Spirit of 1905: An Alabama retail dynasty closes down

July 8, 2018

MOBILE, Ala. (AP) — Zoghby’s Department Store has seen whole eras come and go. At the end of July, Raymond Zoghby will bring the last of them to an end.

“We are closing down,” Zoghby said, meaning himself and his wife Rosalie. “Our children are all grown and are interested in other professions.”

It would be easy to write off Zoghby’s as a relic of the past. It is a modest storefront on a street full of vacancies in Prichard, a city that has waited nearly 50 years now for a rebound. The remaining merchandise, all in one room, relates mostly to sewing -- dressmaking patterns, fabric, thousands of cards of buttons, myriad odds and ends -- though there are a few other things such as a selection of men’s hats.

But with Zoghby himself present, it’s not a relic of the past. It’s a gateway to the past. He’s a tall guy, dressed for business, with monogrammed cuffs and a tie promoting St. Jude’s. He’s sunny. He’s 75, and his enthusiasm is still somehow boyish.

He doesn’t dwell on the emptiness of this stretch of Wilson Avenue, or its contrast with a heyday when, he says, patrons might have to circle the block a few times to find a parking spot. Yes, the customers have moved away over the years. But the relationships endure, he says.

He doesn’t say that they still come back to buy things or make purchases or spend money. He uses the terminology of a different time. “A lot of those great old customers still come out and trade with us,” he says.

“The customers really made us,” he says. His dad, George Zoghby, founded the store in 1935 at his own father’s direction, and he took it over in 1964. Times were different. “The way business was built was on service,” he says. “And being a good neighbor.”

“I’ve kept the store as a tribute to him,” he says.

Even as he says it, you know there’s more to it than that.

Setting up shop

Kaleel Zoghby, Raymond’s grandfather, set up shop in Mobile in 1905. He’d actually left Lebanon several years earlier, coming first to Canada and then to New York City before heading south. His wife, Nazha Habeeb Zoghby, had sent along their oldest daughter, Helen, to look after him. Raymond Zoghby reckons Helen wasn’t quite into her teens at the time.

“He came to Canada,” Zoghby says. “Did not like Canada, my grandfather: ‘Too cold.’” He wasn’t big on New York, and evidently heard that the weather on the Gulf Coast was similar to Beirut. “Of course, he didn’t hear about July and August,” jokes his grandson.

In Mobile he started as a peddler, traveling a circuit that included outlying towns such as Semmes. He also had a wholesale operation catering to other peddlers. By 1905, he was ready for bricks and mortar. He sent for his oldest son, George, who was then 9, and opened “K. Zoghby and Sons” on Dauphin Street.

Mobile was a much smaller city than it is now and downtown was the commercial district for the whole surrounding area. Business was good. In a few more years Nazha and the rest of the children came over. Their first family home was on part of the site where the Saenger Theatre was later built. Their second was what’s now known as the historic Ezell House. They thrived: At one point two of Kaleel’s sons, Herbert and Abraham, also had their own stores on Dauphin Street.

(Note: Other family members also ran stores over the years, and Raymond Zoghby said it was a niece who founded Zoghby’s Uniforms, an active business in Mobile that will be unaffected his store’s closure.)

Raymond Zoghby heard a lot about those golden years from his grandfather, who lived to 103.

It wasn’t just that people shopped downtown, he says. “People came from Semmes and Saraland, they came to shop on Dauphin Street,” he says. “That’s all there was. They would bring their wagons or their cars, whatever they had, and spend the day buying and load up and go back. And maybe they’d come back three months later.”

Raymond Zoghby wasn’t born yet when Kaleel Zoghby made a decision that would shape his life.

“In 1935 my grandfather said, ’Prichard’s a coming town. We need to put a store in Prichard.”

George would run that store. So that’s where Raymond later grew up. Prichard, incorporated in 1925, was enjoying a long stretch of prosperity that continued well past World War II, fueled in part by jobs at area paper mills and Mobile shipbuilding companies.

