Miller’s Variety Preparing to Close Chapter of Winston History
Sometimes when a job is done, it is done and all that’s left is to move on and enjoy the rewards that you have gathered. It is, regrettably, how something historical becomes history, moving from nostalgia to memory.
After 88 years and three generations of family ownership, Winston-Salem’s Miller’s Variety store will be closing its doors permanently. The cornerstone of Trade Street businesses for decades, during good times and bad, is currently running its last sale as the owners Nathan and Joanne Miller prepare to enter retirement.
“I’m just giving out,” Nathan Miller said. “It’s been over 50 years that I’ve been working here. My health hasn’t been good in recent years and I had a heart attack in 2013. I’m 62 and now I just want to retire and travel while my wife and I can enjoy it.”
“My husband has been working here since he was 10 years old,” Joanne Miller said. “He started off dusting off paint cans and he’s been here for a good many years. His parents each worked here pretty much until the days of their deaths, this store comprised their whole lives.
“We’d just like to rebuild Nathan’s health and go do some fun things,” she continued.
Speaking with the couple, you can tell there’s a sadness in letting the business finish its run, but there’s a sense of pride in what the store has done for the community not just recently, but from its very beginnings.
Ella Miller, a Jewish lady whose husband had his own tailor shop downtown, opened the store 88 years ago, offering premade clothing and all sorts of other items to customers, some downtown workers, some nearby residents and some farmers who had come in after selling their crops of tobacco or corn. The store survived the worst of the Great Depression and was open to all customers regardless of race, something that was unheard at the time.
Beyond the years open, the celebrities it has served, or the tale of a family working out their lives there, the open door policy to customers of all races is where Miller’s cements its history. Nathan explained that his grandmother made it a point that all were welcome and all shared the facilities and service of the business equally.
“What has made Miller’s so successful for so long,” Joanne said, “is that my in-laws and his grandparents understood that when you helped other people be successful, you became successful in turn.”
She said that in providing equal service to African-American people in the community, through the pre-World War II days, through Jim Crow and throughout the Civil Rights struggle, they didn’t just build their business, but helped build the community around them.
“They knew that if an African American man wanted to get a job that wasn’t as a laborer or a farmer, he would have to look better dressed and neater than the white guy standing in line next to him and be willing to work for less money,” Joanne continued. “It doesn’t sound fair to us now, but if they could get him in a nice looking suit, that man could change his life and feed his family.”
The family also offered lay-away plans to help families with this and during tough times would even offer credit to people in need.
Nathan said growing up in that environment affected how he looked at the world and sometimes, as a kid, left him wondering why things were that way.
“Back in the old days, there were always police walking the beat and as a kid you could play downtown and walk around wherever you wanted to go. I used to love to go to Woolworths but you’d walk in and there were two different sets of bathrooms and two sets of water fountains and I just never understood why back then. I drank from whichever fountain I wanted to – they had the same water – and used either bathroom. There you could tell the difference. You might be in a fancy store and the white’s bathroom was always clean and nice, but no one ever cleaned or took care of the black people’s bathroom.
“We only had one bathroom at our store, so everyone used it and so I just didn’t grow up seeing why they were separate at other places some of which are the big name stores you see today like Belks or Macy’s,” he said.
Miller’s Variety became not just a landmark in Winston-Salem for the African-American community, but also for just about anyone who was cool and took style seriously. In its heyday during the 1960s and 1970s, Miller’s was the place to get the clothes that made a statement. Famous musicians and performers made it a regular stop when playing at venues in Winston-Salem and Greensboro.
“I remember the Drifters coming in and shopping before a show,” Nathan said, “and as they were looking around their song “Under the Boardwalk” came on. They were all singing from different parts of the store and each one was doing their choreographed turns as steps individually as they sang. This was when Ben E. King was with them, it was something!”
Other performers like the Jackson Five shopped there during stops in the town, but later Miller’s became known as one of the premiere vintage shops to be found anywhere. Even though new clothes were added all the time, overstock was held onto which created something pretty rare – new vintage clothes, rather than second hand ones that are more common. Hip and trendy kids in the 80s and 90s made it a regular shopping destination.
That flair for the vintage has also brought a bit of Hollywood into Miller’s. Nathan explained that his store provided the clothes for costuming in the Michael Caine and Jim Belushi film Mr. Destiny, which was filmed in Winston-Salem in 1990. More recently, they provided clothing for the new Zach Galifianakis movie, Masterminds.
Miller’s has seen the city change so much during its tenure, from the depths of the Great Depression through today’s revitalized city. Nathan said he remembers a time when Trade Street was a place that the city wanted to forget about, a place that had a reputation for being the part of town you didn’t want to be caught in.
“There was a time when the city wouldn’t do a thing for our block,” he said. “If a light post went out, they wouldn’t come down here. There would be insulation hanging down from the power lines and no one would do anything about it.
“There was just no interest in this street until the Art District started to happen,” he continued. While it led a whole new generation to discover the store, though, it just couldn’t make up completely for how retail has changed as a whole.
It’s been a long run and Miller’s fought the good fight many times when it could have spelled an end to the business, but the time has come for it to shut its doors for the last time. That date hasn’t been set in stone as of yet, but it should be coming in the next couple of months.
“I’m going to miss my customers,” Nathan said. “I’ve been able to become friends with so many people and I’ve gotten to know them well. We’ve all had a good time; they come in and that’s the part of this business that I will always like.”
Currently, they are having a retirement sale on just about everything in the place. True to nature, they still want to help those in community in need, and with so many items to mention, Joanne said that families should note that they have all kids’ school uniforms at half price.
You might also go down there are get that porkpie hat you always wanted, or show your kids the Michael Jackson-inspired zipper jackets that are still available. If you’re really nice, and want to bring back a bit of Woodstock or Easy Rider, they might even let you try on one of the leather vests with that immortal long fringe.
Miller’s Variety Store is located at 622 W. Trade Street in Winston-Salem. They are open, for the time being, from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.
Rich Lewis is a father, husband, writer and cook who makes his home in Greensboro, NC.