail moved. They added wholesale to their retail business, and hired traveling salesmen to visit stores in smaller towns in the region. Five years later they built a larger, three-story brick building on the site, staying open during construction by renting sales space in the Athens Hardware building.

In 1893, they moved to the corner of Jackson and Clayton Streets. They had razed the two-story wooden laundry building on the lot to erect a five-story stone building that took up one-third of the block along Clayton Street. The first two floors were dedicated to department-store style retail, and the rest of the building used for wholesale goods. They shared the block between Jackson and Wall Streets with the Athens post office. The new building featured gas lighting and an hydraulic elevator.

When the post office moved in 1905, the Michael Brothers bought the lot and built another two-story building, taking up another third of the block facing Clayton Street. They moved their retail business to the smaller building so they could devote all five stories of the 1893 building to their wholesale business. Their slogan was "Michael Brothers: Since 1882, the Store Good Goods Made Popular."

In 1921, a fire began in the Max Joseph building at the corner of Clayton and Wall Streets. Also present in that building was automobile retailer Denny Motor Company, which had drums of petroleum stored on the first floor. Within 45 minutes, the fire had consumed the Joseph building and both Michael Brothers establishments, even melting coins held in the safe. The brothers noted after the fire that "The commercial monument which we have striven through thirty-nine years to erect was licked up in almost thirty-nine minutes by the cruel tongue of fire and flame."

Total losses to downtown businesses was estimated at $2 million, with at least half borne by Simon and M.G Michael. They announced immediately that they would rebuild, and that they needed more space anyway. Never ones to let construction interfere with the business, they set up temporary offices at the Georgian Hotel within a week of the fire, announcing their location in newspaper ads that noted, "We have lost our store buildings and our stock of merchandise--we are deeply thankful that we have not lost a single friend." They also promised that "The Michael method of merchandising will be maintained in every respect."

The new building opened in summer of 1922. It was Athens' first building with overhead sprinklers. It also featured a classic design with giant, electrically illuminated display windows and walnut paneling on the walls, showcases, counters, and back storage units. Men's furnishings were to the immediate left of the front door, with stationery and books in the section behind; women's cosmetics, jewelry, and accessories were to the immediate right of the door. The building also featured large ceiling and wall fans to keep the air circulating and cool.

Each brother focused on a different area of the business. Simon ran the wholesale side, managing sales to other stores of ready-to-wear clothing, sewing items, accessories, and home furnishings. M. G. ran the public department store with sales of clothing, furs, millinery, costume jewelry, sewing supplies and notions, books, stationery, linens, glassware, lamps, rugs, drapes, toys, and small appliances. Their tailoring department employed in-house seamstresses who could alter or create clothing for customers, and do customized upholstery and other items for the home. Certain departments, such as women's shoes, leased space to outside companies. By the 1930s, the Mezzanine level added a hairdressing department. Every July, they had a store-wide anniversary sale.

Many employees of the Michael Brothers stayed with the organization for their entire careers. They found Simon and M.G. to be "fair, honest, and concerned about employees individually, as people with their own lives to lead." They treated all their customers with respect and kindness, allowing them to add to their unpaid account balances during the lean years of the boll weevil and the Depression, even as Georgia's economic decline brought the end to their wholesale business.

Both brothers were involved in Athens' civic life and were strong advocates for the city. Simon was a member of the City Bond Commission, and M.G. spent many years on the Board of Education, served as president of the Athens Chamber of Commerce, and helped organize Athens Lodge 790 of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. Both families were active members of the Congregation Children of Israel and the Red Cross. They also had other business interests in Athens, purchasing and running the Colonial Theatre, owning other commercial real estate in town, and Simon served as Director of the National Bank of Athens.

During WWII, the third floor of the department store was converted for housing cadets from the U. S. Navy pre-flight base and soldiers brought to town for the signal training corp by installing bathrooms with showers. Michael Brothers Department Store also acted as a blood bank, hosted meetings and collection drives, and promoted War Bonds.

Sons of the original owners took over the business in 1942, but the third generation of Michaels were not interested in retail. The business was sold to Davison's in April, 1953. The 1921 building now houses private offices, Doc Chey's Noodle House, Mellow Mushroom pizza, the UGA Graduate School, and a mezzanine level event space.

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