Historic Miller’s Variety Store Downtown is Closing

By Fam Brownlee, North Carolina Room of the Forsyth County Public Library

Winston-Salem’s second oldest downtown retail business, Miller’s Variety Store, is closing. Miller’s opened at 608 North Trade Street in 1931. The store was opened by Henry J. Miller, Jr. and his wife, Ella Goldstein Miller.

According to his death certificate, Henry J. Miller, Jr. was born November 11, 1883 in Liverpool, England. His family moved to New York around 1890. He died in Winston-Salem on January 16, 1950 of a heart attack.

Ella Goldstein was born on November 12, 1890 in Philadelphia. She died in Winston-Salem October 9, 1980.

On August 19, 1906 Ella married Henry Miller in Atlantic City, NJ. She was just 15 years old. Their first child, Bessie, was born in October, 1907 in Atlantic City. By April, 1910 they were living at 401 West 8th Street in Charlotte, where Henry worked in his father’s tailor shop at 18 West Trade Street.

 

opening in 1928
opening in 1928

The Millers in Business

They remained in Charlotte until September, 1920, when Henry leased a space above Frank A. Stith’s menswear shop on the square in Winston-Salem. Henry had an arrangement with Stith to do his tailoring, while operating a separate tailored-to-measurement business.

Ella plunged immediately into the Jewish social world. That same month she was one of the four hostesses for a Jewish Relief Society fundraiser at the Palm Room in the Zinzendorf Hotel. Her name would appear in the newspapers repeatedly over the next few years in reference to civic activities.

In 1926, Henry opened his own shop above the United Cigar Store, but that was short-lived. In the spring of 1927, he entered another arrangement, this time with Hine-Bagby menswear.

In 1928/29, Ella opened the Miller Hosiery Company, a womenswear store at 131 East Third Street specializing in stockings and other glamor wear. Finally, in 1931, Ella and Henry opened Miller’s, men’s clothing, at 608 North Trade Street. Ella ran the new business. Robert continued his tailoring shop. Two years later, Miller’s moved just up the street to 620 North Trade. At some later point, they moved for a second time, next door to 622 North Trade.

Over the years, the business would be handed down, first to Henry and Ella’s son Robert and his wife Natalie, then to their son Nat and his wife Joanne. And the name would change from simply Miller’s to Miller’s Department Store to Miller’s Variety Store.

natalie miller serving customers in 1950
natalie miller serving customers in 1950

Miller’s Leader in De-Segregated Shopping

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 Ella and Henry were Jewish and believed that all people should be treated the same. That has never changed at Miller’s.

 

Famous Customers and Trend Setting Styles

Over the years, the clientele of the store changed, but the Millers changed with 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 1970s and 80s 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.

millers today
millers today

The current rank of oldest shops still currently in operation in Downtown Winston-Salem:
Camel Pawn Shop (1930)
Millers (1931)
Lefkowitz Tailors (1934)
City Beverage (1947)
Recreation Billiards (1947)
Lighthouse Grill (1954)

Click HERE to see more photographs related to this story, or to read more about the history of Forsyth County, read Fam Brownlee’s blog HERE.