“In just a few short hours, the spirit of the past will come alive in the streets of downtown Houston. It’s Foley’s 36th annual Thanksgiving day Parade…”
Spokesperson for Foley’s and actress Kristen Banfield conveys the excitement in the city of Houston every year when Thanksgiving rolls around. It’s in stark contrast to the current mood surrounding the store right now.
Inside the building signs everywhere declare ‘Clearance’ and ‘Everything Must Go,’ hiding the real store that was once a trendsetter back in the ’40s. While inside it might look like any modern department store, Jim Parsons from Preservation Houston says it was so much more than that.
“Foley’s had counters, but they had merchandise out on racks and on shelves, which [is] the way we shop now. But in 1947, it was really unusual. It was all self-service. And it was great for them, because it was much easier to stock. It was much easier for shoppers to interact with the merchandise that way.”
And shoppers did interact with everything in the store, but they really took to one particular department.
“This was also the first department store to have a calculator department, which is odd. But in Houston, with NASA and the big engineering community, a lot of people used calculators. They were really expensive. They were seen as professional tools, but Foley’s said, ‘Hey we could sell ‘em in Houston.’ So it took some convincing. They had to get the calculator makers to let them do it. But they started this calculator department, and it was a huge success.”
Everything about the store was geared toward the shopping experience. Escalators were built four-feet wide to allow customers to carry multiple shopping bags up them. But by far the most innovative idea was the Foley’s tunnel from the garage into the store.
“Of course, you could carry your packages that you bought in the store yourself. But you could also send them down to the basement, and they could be transported over to the parking garage by conveyor belt. And you could pick your packages up in the garage on your way out.”
Foley’s staff would even pack them in your car for you.
“Which is amazing to think about now, because who would leave their car unlocked, and who would trust people to put packages in their car? But it was a different time, and it was supposed to be the height of convenience.”
So as the end of an era dawns for Houston’s first major department store, Parsons reflects on what that means for him.
“The fact that this store is closing and coming down somehow feels like the last chapter is closing in Houston retail. And something really big is changing downtown, because this was the last holdout for retail. And not having this building its just going to be one less reminder of what used to be on Main Street.”