I could stop right here and not bother to say another word because most of you just fell off your chairs with screams of, “Me too!” Just mentioning Gayfers launches most folks around here into sharing their fond memories of the popular department store, founded in Mobile, Alabama in 1879.
At its peak, there were 18 Gayfers sprinkled throughout Dixie. The popular Teen Board, or “Gayfers Girls” as they were known, gave fashion advice to the store’s buyers and held fashion shows in the stores. It was a very big deal to be a Gayfers Girl, and although my friends and I all auditioned, only one of us was accepted, and it wasn’t me. I was far too awkward and gangly for the program, but it didn’t make me love Gayfers any less.
As a little girl, the Christmas classic, “Miracle on 34th Street” gave me a glimpse inside the world-famous Macy’s, but this king of all department stores in New York City had nothing on our Gayfers during the holiday season.
Gayfers blew the lid off Christmas with giant wreaths hung high over the front doors and a multitude of twinkling trees that made me feel like I was in the most lavish of all stores straight out of a holiday movie. Southern shoppers could at least pretend it was cold outside while we watched tiny trains chug through the fake snow and miniature couples ice skating on lakes made of mirrored glass atop the jewelry counter. Enormous jack-in-the-box toys were stacked high in the children’s section and swags of bows and greenery hung over the escalators.
Everyone was happy in Gayfers. Seasonal music played over the loudspeakers and holiday stress melted away with the help of the cheerful sales team who seemed to love their jobs. Year-round, from the Midnight Madness to the Bell Ringer sales, customers were loyal to the place where they could find (what we considered) big-city fashions.
Sung to the tune of “fa-la-la-la-la”, the voice on their Christmas commercial would sing, “Give with pride a gift from Ga-ay-fers,” and we would be reminded that Gayfers merchandise was indeed something to treasure.
My Mother would take me to Gayfers every year for the Back to School Sale where we’d search for the perfect Bobbie Brooks outfits and Buster Brown shoes. Sometimes, I was allowed to hold my brother’s hand and ride the escalator to the housewares department where we curiously explored the latest mixers, quilts and dishes. During those years, if a young lady became engaged, you could find her within 24 hours, sitting with the manager of the Gayfers china department, gazing at her sparkly ring and registering her china and silver choices which she first decided on when she was 14 years old. You simply couldn’t get married around here without Gayfers.
Sadly, we all know the end of the Gayfers story. Our local favorite closed their doors in 1998, and since then, we’ve seen several so-so stores come and go. When I enter a department store now, I’m more likely to find bland merchandise squeezed onto racks, with much of it having fallen to the floor. I can’t ever seem to find a “Customer Sales-Relation-Associate” to help with my purchases, and more often than not, the flimsy clothing doesn’t last more than one season. By contrast, I still own and wear a wool shoulder wrap I bought from Gayfers just before they closed. Outdated? Maybe. Quality and good memories? Yes and yes.
So this year, while I’m wading through the hum-drum stores checking items off my shopping list and listening to the same 10 Christmas songs played over and over again, the wish that I’ll whisper to Santa is for Gayfers to magically return again. If only in our Christmastime memories.
This story first appeared in Gulf Coast Newspapers by Leslie Anne Tarabella