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FROM DAYS PAST.. Mullins Store: The last family-owned department store on Main Street

December 11, 2010

For the Oktibbeha County Heritage Museum

There was a time every great downtown featured an array of family owned stores and Starkville was no exception.
Independent retailers, particularly in small cities, have faced challenges with increased competition. Malls continue to lure heavy hitters with national department store and specialty chains and outlet shopping centers.
Mullins Department Store, which operated in downtown Starkville for decades, closed December 29, 1999. It was the last family-owned department store on Main Street. Researching the newspapers, Mullins must have been at the top of the list for purchasing ads from the local newspaper because they were so numerous. The unusual thing I noticed about the ads was they almost always featured their employees as well as their merchandise. For instance, in a December full-page ad, there was a drawing of a Christmas tree with balls on it. In each ball, there was a photo of each employee wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.
The Mullins were actively involved in community activities. Sonny made sure that Larry, his son, and Janet, his wife, got involved in activities as well. Both of his daughters, Pam and Trisha worked at the store. Larry and Steve Langston worked with Pam Jones and Jan Zeppelin in the Starkville Downtown Association. Sonny was involved in football and basketball. When Babe McCarty came to Mississippi State, Sonny had not been involved in the basketball program. Peggy loved the game and kept encouraging him to attend. Peggy talked Babe’s wife into Babe telling Sonny that he was not going to buy any more clothes from him if he did not attend the games. This was the beginning of his love for the game. Sonny and Joe Phillips, with the university, worked to make money to buy Babe a Cadillac at the end of one of his great seasons.
It is the Christmas season and Peggy loved the season and convinced the Chamber of Commerce to bring the Christmas Parade back to Starkville. She chaired the Parade Committee for several years. She served as chair for the Christmas Open House downtown for fifteen years. When the Main Street Program was given up by the city, she acted as President of the Downtown Association for eight years. Always interested in hospitality, Peggy was responsible for the State Pageant, Mississippi Miss Hospitality moving to Starkville. Sonny and Peggy received the first Simmons Award for business participation in community affairs.

Mrs. Peggy Mullins Buckley who was a vital part of the stores shares her memories....

