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The Aug W. Smith Building
Several dozen Spartans, along with Spartanburg Methodist College’s downtown space and a popular coffee shop now call it home, but for over 90 years, the Aug W. Smith Building has been a presence on the corner of Main and Liberty Streets. For much of that time, The Aug W. Smith Company was one of the leading department stores in Spartanburg.
Founded in Abbeville in 1890, the Aug W. Smith Company moved to Spartanburg in 1900. Its founder, Augustus Wardlaw Smith, was also a textile investor. In its first decades in Spartanburg, it operated out of a store on East Main Street where Belk was later located. In the 1920s, the store’s management and the city worked out what we might today call a development agreement; the store would move further east on Main Street if the City would widen the street. So, in 1925, the Aug W. Smith Company moved into a new, 3-story (with mezzanine) steel and concrete structure.
Aug Smith was best known for their women’s department along with shoes, accessories, and housewares, and they initially did not sell men’s clothing. It was a stylish place to shop, and for many women in the community, a good place to work. One daughter of an employee remembered her mother working in the millinery department, making hats for all of the fashionable women of Spartanburg. Perhaps the store’s heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s. They added a men’s department in 1950, and by 1960 had expanded eastward into neighboring buildings. The store added a children’s department and a larger men’s and boy’s department.
Many older Spartans have fond memories of the annual Christmas displays in the store’s windows. Artist James H. “Buck” Buchanan built the first display in 1946, using the poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” as his theme. The first display was lost before it could be displayed again, because the store didn’t have any place to store it. In 1956, Buchanan re-created it, and the store spared no expense so that he could get it just right. Watching the eight scenes appear in the store’s front windows a few weeks before Christmas each year became a community tradition. The store considered it a community service to put the display in their windows rather than merchandise.
Spartanburg’s attempt to keep up with the times may have unintentionally helped bring an end to the Aug W. Smith Company. By the 1970s, downtown Spartanburg had entered a period of decline, and all of the old department stores suffered through hard times. In an effort to help, the city created a pedestrian mall along Main Street that opened in November 1974. In 1980, with many of the stores struggling, the paper noted that “customer acceptance has not been what the city council hoped it would be.” City officials also cited poor economic times as well as the opening of the enclosed mall on the west side as part of the problem.
Aug Smith’s last profitable year was 1976, two years after the Main Street Mall opened. Two additional stores opened in the 1970s, one in Westgate Mall in 1975, and another in the Hillcrest Shopping Center in 1976. In 1980, the store’s new management reaffirmed its commitment to the historic downtown store, even announcing plans to revamp it. However, the re-vamp must not have worked, because by early 1982, the Main Street Mall store had closed. Within two years, the other two stores had closed and the Aug W. Smith Company, a Spartanburg institution for eighty years, was no more.
After Aug Smith closed its doors, Bishop Furniture moved to the building from its previous location on South Church St. According to the Herald-Journal, the store spent some $237,000 on the renovation, and opened in June 1984. Bishop Furniture continued to operate out of part of the Aug Smith Building until around 2011.
The recent redevelopment and expansion of the Aug Smith building has brought new life to an old structure, making it a home for downtown residents who now share in the Aug Smith Building’s century-long tradition.
-Phillip Stone, PhD