Book looks at Rich’s in Atlanta, including yuletide traditions

Pink Pig monorail at Rich's department store in December 1987. AJC file

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Pink Pig monorail at Rich's department store in December 1987. AJC file

Imagine Santa giving up his gift-giving gig only a few years into the job, or the Grinch shelving his annual yuletide TV special after just several airings.

The reaction would probably be something like what happened here in 1964, when Rich’s Department Store sent its immensely popular holiday ride, the Pink Pig, prematurely packing after a five-year stint zipping excited youngsters around its toy department.

Only to replace it with a horse-drawn carriage ride through something called “Christmas Park,” for pity’s sake.

That holiday tradition lasted exactly one year, after which "the backlash and public outcry" saved the Pink Pig's bacon — and then some, as Atlanta author Jeff Clemmons explains in his absorbing new book.

“From what I gather, [Rich’s] had just wanted to try something new,” said Clemmons, who writes in “Rich’s: A Southern Institution” of the lengths the store went to in 1965 to not only restore the original monorail ride to its rightful place in the hearts, minds and kiddie posteriors of the city. It also paired it with a porcine-themed mate and elevated the “Pink Pig Flyers” to an even more prominent track running along the sprawling store’s roof in the heart of downtown.

“It seems they severely underestimated the popularity of the Pink Pig.”

ExploreFrom 2021: Macy’s, successor to Rich's in Atlanta, announces Priscilla the Pink Pig’s retirement

And how. If you've ever threaded your way through throngs of enraptured pint-size "Pig"-lets at Lenox Square mall (the revamped train's home since 2003) between late October and New Year's, you don't need to be told that the ride is one of the wholly unique holiday traditions here.

So is the Great Tree, the enormous, breathtakingly decorated tree that Rich’s first mounted atop its downtown store in 1948. The beloved Thanksgiving night tree-lighting ceremony has survived, even thrived, despite its own move uptown to Lenox Square in 2000 and the absorption of the Rich’s name by Macy’s five years later.

This year, the tree will be lit at 7 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, but a pre-show concert featuring country singer Trace Adkins and others will start at 6:15 p.m.

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NOVEMBER 15, 2012-ATLANTA: Portrait of amateur historian Jeff Clemmons near the Rich's clock at the old Rich's building which is now part of the Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center in downtown Atlanta on Thursday Nov. 15th, 2012. Clemmons spent two years writing a comprehensive history of Rich's department store and its role in Atlanta's development and history. For story focusing mostly on the holiday traditions Rich's started that are still around: Pink Pig and Great Tree. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM

Credit: pskinner@ajc.com

NOVEMBER 15, 2012-ATLANTA: Portrait of amateur historian Jeff Clemmons near the Rich's clock at the old Rich's building which is now part of the Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center in downtown Atlanta on Thursday Nov. 15th, 2012. Clemmons spent two years writing a comprehensive history of Rich's department store and its role in Atlanta's development and history. For story focusing mostly on the holiday traditions Rich's started that are still around: Pink Pig and Great Tree. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM

Credit: pskinner@ajc.com

caption arrowCaption
NOVEMBER 15, 2012-ATLANTA: Portrait of amateur historian Jeff Clemmons near the Rich's clock at the old Rich's building which is now part of the Sam Nunn Atlanta Federal Center in downtown Atlanta on Thursday Nov. 15th, 2012. Clemmons spent two years writing a comprehensive history of Rich's department store and its role in Atlanta's development and history. For story focusing mostly on the holiday traditions Rich's started that are still around: Pink Pig and Great Tree. PHIL SKINNER / PSKINNER@AJC.COM

Credit: pskinner@ajc.com

Credit: pskinner@ajc.com

Probably few people appreciate the lasting, unifying mark Rich’s left on Atlanta — particularly at this time of year — as much as Clemmons.

A public relations coordinator for the law firm Troutman Sanders, Clemmons, 39, literally stumbled across the idea for the book: The self-described amateur historian regularly conducts a walking tour of Midtown/SoNo Atlanta for the Atlanta Preservation Center, something that put him on the radar of the History Press.

When the Charleston, S.C.-based publisher contacted him about potentially doing a book on Rich’s — which began life in 1867 as a 20-foot-by-75-foot “rough hewn” log building located near the railroad tracks on Whitehall Street near Five Points — Clemmons’ initial reaction was confusion.

“I [thought] ‘It’s a department store,’” recalled Clemmons, who moved here from Alabama in 1986, when Rich’s had grown into an empire of stores stretching across a city block and the Atlanta suburbs. “It was only when I started to do the history — that’s when you get it.

"It was not solely a store," Clemmons said he concluded after interviewing numerous former Rich's employees and conducting deep research dives at the Atlanta History Center, Emory University (where many of longtime company President Richard "Dick" Rich's papers are housed) and newspaper archives during the nearly two years he worked on the book. "It was the soul of the city."

And a tortured one at that, at times. One of the book’s more fascinating sections concerns the reluctant role Rich’s played in the civil rights movement in 1960, when black students from the Atlanta University Center tried to obtain service in the store’s legendary Magnolia Room.

Reluctant, yet completely understandable, said Clemmons, who was determined that his book be a comprehensive history of the store that grew up right along with post-Civil War Atlanta.

“From a business perspective, they were afraid they’d lose white customers,” he said of Rich’s, which integrated its eateries along with other city businesses and schools in 1961. “But that’s exactly why the protesters chose Rich’s. It was the biggest, most influential retail institution in the city.”

Still is, at least at this time of year. After all, generations of Pink Pig Flyers can’t be wrong.

ExploreFrom 2003: A pink pig tale - All grown up, former patron gets back on track with a beloved Atlanta landmark

‘RICH’S: A SOUTHERN INSTITUTION’

From the Hungarian “Reich” brothers’ arrival in America in 1859 to the day in 2005 that the “Rich’s” name finally disappeared from the last store here, Jeff Clemmons’ book provides a detail-rich look at the retail empire that was inextricably linked to Atlanta’s growth and public image over 138 years. Here’s a small sampling:

  • After deciding in 1964 that the Pink Pig Flyer had "run its course" as a Christmas season attraction, Rich's sold the pig-shaped monorail to a Midwestern amusement park. A year later, the store had to buy it back.
  • The Great Tree's debut in 1948 took place atop the newly erected "Crystal Bridge" that spanned Forsyth Street and connected the main store with Rich's Store for Homes. Because the state owned air rights over streets, the Georgia Legislature had to pass a special act before the four-story, enclosed pedestrian bridge could be built.
  • On Oct. 19, 1960, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other black protesters were denied service at Rich's Bridge Cafe. King and others next tried to enter the all-white Magnolia Room. Arrested under Georgia's recently passed anti-trespass law, they were refused bail in Atlanta Municipal Court and jailed; it was the first night that the future Nobel Peace Prize winner ever spent in jail.
  • Just four years later, Rich's was there to provide personal attention for a very special customer: Sol Kent, the store's fashion director, helped King's wife, Coretta, select clothes to wear when her husband accepted the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • During the Depression, Atlanta issued municipal workers "scrip" — promissory notes it hoped local merchants would accept with the understanding that the city would eventually pay them back. In December 1930, Rich's went one step better, setting up five booths where Atlanta's schoolteachers could cash their scrip at face value without having to buy anything at the store. By Dec. 20, Rich's had paid out over $260,000 to 1,500 teachers — and, Clemmons writes, turned them and their families into loyal customers for years to come.

MEET THE AUTHOR

Jeff Clemmons is the author of “Rich’s: A Southern Institution.”