Mullins Department Store was the successor to the W. W. Scales Co. which started in 1845. Scales was the oldest store in Starkville and the second oldest store in Mississippi. It was one of fifty department stores in the State of Mississippi. It was founded in Crawford. Scales sold wagon accessories to groceries. It offered overnight lodging.
When Mullins moved into the East Main Plaza on Main Street, everyone was excited. It was new and fresh. It was easy to get too. Business was good. L. L. Mullins, Sr. was a friend of the Scales family. Mr. Scales had died. Walter Scales, his son, didn’t want the responsibility of the business. Scales purchased the merchandise so that the business didn’t go over $100,000 a year. Some items were increasing in price. These items required more time. Mr. Scales had asked L. L. Mullins to help him find a buyer. Sonny encouraged his dad to purchase the business, but he did not want too. Through time, Sonny decided he wanted to purchase the business and began to work on the purchase. This was the spring of 1968. Peggy Mullins was running for the National President of Junior Auxiliary in May. Sonny kept reminding her that she would be needed in the business. She kept the politics low on the convention and was not elected. Kay Katz who was her spokesperson, said, “she realized something was up.” The purchase of the business was announced in late May.
It took some time to make the move from East Main to uptown. Sonny set a goal to work on inventory increase, and later set a goal of a million dollars in sales. Downtown was doing well. The Downtown Association was growing. There was interest in the Main Street Program
J. D. Austin had worked for Mr. Scales beginning at age 13. He drove Mr. Scales to the store daily. He drove up Highway 82 which was a dirt road at that time. J. D. worked at the store doing odd jobs. One of his jobs was taking care of the horses and buggies of the dairy farmers who came in to Starkville to shop for supplies. The under section of Scales has a huge broiler that kept the store warm. The dirt was clean and covered and that is where some of them slept. It took an overnight trip from Oktoc or Sessums to come to Starkville and get supplies. Mr. Scales was adamant that those staying there could only have two alcoholic drinks for the evening. J.D. took care of the drinks. If any farmer got more and acted up, he was dismissed from staying at the store. J. D. took special care of the place. He carved in the rafters of the basement when heavy snow and rains came. This old boiler was still there when Mullins purchased the building. In the early 1970s, Sonny decided that he would take the cellar in as part of the store. J. D. was not happy. The cellar was built for a separate junior store. The parking lot at the back of the store was where the buggies and horses stayed when they chose to stay there overnight.
Mr. Scales was generous with J. D. Austin. He helped him to purchase some land for himself and to build some rental places. A street is named for him, Austin Street. He worked for Mr. Mullins until the 1997 (29 years). He worked for Mr. Scales around 52 years.
When you went to pay your bill at Scales, the floor was not even. It could be a small slide. All the kids loved to slide down the floor. Mr. Scales would appear to make sure you didn’t get hurt. I remember taking Larry with me because he loved playing there. I was scared to death of Mr. Scales, but he really meant no harm
One of the articles in the store was a huge safe. It was about six feet tall and three or four feet wide. Some thought it had been moved from the Crawford store. Sonny thought it was way too heavy. Mullins used the safe during their time in the store. Working men covered it up when the store was redone The safe is still there.
Murray Lindsey worked for Sonny from the beginning of his business on Main Street. He worked for him at East Main Plaza until the moved to uptown. Murray went to the Bookstore on campus when the store moved uptown. Mr. Harold Rone came to Mullins when the store across the street closed and worked for Mullins until it closed.
Mullins was the last of family owned department stores on Main Street. There were two in Mississippi at the time. The other is still open in Oxford. Larger stores were taken in during the 1970s and 80s but many did not make it to the 90s.
When Mullins moved into the Scales building in 1968, the inventory was for infants, children, juniors and ladies. The men’s department was smaller, but the gift department was full. There were accessories and materials and patterns were large. Lingerie and accessories were full.
Sonny kept the employees that were working at Scales. Scales wanted the name changed so it became Mullins Department Store.
Once the Sonny’s Cellar was open, another store was opened in the Highway 82 Shopping Center. It was called Sonny’s Edition.
The store was very involved in having fashion shows. Janet Mullins was the producer of the Fashion Shows and worked with the newspaper on the Mullins advertisements. The Fashion Board was very active. Fashion shows were at the University Inn, the Fantasy Island and some at the store. Crowds were very active at these shows!
It was in 1955 that Mullins Mens Wear opened. Sonny had been in the National Guard and in his freshman year, the Guard was called to active duty. Before he came back to school, he attended the Officers Training School in Oklahoma. He worked for his father at Mullins and Sons when he was out of school. During the summer, Sonny had tried to get his father to start carrying first class merchandise. He carried mostly seconds. Mr. Mullins kept telling him, “No he didn’t want to do that.” Finally he told Sonny to go open his own store and carry “first” and that is what he did. He opened his store two months later on Main Street.
Sonny loved having the store. He had a year and a half more of school so Murray Lindsey, a Mr. Corley and his wife worked at the store. When Mr. Mullins finished college, he began a collection of pictures of the sports at MSU. Many college students came in often to see what he had.
In the 1980s, Sonny, Joe Curry, Scotty Wofford, Freeman McGinnis, Jack Moreland, and J. D. Black began work on East Main Plaza Building on University Drive. It was a first group of businesses off of Main Street.
Mr. Mullins worked with Mrs. Hartness who owned the building next to the store. He wanted to by it and add it to the store. She sold it to him in the 1970s and that added the Mullins Means Wear Shop.
Sonny loved the business, but business changed a whole lt. In 1998 he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He announced in 1999 that he would close the store. The last day of business was December 29, 1999.
Mullins Department Store had 42 employees at one time. Buyers went to Dallas, Atlanta and New York to purchase merchandise. Ladies went three or four times a year. Men and gifts usually went twice and there were always salesmen to see at the store.

Edna Jean Reynolds Gunn remembers...

Mullins Department Store was the personification of Starkville all rolled into one. It was a one stop for everything you might need - from chic clothes for women and handsome wear for men to wide ranges of gifts for every occasion. You could always enjoy a friendly conversation with the clerks or run into a friend shopping. Sonny always greeted you with a welcoming smile, which made you glad you had come into the store. Mullins was a store where you not only received value for your money, but it was an atmosphere of hometown courtesy. It was a great place to shop!

