Days Gone By – Newells Department Store

BY Michelle Bliss

“Youre gonna miss me when Im gone ” goes the Brooks & Dunn song and that perhaps is the perfect sentiment to describe one of the all-time great icons of Wrightsville Beach: Newells.

Before Newells was the variety store on Wrightsville selling everything from fishing poles to womens fashions it was a concession stand at Station One on the trolley car line. Back in the 1920s when visitors paid 25 cents to ride into town on a beach car (the line was owned by the Tide Water Power Company) the concession stand was their first stop. Originally owned by Bud Werkhauser the outdoor wooden stand included a soda fountain that served Coca Cola along with milkshakes and malts. Customers could also order a sandwich and pick up their copy of the Wilmington or Raleigh newspapers.

The concession stand narrowly escaped the Great Fire of 1934 and Lester Newell and his wife Mickey bought the stand that year after running it for several years. At that point the stand had a countertop tables and chairs and fold-up sides in case it rained. Eventually permanent walls were added so the stand could remain open in the winter months. The new owners also put up a sign for “Newells Soda Shop” along with advertisements for Budweiser and Buttercup Ice Cream.

Wrightsville Beach resident (and fount of historical knowledge) Bill Creasy frequented the concession stand in the late 1930s and 40s as a young boy and teenager. He remembers walking to the stand with his friends and trying to decide between a Baby Ruth and a comic book. Back then fountain drinks and candy bars cost a nickel and a milkshake was just 15 cents.

Creasy explains that while Lumina Pavilion was the hangout for kids on the southern end of the beach Newells was the place to be in the middle of town. “We all hung out there and grew up there.” Times were different then he says and parents felt at ease letting their children gallivant freely around town with friends. And there was something wholesome about a family-owned business like Newells.

Linda Brown a Wrightsville Beach resident who lived on the beach for five years as a child and came back in the summers as a teenager in the 1950s and 60s when her grandmother Levi Murdoch Braswell bought a house on Crane Street in l962 feels the same way. “When you were a teenager and you were loose on a Saturday you always went to Newells.”

By the time Brown was visiting Newells in the early 1950s it had moved into a brick building with more space and variety. No longer just a concession stand Newells boasted an array of womens clothing and beach supplies in addition to the soda fountain.

Even with the new brick building the Newells were still adding more space. They held a grand opening of the renovations on May 28 1955 advertised in a “Special Newells Edition” of the Wrightsville Beach Newsette. That weekend customers could buy mens handkerchiefs for seven cents bobby pins for a quarter and three “soft thirsty 20 x 40 Cannon towels” for a dollar. They also carried Coty 24-hour lipstick and Lady Manhattan tailored shirts along with an array of hardware items and fishing gear.

Brown recalls what it felt like to see the store on her familys way into town for summer vacations. “It was like the Welcome to Wrightsville Beach sign. We couldnt wait to see the Newells sign.” Despite living in Raleigh as a teenager Brown always waited to get her bathing suits at Newells including a green and white polka dot two-piece her mother bought her. She also fondly remembers the beautiful displays of shoes jewelry and sunglasses.

Even as a child Brown understood that Newells was a special treat. “When you went in there you knew you needed to behave yourself. It wasnt like going into Woolworths and going crazy.” She explains “Thats the way it was. It was respect.”

Along with buying clothing and presents for her friends back home Brown liked spending time at the soda fountain where they always knew her order. “What I loved the most was getting up at the soda bar and just hearing old timers in there ” Brown says. “And you knew that they were the old Wrightsville Beach or Wilmington people. And just hearing them talk and tell stories was fascinating. The saddest day was when they took it down when it went away as Newells.”

Around the same time Wrightsville Beach residents Elizabeth King and her brother Michael Brown were also sitting on the bar stools at the soda fountain. They grew up on the beach visiting Newells in the 1950s and 60s. They remember ordering Cokes with squirts of vanilla or cherry syrup to wash down their grilled pimiento cheese or chicken salad sandwiches.

