Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.
Not many companies can claim to possess a photo of Elvis Presley at one of their Fourth of July picnics. But there he is, front and center, in a mural-scale photograph displayed in the men's department of Reed's, in Tupelo, Mississippi. The year was 1934, so all you can see is a pregnant Gladys Presley, who at the time worked for a garment manufacturer also owned by the Reed family. But Elvis in utero is still the king.
Roughly 60,000 Presley pilgrims pass through Tupelo each year, and many stop at Reed's. With its imposing red brick front and green-and-white-striped awnings, the department store occupies a whole block of Main Street. Elvis's birthplace is about two miles away. Down the street is the Tupelo Hardware Company where Gladys bought Elvis his first guitar, instead of the rifle he really wanted.
At Reed's, in addition to the picnic photo, visitors can find seats salvaged from the Lyric movie house, which Elvis frequented, and a well-stocked Elvis section in its bookstore. Seventy years ago, "we didn't think to take a picture of a 12-year-old kid we didn't know was going to be world-famous," says Jack Reed Jr., chairman and president of the family business and a former mayor of Tupelo. "But he was certainly in our store with his mother. Elvis's ghost could be in Reed's. We are glad to claim it."
Reed's reputation extends well beyond the legacy of a hip-gyrating native son. The company has provided jobs during the Great Depression, a role model during integration, and gracious service throughout its 111 years of operation. The Reed family supports virtually every local civic organization and is the sole sponsor of the annual Christmas parade. Generations of Tupelo youth have endured clothes shopping for a chance to ride Bucky, the mechanical horse in the children's department.
In 1989, Reed's began producing its own line of logoed T-shirts, which are sold for fundraisers by schools and nonprofits all over northern Mississippi. Around the city they are ubiquitous. Outside of it, too. It is customary for Tupelo residents to bring Reed's tees on their travels and photograph themselves bedecked in local pride. For 15 years, the company ran weekly photos in the town newspaper of Reed's-wearing vacationers posing everywhere from Disney World to Africa.
Also locally famous are the readings and signings at Gumtree Books, the in-house bookstore at Reed's. One writer that Reed's helped put on the map has returned the favor. "In 1989 we had a young man whose first book was coming out and wondered if we would have a signing for him," says Reed. "We said, 'Sure.' He had the books in the trunk of his car. We sold 44 copies of A Time to Kill."
Grateful for Reed's early support, John Grisham returned annually for signings for 20 years and still sends the store 2,000 autographed copies of every new book he writes. In 2005, "when we celebrated our store's 100th anniversary he came for free and spoke at the Lee County Library," says Reed. "He has been a great friend to do that for us."
And Reed's has been a great friend to Tupelo. The company "is a cornerstone for this community," says David Brevard, president of B & B Concrete, another local family business. "They provide a vitality to the downtown that is so critical for businesses looking to start here or people looking to move here. It's been good for them in their business but also a wonderful benefit to the community.
"The Reeds live the Tupelo spirit," says Brevard. "I know of no other family in my lifetime with a more exemplary record of service to the community and the region."
The coolest place in Tupelo
Reed's grandfather R.W. (Bob) Reed was an ambitious young man, with an eighth-grade education and a friend who believed in him. In 1905 that friend, who owned a wholesale business, staked R.W. $500 to start a dry-goods store in downtown Tupelo. "Originally it was a Little House on the Prairie general store selling everything from food to saddles," says Reed. "Gradually my grandfather realized he could make just as much profit selling one tie as he could selling a 40-pound bag of feed. He thought it made a lot more sense, inventory-wise."
Reed's evolved into a purveyor of apparel: a tough sell in the early 20th century when women still sewed most of their families' clothes at home. It pioneered the adoption of ready-made dresses in northern Mississippi. The store actually sold its first ready-made dress twice. Two different women returned it because they didn't like the fit. "They were used to cutting dresses to patterns that precisely fit their figures," says Reed. "But the third woman kept it."
The Depression took a predictable toll. To drum up business, Reed's conducted what the family believes was the nation's first Day and Night sale, staying open 24 hours for a week. R.W. hired the mayors of surrounding small towns to work the floors, paying them wages and giving them commissions to bring home to their struggling communities. The day that a particular mayor worked at Reed's was named for that mayor's town--Fulton Day, for example--and his constituents encouraged to visit and buy something straight from their elected official.
Reed's also boasts the distinction of being the first air-conditioned store in northern Mississippi. In the early 1940s, AC was a big investment and seemed like a smart one. But even with 100-degree temperatures, customers stayed away. "A rumor went out among the farmers that you get the flu coming in and out of air conditioning too fast," says Reed. "But one or two of them decided to risk it and didn't get sick. Pretty quickly the word spread." Reed's became a cool sanctuary in the Mississippi heat.
