It’s only an old Gayfers box

July 7, 2021

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It’s just a plain cardboard box, right? After I wrote a column back in 2015 about my favorite department store — Gayfers, hundreds of readers sent messages and shared their experiences of shopping and working at the store, founded in Mobile, Alabama in 1879.

Since the story was accompanied by a photo of a simple jewelry box, marked “Gayfers,” people especially wanted to let me know they’d also found and saved old boxes. One even boasted, “My wedding ring came in a little Gayfers box. I ditched the husband, sold the ring, but I still love that box.”

Every few years, the story would resurface on social media, and the emails would once again pour in. With 18 locations scattered throughout the Southeast, Gayfers hasn’t been easily forgotten or replaced.

And now, six years after the original story, I just heard from yet another reader who found a Gayfers box in her aunt’s house in Tuscaloosa. I was almost as excited as she was. It’s always fascinating to see how little things like an old box can make us so happy. 

Big cities had Macy’s and Bloomingdales, but in our world, we had Gayfers. It may have looked basic to our city cousins, but to us, it was beautiful . . . and all we had. It was either Bobbie Brooks slacks at Gayfers or Toughskins from the Sears & Roebuck catalog.

The hair salon in the basement of the Cordova Mall Gayfers in Pensacola is where my mother and I had our hair done. Ladies would perch on spinning chairs in a cloud of hair spray while rows of bonnet dryers hummed over the chatter. When I needed a haircut in college, I went to the local Gayfers. A friend from Miami, who had never experienced the store laughed at me because he thought it was low class. My dilemma was, keep going to Gayfers and risk being ridiculed by this uninformed young man or . . . well, I don’t remember his name (and my hair was fabulous).

My retro Gayfers box, which once held my new add-a-bead necklace, now sits on a shelf in my closet and holds a few safety pins, buttons, and silver charms. Over the years, it’s been filled with doodads and what-nots, but has always remained near. In a turbulent world, good memories are elevated to a new level of importance, and if the little box reminds me of shopping with my mother for the perfect party dress, or my little brother hiding inside the clothes racks, or getting a treat from the candy counter, then isn’t it a good thing to keep?

The discovery of a vintage Gayfers box can bring squeals of delight, and it’s the kind of news you want to share with other people who “get it,” so I’m always thrilled to hear from another reader with a box story.

The common theme of those who share their stories seems to be twofold; both the customers and employees felt appreciated. That sense of respect and dignity came from the top down. From the founder, Mr. C.J. Gayfer, to the managers, to the clerks, and to the ones who handed us the little boxes filled with treasures — that would someday become treasures themselves, and cheer us longer than any of us ever dreamed.

This story first appeared in newspapers for AL.com.

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