Bill Drane remembers...

My first exposure in the retail business was at Mullins and Sons “under the hill” as the store was known in those days. I worked there part time while attending Miss. State University for Mr. L. L. Mullins Sr. and Glenn Mullins. Mrs. Mullins ran the ladies side of the store but when she made her presence up in the men’s area we all made real sure we were paying close attention.
After working at Mullins and Sons for a while, I experienced the first of many transfers to come when it was “arranged”.... how I don’t remember.... that I would go up to Main and Jackson Streets and work for Sonny at Mullins Men’s Wear. I worked there until I graduated from MSU in 1964. Sonny’s love and passion for Miss. State sports was reflected in the many autographed photos of players and coaches displayed around the store. He was the consummate clothing storeowner always assisting a wide array of customers from young students to adults in finding just the right item they were looking for.
At the very back of the store there was a space where we sold shoes. It also served as a little lounge area where Peggy would stop in with the children and visit for a while. Sonny was very affable and always made whoever entered the store feel very welcome and that small space in back of the store was well used. It was very common for other business owners, ministers, bankers, the sheriff, the police chief and policemen, students, players and coaches from SHS and MSU plus local folks in town to drop in for a chat or just to say hello as they made their way up and down the street. During my time at the Mullins Men’s Wear, Murray Lindsay who became a good friend was saddled with the job of keeping us part-time students in tow!
While at the time I had no idea, I later realized working for Sonny was the genesis of my exposure to the importance of building customer and personal relationships and that bode well for me over the years. Sonny was really a great person and a great boss. We all enjoyed working for him even when it came time to clean and wax the tile floor and how it shined when we were through...almost as much as Sonny’s wing tip shoes!
Harold Rone remembers...

From the beginning of Mullins Department Store in 1968 until it’s closing in 1998, I was fortunate to have worked with Sonny and Peggy Mullins. They and their children, Larry, Pam and Trisha somewhat became a second family to me, along with those employees who worked there so many years. I remember so well some of the earlier employees such as Mrs. Edna Jackson, who always had a smile and a joke to share with us as we began our day. Mrs. Mada Wright in the Material department, Mrs. Lucille Johnson and Mrs. Venie Faulkner in the Ladies Department, Mrs. Eloise Cole and Barbara Norman in Gifts and Mrs. Emily Wade and Peggy Carston in the Business Office, are only a few of the earlier co-workers whose memories I cherish today. Each season we always found it interesting to see how styles and colors of clothing changed and to see what our customers liked most.
In addition to full-time employees, Sonny hired many part-time students to work in the Men’s, Ladies, and Gifts departments. This offered me the opportunity to know numerous young men and women who later graduated and moved into a variety of occupations. Today it is always exciting when I go to functions here in Starkville or am in other places outside of our area and see these students who often seek me out to tell me about their families and the different things they are now doing in their careers. Many of them have told me that the experiences they received working at Mullins Department Store has been invaluable.
Also, I made many customer friends over the years I worked with Mullins and this association is certainly missed by me. Some of the long-time customers would call, especially during Christmas shopping days or birthdays and request me to pick out a gift for their husband or some other family members, or would send a check and ask that a gift certificate be mailed to them (especially older people who for whatever reason could not get in to town). They were all special to me. Because of the many friends and associates with whom I worked and knew, I will always have fond memories of these 30 years with Mullins Department Store.

Murray Lindsey remembers...

I started to work at Mullins Mens wear in 1955. We usually had a part time student working and some of them that I remember are: Walter Stubbe, Kevin Curry, Buddy Stevenson, Billy Echols, James McKenzie, and Billy Drane. We ordered the maroon travel blazers for the MSU football team and would go out to the athletic dorm one night before the season and measure to make our order. Some of the team members and their families would come by the store often and became our close friends. Many of the students would come by on ballgame weekends for years after they graduated.
Sonny and I worked together until 1968 and never had a crossword. I will always remember him as a kind, gentle man who was like a brother to me. In 1957, I had to take a trip to Korea for 2 years and when I came back to work, I had lost most of my hair. We laughed when some customers called me Mr. Mullins.
It was a pleasure working at Mullins Mens Wear, and also the leisure time Jean and I spent with Sonny, Peggy and their children outside the store.

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