photo 1By Taylor S. Rousseau

Nestled among the eclectic shops, art galleries, and bars that line North Trade Street sits Miller’s Variety Store, its display windows filled with sharply tailored men’s suits and vintage girl’s christening gowns.

Inside the downtown department store and it seems time has frozen. Full denim, bell bottom suits greet the customer at the front of the store. Racks full of Sunday bests and aisles lined with saddle shoes, church hats and gloves run the length and height of the walls. For 85 years the variety store has been a staple of downtown and its vintage finds still attract a large and diverse audience from Japanese vintage aficionados to famous musicians and loyal Winston-Salem locals.

“When I was nine I made my first sale,” said Shana Miller, whose father, Nathan Miller owns the store with his wife Joanna.  “I sold a man five pairs of jeans and he gave me a 97 cent tip. Since then, I’ve sold to that man’s children and his children’s children. We make sure to treat people like family. It’s the key to keeping people.”

Decades have passed since Shana Miller made her first sale, and now she’s debating whether or not to take her place as the fourth generation of Miller to own and run the family business. Her great-grandmother, Ella Miller, first opened the doors of Miller’s Variety Store to Winston-Salem in 1928. Her great-grandfather, Henry Miller, worked in uniform alterations leaving the business of running the store entirely to his wife, Ella.

The second generation of Miller’s, Ella and Henry’s son Robert and his wife Natalie were known affectionately to their granddaughter as “Mama” and “Papa” Miller. It was Mama and Papa Miller who Shana gives credit to for the big and progressive changes that created the customer base who still remain loyal to this day.

The first White store owners in Winston-Salem to allow African American customers to shop among White customers, Mama and Papa Miller were led by their strong religious values to never believe in treating one person or type of person over another. She a follower of Orthodox Jewish faith, and he of Conservative, the couple held no preference as to who was served first, and it became store policy to extend store credit to all customers, a policy Shana recalls to be unpopular in the racially segregated South.

However, the beliefs the Millers held and operated their store by never brought the couple much slack from the Winston-Salem community and in many ways protected the store during times of racial turmoil in the era of Jim Crow. When the violent race riots broke out in downtown Winston-Salem in 1967, Shana remembers her father, Nathan, and grandfather, Papa Miller, stayed overnight to protect the storefront.

“No one bothered them, because they knew how Papa used to treat people and how my dad still does, with respect,” said Shana Miller.

Years later, Miller’s Variety Store still stands and operates largely to serve their customer base in the Winston-Salem African American, church-going community. Yet, the unique apparel that the store offers brings in a vast and diverse group of customers, which has added to the history of the store. Artists, actors, and musicians have found their way into the store looking for vintage items said current owners Nathan and Joanna Miller.

“When the Jackson 5 were touring, their bus broke down outside of the store. I remember meeting Michael Jackson when he was eight,” said Nathan Miller with a smile. “Oh and what was really cool was when The Drifters were in the store and their song ‘Under the Boardwalk’ came on the radio, the guys were young and they all started to sing at the top of their lungs from different parts of the store. That was fun.”

The success of Miller’s Variety Store has received international and even worldwide fame. The Southern Jewish Store, was a documentary made by filmmaker Donna Schatz in 2001 which focuses on Miller’s as the last remaining Jewish retail store downtown. Vintage aficionados from Japan travel to the store to buy up merchandise and bring it back to Japan to sell it said Joanna Miller. However, Shana Miller says there’s no recognition better than that from the local community.

“I can’t walk downtown without at least one person stopping to talk to me,” said Shana Miller. “I love it. They give me big old hugs and ask how my dad’s doing. They like me because I’m a Miller.”

Published October 29, 2013


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