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We do not normally do news. But this news is historic. Winston-Salem’s fourth oldest downtown retail business, Miller’s Variety Store, is closing. If that actually happens, the new rank of downtown retail businesses will become:
Aaron – Elliott 1928 (originally Elliott Brothers Gun and Locksmiths)
Benbow – Beck 1929 (also originally gun and locksmiths)
Camel Pawn Shop 1930
Lefkowitz Tailors 1934
City Beverage 1947
Recreation Billiards 1947
Lighthouse Grill 1954
According to his death certificate, Henry J. Miller, Jr. was born November 11, 1883 in Liverpool, England to Henry J. Miller, Sr. His mother’s name is unknown. His family moved to New York around 1890. He died in Winston-Salem on January 16, 1950 of a heart attack.
Over the years, virtually all of the Miller’s children worked in the store. In the 1940 US census listing as of April 18 of that year, Henry and Ella, along with three of the children, Bess, Julius and Robert, are listed as working in the store, with Julius designated as proprietor. By the end of the year, the annual city directory showed Bess as the proprietor. Eventually, Robert and his wife Natalie would become the co-proprietors of Miller’s Variety Store.
Under Robert and Natalie, Miller’s became the first white owned business in the city to welcome integrated shopping, and offered credit to both black and white customers, a matter objected to by many whites. But Robert and Natalie were Jewish and believed that all people should be treated the same. That has never changed at Miller’s.
Over the years, the clientele of the store changed, but the Millers changed with them. When Hush Puppies shoes were introduced in 1958, Miller’s became one of the first stores in North Carolina to carry them. In the 1960s, Miller’s became widely know as THE place for the newly popular blue jeans and cowboy boots, a pair of each of which were purchased there by Emmylou Harris when she was still an unknown drama student at Women’s College in Greensboro. In 1968, Playboy Magazine listed Miller’s as a cool place to shop.
Another famous customer was eight year old Michael Jackson and the rest of the Jackson Five, whose tour bus broke down right in front of the store. And the Drifters sang “Under the Boardwalk” along with the radio while shopping there.
The first bell bottoms in the Triad were sold there. In the late 1960s into the 1980s, rockers shopped there for their stage outfits. As one band member said “I mean where else could you have gotten cream and maroon patent leather platform shoes outside of Carnaby Street?” Disco “players”, wanting to emulate John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever”, went there looking for their “digs” to wear to local clubs where they could dance the night away to Donna Summer tunes.
In recent times, Miller’s has become known as a source of retro fashion, such as saddle oxfords and pork pie and Panama hats. For many, the closing of the store will leave an empty place in the heart of the Arts District, and the history of the Twin City.