“It was where people wanted to live,” says Zoghby. “It was a great residential area.” He compares it to current-day Saraland, which has become home to many who work in Mobile. And Prichard, like Mobile, had a thriving retail community downtown. “It was an ugly district, but it was an amazing shopping district,” he says.

Raymond graduated from Spring Hill College in 1964 with a business degree. His older brothers had declined their father’s offer to join the retail business. One of them, Michael, had become an attorney and Raymond spent the summer working in his office. Michael Zoghby would go on to become a judge but Raymond decided it wasn’t for him: “Too boring.”

He decided to join his father at the store. “My dad was ecstatic,” he said.

He also was clear-sighted about certain things. “We took an inventory of the stock and made a list of the stock,” Raymond Zoghby recalls of the transition. “I had to pay him for the stock.”

His dad didn’t charge him interest, and he had several years to settle the account. But it was no free ride.

“I think that was good, he wanted us to value what we had,” Zoghby says. “I really respect him for doing that.”

Despite the price, Raymond Zoghby was in his element. He couldn’t be this happy now, if he’d spend the last 40-odd years doing something he didn’t like. “I love retail,” he says. “I was brought up in it. I love the interaction with customers and friends. I say friends.”

But by the time he took over the store, some powerful trends were beginning to work against Prichard. The shipbuilding and paper mill industries were shrinking. White flight followed desegregation. Mobile had grown dramatically during WWII and was sprawling westward, a development that included a retail shift to the beltline and new malls.

As optimistic and positive as Zoghby is, he thinks city leaders mishandled an attempt at urban renewal in the early ’70s. He thinks they tried to develop downtown in a way that was better for big chain stores than for smaller local outlets.

“So many of the good stores that were here went to the malls,” he says.

The pattern is hardly unique. Mobile’s once-thriving downtown withered in the 1970s and ’80s. But it has enjoyed a trend of redevelopment and reinvestment that started slowly in the early ’90s and has accelerated since.

Despite the efforts of many, and some positive developments, Prichard has struggled to turn a similar corner. It made national headlines by filing twice for bankruptcy, and while that’s more or less behind it, the news isn’t always good. Recently officials have struggled with sewer issues at city hall itself.

“Prichard’s been good to me,” he says. “We have a lot of friends out here.”

He tries to be optimistic, but he admits: “I don’t know what’s going to come of Prichard.” The city still has some fight in it, he thinks, and he does see some new businesses coming in.

‘God’s been good to us’

The past remains golden, though. Zoghby prizes a print of an archival photo that sits on his desk. The original K. Zoghby & Sons store is at the right of the frame, the camera looking down a thriving Dauphin Street. To the left there’s a sign for the Crown theater. “That was an amazing place!” he exclaims.

He says that when he went to the University of South Alabama Archives to look up the photo, he ended up spending hours providing details on the scenes in other historic images. It’s easy to believe.

Another old image shows cars packed into downtown Prichard’s shopping district in its boom years.

“God’s been good to us,” Zoghby says.

The Prichard store survived a fire in its early years and relocated a couple of times over the decades. Its last location is far smaller than some of the previous ones. It used to carry a full line of clothing for men and women. But Zoghby doesn’t dwell on loss.

Such claims are difficult to verify, but Zoghby believes his business is “the oldest continuously operated, family-owned retail business in South Alabama.” With roots going back to 1905, it’s certainly a rarity.

“We’re pretty proud of that,” he said.

He also has a longstanding commercial real estate business to keep him busy in retirement, if you want to call it that. “I’ve had a great life,” he says. “It’s not over. I’m not going to be somebody sitting at home.”

Maybe that makes it a little easier to say that after all these years, it’s the right time to take down the “open” sign for the last time.

“I feel like I have paid my debt to my dad. I think he would be happy that I stuck with it 54 or 55 years,” he says. “We just think it’s a good time.”