Write Again … He was a presence

Published 7:59 pm Friday, June 26, 2020

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Because my father earned his livelihood in retail, a department store, I grew up being exposed to, in a good way, that aspect of commerce.

He was, in all, with the Belk-Tyler stores for forty-six years. That’s a long time, for sure.

His career began in 1932 at the first Belk-Tyler store, which was in Rocky Mount. In ’34, Mr. Arthur Tyler sent him to open a store in Tarboro. That’s where he met my mother-to-be.

Then in 1936, he came here to open a store, which was located on the north side of Main Street in what had been Bowers Brothers store.

In 1955, the building directly across the street was acquired, and re-configured inside, as well as extended significantly in the rear.

One last move came in the early ’70s, as it became an anchor store in the almost new Washington Square Mall. What is now 15th Street was known before the mall opened as the CCC Camp Road, (Civilian Conservation Corps). The road wasn’t long paved before the mall came into existence.

Belks stores everywhere strongly emphasized customer service in those years, and the store here employed many people throughout all those years, and always added more sales persons during the Christmas holidays, and some Saturdays during the year.

The part-time employees were, for the most part, high school students. Easily hundreds of young people earned a little money while working part-time. Over so many years.

I grew up regarding many of the regular employees almost as extended family. Many of them, some in the beginning years, were older than my father.

There was one person who, except for the war years, seemed like a permanent presence, one whom many people probably thought of first when thinking of Belk-Tyler’s.

Tall, handsome, always neatly and appropriately attired, Jesse Powers was truly an asset to the business.

He was in charge of the men’s department for many years, then later given additional oversight responsibilities in the store.

Jesse was/is a World War II veteran. That alone is significant, I feel.

A graduate of Washington High School, I believe he was one of those young people who worked part-time at the store while a student.

During the years I worked there, part-time in the men’s department, I really came to appreciate Jesse Powers. He handled we young folks with grace, and was always pleasant to us, and helped when we needed his assistance or advice.

Some days I would set as my goal to outsell Jesse. As did others among our student ranks. Well. Good luck. It didn’t happen. Jesse had built up a loyal customer base over the years, and many of them were even willing to wait a while until he became available, should he be assisting a customer.

Were I to choose just one word to describe Jesse’s relationship to his place of employment, it would have to be: loyal.

Nowadays, the customer service model of retail is far different than it was for so very many years. You’ll find far fewer sales associates (clerks they were once called) in most retail stores today. That’s just how it is.

And … you probably won’t find a whole lot of people who bring to the job the capability, commitment, and loyalty, of Jesse Powers.

To me, he was a role model.

To me, he was, and always will be, my friend.