As full-time residents of the beach King and her brother recall desolate winters when the tourists had all left and the summertime buzz had faded away in which Newells was one of the only places open. They both enjoyed leafing through the comic books at that time King was reading Archie and her brother was crazy about MAD Magazine. Brown says Lester Newells mother used to keep an eye on the children from the second floor landing making sure they werent horsing around or spending too much time in the comic books section.

In addition to riding to Newells on their bikes by themselves King and Brown remember why Sunday nights at Newells were so special. “Every Sunday we had a big lunch in the middle of the day ” King explains. “Well by the end of the day my mother wasnt going to cook twice so my father would take my brother and me up to Newells and we got to pick our own pint of ice cream to eat all by ourselves.” Brown says that this Newells ritual has become a bit of family lore.

Both King and Brown remember when the Newells sold the store in 1969 to John Drewry now a deacon at St. Andrews On-the-Sound Episcopal Church. By that time Newells was open 364 days a year from seven in the morning until 10 at night in the summertime. The Newells continued working at the store for a year after they sold it to help Drewry learn the tricks of the trade. They accompanied him to clothing shows and taught him how to order merchandise and manage a staff of 15 employees. Drewry describes Lester Newell as “a good friend as well as a business associate. He tried to teach me all the secrets he knew just like you would to a son.”

Even today Drewry still marvels at Newells success as an entrepreneur envisioning a hub of activity around his store so that shoppers could park in one lot and visit the post office the bank the ABC store and Newells all in one trip. Newell also took pride in customer service.

“When you went in that store ” Drewry says “someone was Johnny Quick to see if they could help you find something. Its not like today when you see two salespeople sitting there one chewing gum and talking and standing on the shovel with their foot propped up saying One of these days Im going to own this company.”

Mickey Newell was also a talented merchandiser. Drewry remembers her having a clientele of a few hundred people she shopped for at clothing shows.

Before the Drewry family sold the store to Cecil and Margaret Seal in 1976 they added a missy clothing line for teenage girls inspired by their daughter Catherine. They also continued serving free coffee just as the Newells did so that a group of about 15 men mostly boat captains and retirees could meet for an informal coffee club. Drewry would visit with the club each morning and remembers their talks about fishing boating and local politics. By this point the soda fountain had been replaced by vending machines for coffee and Stewart sandwiches.

Despite the Drewrys dedication to the store when the Seals bought it the Drewrys had already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy which meant the store was still operating but reorganization was needed. “Cecil Seal had a long history of mercantile training ” Drewry explains. “He had worked for Roses for years and years ” which Drewry says was exactly the experience needed to recover the store.

The Seals continued operating the store until 1992 when they sold it to Wings a retail chain based in Myrtle Beach. In its final year Newells made more than $1 million in sales and employed 20 people during the tourist season.

Madeline Flagler executive director of the Wrightsville Beach Museum of History vacationed in Wrightsville Beach as a girl and remembers stopping in to Newells wearing her bathing suit and shorts to buy T-shirts and penny candy like Mary Janes and bubblegum. She explains the disappointment residents experienced when Newells was sold. “Newells was a real local place that you felt was really connected to the community and Wings was another chain.” She adds “Those kinds of family and community-oriented businesses are vital to the story of any community.”

Linda Brown misses Newells as well because she wants her nieces and other children to have those memories. “And sometimes I wonder what it would be like if it were still there ” she says. “How would it have handled all of the changes?”

What would Newells be like if it were still there? Would its owner have found new ways to adapt to the modern era? Even though those who hold fond memories of Newells wish it was still a part of the skyline at Wrightsville Beach it will always remain a symbol of an era gone by a story to be shared from one generation to the next.

Sources Cited: The Bill Creasy Collection The Bill Reaves Collection at the New Hanover County Public Library Tide and Time: A History of Wrightsville Beach North Carolina (Commissioned by Wrightsville Beach History Museum and written by Virginia Whiting Kuhn) Wilmington: Lost But Not Forgotten (by Beverly Tetterton)