Soft-spot in my heart for an old Birmingham department store

Emil Carl Hess
Emil Carl Hess (Photo courtesy of Kiwanis Club of Birmingham)

By David Sher

I’ve written about my favorite restaurant (Joy Young) and the old Terminal Train Station.

Never did I expect that I would have a soft-spot in my heart for a department store.

I don’t remember much about shopping with my mom when I was a child, but there is one incident that’s etched into my brain.

One day my mom took me downtown to buy a pair of shoes at Parisian. In those days, there were no suburban shopping centers. We all shopped downtown.

Parisian’s shoe department was located on one of the upper floors.

I’m pretty sure the elevators at that time were not automated. Parisian had an elevator operator who called out the number of each floor and then gave a short description of the merchandise.

After the elevator operator announced the floor for children’s shoes, a salesman greeted us at the door and walked us over to some kind of large metal contraption. He told me to place my feet into the bottom of the contraption. An X-ray of my feet displayed across the screen that showed the bones of my feet and an outline of the shoes around them. There was no need for the salesman to feel my toes from outside the shoe. You could see everything, bones and all, in great detail.

It was the coolest thing ever!

However, the next time we went to buy shoes, the machine was gone. I suspect X-raying feet of young children was not a great idea. I guess no one knew much about radiation then.

My family continued to shop at the downtown Parisian until the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when Parisian opened stores in Five Points West, Vestavia Hills, and Eastwood Mall.

When I got married, my wife shopped mostly at the Parisian at Eastwood Mall. She would buy way more than I thought we needed and when I complained, she would respond, “Don’t worry, they’ll take anything back.” I’m not really sure how much merchandise she returned, but I was wise enough not to ask.

The Parisian merchandise return policy was quite simple–Parisian took every purchase back, no questions asked.  I even heard, on occasion, they would take back merchandise that was purchased elsewhere.

“You’re Somebody Special” was the message that Parisian communicated to customers.

The goal was to keep the customer happy. Gift-wrapping was free and shipping was free on major gift giving holidays. Customers were offered a dual option charge account:  a 6- month interest free credit plan, or a 12- month credit with interest plan, and Parisian had a ‘real’ sale twice-a-year called ‘Bargain Days.’

I had a favorite salesperson at the Parisian Eastwood mall store. His name was Theopolis Jones, but some folks called him Boots. He was an African-American salesperson at a time when there were very few African-American salespeople. My children still remember Sarah Moore, who sold clothes to my wife for them from birth though high school.

Both Theo and Sarah knew their customers by name and remembered everything about them–as did the other sales associates. (Parisian called their employees ‘associates.’)

I once asked Theo how that was possible.

He told me all sales associates had call books with vital information about their customers:  dates of birthday, anniversary, family etc.… and a record of their purchases. He said they were required to call customers to recognize their special dates and to tell them about newly arrived merchandise that might interest them.  He said they built relationships with their customers.

But equally as important was that Parisian was a locally owned family business. The company was owned and managed by the Hess family (Emil and Donald), and the Abroms family (Hal).  Emil Hess (Donald’s dad) was Chairman and was the leader and moral compass.

The philanthropy and civic leadership provided by the Hess and Abroms family is historic and continues today.

Our big retailers today are Amazon, Walmart, Costco, and Target.

But we don’t have the same special relationship with these large retailers as we had with Parisian and its owners.

That’s why I have a soft-spot in my heart for this ‘old’ Birmingham department store.

Editor’s note: Emil Hess passed away in 1996. Donald, his son, and Hal Abroms continue to live in Birmingham. Hal is 95 years old.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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34 thoughts on “Soft-spot in my heart for an old Birmingham department store”

  1. This Parisian apparently was a stand-alone building with several floors. The elevator operator would announce what merchandise was available on each floor. I have only seen these kinds of department stores in Bugs Bunny cartoons.

    1. I wanted to be an elevator operator when I grew up! I’m 69 and it’s probably not happening! Can you imagine riding up and down all day?!!

    2. Very common in the early to mid sixties. I just remember you dressed up to go shopping! Parisians was the best department store ever.

  2. Theopolis (Theo) works at Home Depot on Crestwood Blvd. I’m sure he would love to reminisce about the old Parisians days. He’s always my ‘go to’ for anything at HD! He’s still taking care of his customers! 👍

  3. Theopolis (Theo) works at Home Depot on Crestwood Blvd. I’m sure he would love to reminisce about the old Parisians days. He’s always my ‘go to’ for anything at HD! He’s still taking care of his customers! 👍

  4. I miss Parisians as well. Did not know the store all that well until one was put in the now-defunct Montgomery Mall, obviously in Montgomery. Then when I was attending UAT, Parisians put a store in McFarland Mall. Moved to Mobile several years later and one had just opened there. Then moved to Savannah, and one soon followed. Seems where I went, Parisians was either there or would be soon after. Now they are nowhere as Belk bought them, and, regretfully, they are in our memories. But I remember the excellent customer service, the return policy, and the quality of the merchandise. Might have cost a bit more, but well worth it.

  5. I was so lucky to get to work at the Tuscaloosa and Eastwood Mall stores. I grew up shopping mostly at the Eastwood Mall store with my Mom. I even got to model for them in a fashion show as a teenager. I loved shopping and working there.

  6. I still miss it too. Also Eastwood Mall. In later years Parisian had an outlet store near the mall – items left from stores. Often one could find good buys there.

