Editorial: Wilson’s was more than just a store

  • Wilson’s Department Store on Main Street in Greenfield. file photo

  • Wilson's Department Store. Staff Illustration/Andy Castillo—

Published: 11/26/2019 9:00:47 AM

Long before Sam Walton founded the first Walmart store in Rogers, Ark. in 1962, or the first Target opened its doors in Minneapolis, Minn. in 1902, Wilson’s Department Store in Greenfield was a regional mainstay.

With roots dating back to 1882, Wilson’s isn’t just a piece of local history. It’s one of the last remaining independently owned department stores in America.

For more than a century, the Main Street storefront and its throwback shopping experience has enticed visitors to downtown Greenfield. Walking through the glass doors on Main Street, beneath its iconic blue and white facade, is like taking a step back through time: A bell announces the presence of new customers; elaborate outside window displays showcase the latest trends; elevators transport shoppers between three floors and more than 20 departments; there’s even a hair salon on the second floor.

It’s a throwback to a bygone era. Indeed, readers with long memories will remember Wilson’s shoe salon, fabric department and wedding department, which have gradually fallen away. Many customers purchased their wedding gown or a daughter’s First Communion dress at Wilson’s. Being employed by Wilson’s was a plum summer job for a high schooler.

Soon, however, the store itself will be in the past.

On Monday, owner Kevin J. O’Neil confirmed that the 137-year-old anchor retail store will close due to his impending retirement. Wilson’s will be closed through Thursday to prepare for a retirement sale that will begin 9 a.m. Friday, Nov. 29. This weekend, the store will be open Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. O’Neil, 65, stressed that the store is closing because he’s retiring, not for other reasons.

“I knew that someday I’d want to spend some time with my wife after working so many years,” he told reporter Anita Fritz. “I knew I’d want to spend time with my children and, hopefully, grandchildren. . . . We never know how much time we have. I want to make sure I get the time with my family that I planned all those years ago.”

More than a place to shop locally — and purchase everything from home goods to jewelry — Wilson’s is a downtown landmark that’s intrinsically tied to the city’s history. Its prominent presence in Franklin County’s economic hub has served as an example of the region’s shop-local mentality. What happens when it’s gone?

Needless to say, it will be missed.

With its departure, there will be a noticeable void at 258 Main St., and not just aesthetically. In the 1990s, activists staved off a proposed Walmart in support of locally owned businesses like Wilson’s. Recently, discussion of economic expansion in Greenfield has been renewed. Once again, the presence of Wilson’s, a mainstay local business, has influenced discourse. Its closing will, as its presence did for so many decades, change the city’s economic fabric.

For that reason, we’re sad to see it go.

Do you have memories of Wilson’s that you’d like to share in a future article? Email them to jlivingston@recorder.com.




Greenfield Recorder

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