Oldest department store in the South adapts for the future

Neilsons’s Facade. Photo by Gray Houser

Gray Houser
Oxford Stories

The year is 1812, and in the mountains of Green County in East Tennessee someone is about to born. The store he creates will go on to become an institution and the oldest department store still operating in the Southern United States.

William Smith Neilson was that person. The oldest son of a widowed mother in a large and poor family, Neilson had to take work wherever he could find it. He found work in a store owned by an uncle. This was the beginning of Neilson’s Department Store.

In the 1964, the store was sold to the Lewis family, who still own and operate the store. The son of the man who bought the store, William Lewis Jr., still runs the store.

Lewis, 83, has shepherded the store into the 21stcentury, weathering the popularity of catalogues like those provided by Sears, a nationwide department store chain, the arrival of Walmart, and the rise of the internet and online shopping. 

“Well, it used to be, going back to the 1960s and 1970s, there would be people who would shop in Tupelo and Memphis,” he said. “We considered that our competition.” Then it was “the catalogues people would order from” and now “the internet, you can order anything.”

In 1838, Neilson decided to move to the Mississippi Territory that had recently been established by the government of the United States. He would settle in a little town called Oxford, where the local university had recently been established.

He built himself a log cabin store on the northside of the Courthouse Square – a far cry from today’s incarnation of the store that bears his name. This store stocked just about everything, from groceries and drugs to coffins and hardware.

The store moved locations a few times, and at one point or another, was located on every side of the Square. The store was even burned during the occupation of Oxford during the Civil War, but was rebuilt and reopened after the war. The store weathered other storms too, not least of which was the Great Depression.

Neilson’s sign in the store. Photo by Gray Houser

Lewis knew that if the store was going to prosper, it would have to offer things people wanted.

“We have an imposing front, a beautiful interior, those intangibles,” he said. “We’re the old store. People have heard about us. Oxford’s Square is famous. It’s well known for being a center of the town. When you get up on the Square, you’re going to see us. We spend less on advertising. We have tradition behind us, but you’ve got to have what people want to buy.”

At 83, Lewis said he relies on some of the younger staff to help lead the store today. “I want to hand it over to these young people,” he said. “My greatest accomplishment is to have created a congenial environment … We try and have a pleasant place to work… I don’t go out on the floor. I don’t pick out what to do … I’ve never been a detail person.”

Lewis said he knows the store will be different in 10 years. “I hope that we continue to be in touch with the public, and continue to provide an upscale environment,” he said. “But where we’ll be in 10 years, we don’t really think about that. If a time machine threw us 10 years into the future, we would try and figure out what people want. We wouldn’t have preconceived notions.”

Lewis said despite their name, they aren’t really a department store anymore. They are a family apparel store.

His general manager, Lane Wilson, is the details guy. “There’s more to retail than fashion,” Wilson said. “You have to look your sales plan.” Each department has its own sales plan, he explained, and uses that to decide what merchandise to stock.

Tallahatchie Gourmet, the new restaurant inside Neilson’s. Photo by Gray Houser

Wilson said with an increase in out-of-state students coming to the University of Mississippi, they’ve tried to cater to their tastes and the desires of locals. “What a high school student in California wears is different from a high school student in Mississippi,” he said.

He stressed that the most important thing was for the store to not lose who it is in trying to cater to changing markets. “We’re in the Deep South,” he said. “We’re very conservative, so we have button-downs.”

Nelison’s Department Store on The Oxford Square seems like it could be around for another 180 years with Lewis and Wilson at the helm. They know their customers and they know who they are.

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