The oldest store in the South is still a family business

Posted on Oct 14 2016 - 8:01am by Lasherica Thornton

William Smith Neilson, born in 1812, was a poor man with no school education when he started his career as a store clerk. In 1838, he loaded an ox wagon of goods and moved from Tennessee to Mississippi to establish his business.

In 2016, 177 years after its founding, Neilson’s continues to thrive in Oxford.

He came to Oxford in 1839 and established the first store as “a small log cabin on the north side of the Square” stocking “groceries, clothing, hardware, drugs, even coffins—everything pioneer families needed,” according to Neilson’s history pamphlet.

Business was at a standstill when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant occupied Oxford during the Civil War, so Neilson converted his money into gold and buried it in his home’s garden.

In 1864, Union Gen. Andrew Jackson came to Oxford and burned practically all businesses on the square, including Neilson’s. The stash of buried gold proved wise, and Neilson’s resumed business two years later.

In 1929, the store was 90 years old. The Dry Goods Economist reported “Neilson’s as the oldest store in the South and the 16th oldest in the nation.” In 1980, the U.S. Department of the Interior placed Neilson’s on the National Register of Historic Places.

(Photo by: Cameron Brooks)

Will Lewis Sr. in his office at Neilson’s. Lewis said that the age of Neilson’s and its location on the Square makes the store unique. (Photo by: Cameron Brooks)

The business has remained in the Neilson family for several generations until 1964 when David Neilson Jr. retired. He sold the business to long-time employee, Will Lewis Sr.

In 1964, Lewis, his father and his sister bought out the business. Neilson’s is still under ownership of 80-year-old Lewis.

“My father worked for the Neilsons starting in 1912,” said Lewis. “I can honestly say he ran the business for Neilson, so when they decided to sell it, they agreed to sell it to my father.”

His father still ran the business until his death on Oct. 6, 1989, his 92nd birthday. His death was 10 days after his last day of work and his 77th year at Neilson’s.

To Lewis, the history is what makes Neilson’s unique.

“It was founded in 1839, and we have a principal place on the Square, which a lot of people like that. We have our own charge accounts; we make deliveries; we mail merchandise. I don’t think most businesses have that.”

Today, Lewis runs Neilson’s on his business philosophy adopted many years ago: quality, style and dependable service.

Phyllis Hodge, 35-year employee, said, “We try to buy products that have good quality. We greet customers that come into the store and help them with anything they need, mainly be friendly.”

“We had to change with the times, for sure,” said Lewis. “You have to reinvent yourself all the time.”

In order to reinvent themselves, Lewis must change “the mix” of merchandise often.

“So many things are completely out of style, like men’s hats,” he said. “Kids don’t wear shoes anymore until they’re about three or four years old. We used to do a lot of wedding gifts, like dishes and silverware, but they don’t buy that anymore.”

“With stores like Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney, we just let them have business on the low end of the spectrum and we have a better line. When we first took over the business, there wasn’t that much competition. We sold work clothes and cheap dresses. Now (Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney) can do that better than we can.”

Although Lewis was conscious of what chain stores did at first, now he “just doesn’t worry about it.” Ultimately, Lewis believes Neilson’s is entirely different from chain stores; Neilson’s is a family-oriented business. Lewis views his biggest competitor as the internet.

“It didn’t used to be; it used to be the stores in Memphis and in Tupelo, but not anymore,” he said. “The internet can do things better than we can, like have 100 different colors of the same shirt or shoes. We can’t stock that.”

As Neilson’s changed with the times, so did the city. One form of growth was Oxford’s implementation of parking meters a couple of years ago.

Initially, Lewis did not believe it would be good for his business because “people don’t like to pay to park,” but he quickly saw how the meters helped the business.

Lewis said, “It didn’t take long to see that it sent the people who were going to park all day and not move their vehicle to the parking lots. There was a lot more space for my customers whereas it was difficult before. It definitely helped in that regard. I like it.”

(Photo by: Cameron Brooks)

(Photo by: Cameron Brooks)

Lewis continuously works to let the public know how Neilson’s is willing to change. Last year, he completely remodeled the store.

“We have to put a modern face on everything,” he said. “We recently painted the outside. We didn’t need it, but we thought it was time to change color. A lot of people noticed, and I think they appreciated it.”

Oxford resident Whitney Byars shops at Neilson’s a few times a month. She chooses Neilson’s because she not only loves to support Oxford businesses, but Neilson’s also has great customer service.

“I love their remodeling of the store,” Byars said. “The lighting seems better; it creates a more inviting atmosphere.”

Lewis said he thinks Neilson’s is a more personal than other mainstream businesses. He embraces the differences.

“Every year, we make a little bit more, even in difficult times, like ’08,” Lewis said. “We’ve been able to hold on.”