    1. I always shopped at the Eastwood Mall store. I was so young and wanted to be dressed in the latest fashion. I loved to go in and try on shoes(which are my weakness). Oh how I miss those days!! Such customer service!

  7. Good memories but fading fast. Retail changed , but , thankfully, our community is blessed with those families that made a difference then …and still do …through their important support of many charitable and civic endeavors.

  8. My grandmother, Elizabeth Giles, worked in women’s clothing downtown during the 50s and ’60s and always made a point of introducing me to Emil Hess when I would come in the store as a kid if he was available. She was always one of Parisian’s top salespeople and being Scottish, saved every penny she made. Her salesmanship was passed down to my Dad, CM Giles, a top car salesman here during the 50s, and to me and now to my son, Harrison Giles. I just wish we all had inherited more of her thrifty ways but Parisons was always a special place to me.

  9. As a former employee I hold the Hess family in high regard. So many of us did. I knew and worked with them all. Starting at Vestavia in the Jr. Dept through high school and later came back into the company into the Visual Merchandising Dept under George Delfavaro and Bill Short. We designed the stores, opened new stores, merchandised, displayed them as upscale different and exciting places to shop. The Hess family were always very community minded funding many arts events in the city. These events we created and executed the setups . Everyone that shopped and worked at Parisian loved and misses this company.

  10. I worked at the Vestavia store through college at Samford. I learned more about how to treat customers, and how sales people should be treated by customers, that anywhere else in my non- retail career. Outstanding customer service! I still feel the need to pick up items that have fallen off racks whenever I’m in a store. Great people too.

  11. The city of Birmingham and the Metro area has not had a department store that could hold a candle to Parisian since they closed. Man, I still miss them so much!

  12. Parisian’s in 5 points West was our go-to store when i was growing up. My mother loved it and they’d even deliver to Bessemer!

    1. If your mom if she remembers Jack Becker, who managed that store for many years? He was a long-term key employee and a great person like everyone at Parisian.

  13. A woman named Rose was in the boys department at Five Points West. When she’d see my mother, she would pull out a selection of clothes that she had set aside for me. I was always a sharply dressed kid in the ’60s, thanks largely to Rose. I still miss Parisian every time I shop for clothes.

  14. That family and the Bruno family made a big difference in Birmingham during that period of time.

  15. I also remember Parisian very well and miss the personal touch. I actually wore a shirt yesterday purchased at Parisian 20+ years ago and still have other of their garments in my closet that are well made and seem to last forever. I used to work downtown and shopped at the downtown store for most of my clothes. It’s unlikely that any of us will experience that level of customer concern and satisfaction again. Sad!

  16. Another interesting great journey to Birmingham’s past. For oldies like me, it’s fun to remember our youth experiences. I will NEVER forget the ride on the bus from East Lake, where we lived. The sounds of the rail that attached the bus to power , the snap and pop of electricity , as we moved along our journey to the Saturday treat of the trip to town. It held the anticipation of perhaps something new to wear, but ALWAYS a trip to the narrow hot dog stand for lunch or Woolworths to sit on the stools that spun around for a coke treat. WOW , how quickly like changed.

  17. I loved shopping at Parisian’s when I worked downtown. I didn’t make much money, so it was mostly window shopping, but I still remember some of the clothes I bought there. Also remember a coat I bought at the Five Points West Parisian’s.

  18. Three generations of my family worked at Parisians beginning with my Grandmother. She started out in the retail side and when she retired she was in the “ticket room”. She loved it and was loved by everyone. Later my mother and both her siblings as well as myself all took jobs at Parisians. We also went there every year for our back to school shopping when I was growing up. Good memories.

  19. My mom worked at Parisian in 5 Pts West for Theo Jones back in the 80 ‘s. He was a sweetheart and Parisian was a special place to shop.

  20. I too have a soft spot for Parisian. It was a different time then. The closest thing I have found to Parisian is Von Maur. Great family owned store. But I sure do miss those Parisian days.

  21. The earliest foot “x-ray” devices were even more dangerous than the one described here. In order to see the image, a person would have to lean over and press their eyes against a viewer that could only be seen by one person at a time. The x-rays were “concentrated” after being “funneled” up to an eyepiece that was similar to those used on a periscope.

  22. I began working at Parisan shoe department in the 70’s while still in high school. I began at Vestavia, then moved to Eastwood Mall and then 5 Points West. I also drove a delivery truck delivering shoes to each store from the downtown store. That’s how I learned how to get around town and avoid traffic jams.

  23. I worked at Eastwood Mall and then at all the Parisian Alabama stores as an Account Coordinator with Estee’ Lauder. I especially loved leaving work the day before Thanksgiving and the store looked like any other day. When we came back the day after Thanksgiving, it had been transformed to a Christmas wonderland! It truly made you love retail and look forward to the day after Thanksgiving to see the customer’s faces when they walked in the door!

  24. I don’t always agree with your comments, but I certainly do with this blog post! Parisian was a Birmingham institution. Birmingham born, and Birmingham grown. My memories of Parisian are much the same as yours. In fact, I also saw them from the inside as they were a customer of my small business. The Hess’s and their entire staff were smart and caring business leaders in our community. In some sense, much like the Brunos.

    Alas, nothing last forever, and their expansion outside of Alabama was the beginning of the end. After that began, it was not long before they went missing. In any event, it was sure great while it lasted, and they made one heck of a contribution all across our little community!

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