As years passed, the store added and expanded some departments, dropped others. Through the changes, R.W. remained the consummate salesman. "If he ever saw a customer leave without buying something, he would go over and grab them by the shoulder and say, 'Well come back here, let me show you this,'" says Reed. "He could not stand somebody to leave the store without buying something."
A voice for integration
R.W. Reed had three sons: Bob, Bill, and Jack. ("We don't have a lot of imagination with names in our family," Reed says.) All went to Vanderbilt and all served in the military. After World War II all went to business school. Bob went to Harvard; Bill to the University of Chicago; and Jack to New York University. When their father died of a stroke during a fishing trip in Florida, Bob and Jack took over the store.
Bill ran Reed Manufacturing, another Tupelo business started in the early '30s by a great uncle. It made apparel for companies like J.C. Penney and Lee Jeans. (The company still exists, producing chiefly industrial uniforms. One of Jack Reed Jr.'s cousins runs it, and Jack is on the board.) As the country struggled back from the Depression and then plunged into war, the textile factory created many of the jobs--particularly for women--that kept Tupelo families fed. At one time it employed 1,000 people.
In a state malignant with racism, the Reeds were proudly progressive. Reed says the store was the first in Mississippi to integrate its dressing rooms. He recalls his grandfather in the 1950s accompanying a black employee to help her register to vote. Meanwhile, Jack Reed Sr. used his growing reputation as the chair of various state and local agencies to champion civil rights, loudly challenging then-governor Ross Barnett, the staunch segregationist behind the arrest and imprisonment of the Freedom Riders in 1961. As president-elect of the Mississippi Economic Council in 1963, Reed's father delivered speeches around the state calling for peaceful integration of the schools.
Reed doesn't know whether white customers shunned the family business for its politics. "You never know who doesn't come in to buy something," he says. "But they might have had more black customers than otherwise. It might have been a net positive."
In 1987, Jack Reed Sr. ran for governor and lost, with 48 percent of the vote. "He was uniquely qualified and had been encouraged to run his whole life," says Reed. "He didn't regret the experience. But he didn't run again."
From Capitol Hill to Patagonia
Jack Reed Jr. didn't want a future in retail. He wanted a future on Capitol Hill. While a law student in the 1970s, Reed worked for Jamie Whitten, the Mississippi congressman who chaired the House Appropriations Committee. "I was standing 15 feet from Gerald Ford when he spoke to the country after Richard Nixon resigned," says Reed. "I had a great seat for history."
In 1980, Reed's father asked him to consider leaving law for the family business. By that time, the company had opened locations in the nearby towns of Columbus and Starkville and--in a concession to America's changing shopping habits--in one of Tupelo's new enclosed malls. ("We are a ring, not a chain," says Reed.) Jack Reed Sr. knew the retailer required fresh, young eyes to survive and thrive. If his namesake declined then he would have to bring in an outsider.
At the time "I was the tenth man in a 10-man firm," says Reed. "I figured to be senior partner there I would need to work until I was 70. I thought it would be more fun to paddle my own canoe." Two sisters and a brother are also directors in the company and hold additional leadership positions.
While Reed never returned to Capitol Hill, he did serve as Tupelo's mayor from 2009 to 2013. Earlier he had helped recruit a Toyota factory to the area, which, including suppliers, created 4,000 new jobs. "I guess people thought I had done a good job at that," says Reed, explaining the public's encouragement for a run.
Since coming home to Tupelo, Reed has focused on buying exciting brands that keep the business relevant. For example, in 1990, Reed's became the first non-outdoor store in the nation to carry Patagonia products. More recently, it was one of the top southern dealers in TOMS shoes, selling $1 million worth in one year.
In August, Reed's launched Core Cycle + Outdoor, which Reed calls a Milliennial-leaning "experience store." Majority-owned by the company and minority-owned by one of Jack Reed's nephews, Core carries all manner of outdoor gear and leads rock-climbing and cycle trips, among other events. "Core is our biggest new investment in the future of retailing here in Tupelo," says Reed.
Reed's embrace of modernity notwithstanding, it is the company's old-world service that keeps it relevant in the age of e-commerce. Trentice Imbler and her family have been shopping at Reed's for more than 50 years. Two years ago she found the perfect dress for a charity ball there. But, alas, it was cocktail instead of floor-length. The sales clerk, "called New York, arranged to have the dress made for me, had it shipped to Tupelo and cut and altered to fit, at no extra charge," says Imbler. "It's beautiful. I love it.
"Whether it's Patagonia or Birkenstocks or whatever, we are very loyal to Reed's," says Imbler. "The best thing I can say to you is shop Reed's first."