Ask McGehee

“Mobile’s Finest Department Store” thrived in a building that previously housed the largest laundry and dye works in the nation. It still stands, and investors recently paid $1.462 million for the 82, 000 square-foot space. 

Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama


It seems that every city in America once had a locally owned department store where generations of customers were known by the sales staff. New York had B. Altman & Co., Chicago had Marshall Field’s and Mobile had Gayfer’s.

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British-born Charles John Gayfer (1847 – 1915) arrived in the Port City in 1869 and worked for P.H. Pepper & Co., Mobile’s leading retailer at the time. A decade later, he and a partner opened the competing firm of Molloy & Gayfer and would ultimately move to what is now 169 Dauphin St., facing Bienville Square.

By the 1890s, the business expanded and was renamed C.J. Gayfer & Co. It quickly became Mobile’s leading department store, appealing to a prosperous middle-income market. In 1896, the store filled the first floor of the new Pincus Building on the southeast corner of Conception and Dauphin streets but lasted there a scant three years. A spectacular fire took the entire structure and all of Gayfer’s merchandise. The building was rebuilt a year later with an elevator, a novelty at the time. 

Department stores grew in popularity across the nation at the beginning of the 20th century, and merchants, including Mobile’s retailers, prospered. By the time of his death in 1915, Gayfer, a once penniless immigrant, owned a spacious house on St. Louis Street, a summer retreat on Dog River and was a member of the Country Club of Mobile, the Mobile Yacht Club and the city’s oldest mystic organization, the Strikers.

The heir apparent was Gayfer’s only child, Hammond. But Hammond was far more interested in writing plays and putting on local theatrical productions than running the business. Operation of the store fell to his father’s business partner, Joseph Manning, who soon realized that the firm needed more floor space. 

From Largest Laundry to Mobile’s Finest

In 1920, a four-story building was purchased on St. Emanuel Street between Dauphin and Conti. It had been designed by noted architect George B. Rogers to house what was advertised as the largest cleaning and dye works in the nation. Rogers remodeled the building into Mobile’s largest department store. Plate glass show windows lined the sidewalk and flanked a marble-framed entrance. Its completely fireproof construction no doubt pleased a retailer who had once been nearly wiped out by fire. 

Gayfer’s advertised itself as “Mobile’s Finest Department Store.” It survived the Depression years and the shortages of World War II, only to be sold in 1950 to Mercantile Stores Company Inc. Under the new ownership, a building at 163 Dauphin St. was purchased. Recently vacated by Woolworth’s, the structure stretched back to Conti while a portion of its eastern wall abutted the back of the Gayfer’s building.

When the remodeling was complete, Gayfer’s new addition was three stories in height and had entrances on St. Emanuel, Dauphin and Conti streets. The beauty parlor boasted a staff of 14, and the ladies’ department had three-dozen fitting rooms. As an observer later stated, Gayfer’s was not just a retailer: it was a meeting place, a forum and a place to escape.

For decades, senior high school girls aspired to join its Teen Board and become involved in its fashion shows and marketing projects. Always a community supporter, Gayfer’s quickly became involved in the Junior Miss festivities, sponsoring their annual “Junior Prom” for the participants. A “Career Club” offered the latest fashion advice to the growing number of women in the workforce.

The Short-lived Convenience of Downtown

In 1960, Gayfer’s opened a store in the newly completed Springdale Plaza in what was the western edge of town. Downtown was not abandoned, at least not at first. A 1981 refurbishing of the Downtown location brought the retail space up to an impressive 100, 000 square feet. A press release noted the firm’s commitment to that site, and a spokesman observed, “Many shoppers prefer the convenience of shopping downtown.”

That convenience did not last long. Within just six years, the firm had abandoned Downtown Mobile, leaving it without a major retailer. Gayfer’s survived out at Springdale until 1998 when Mercantile Stores Company Inc. was purchased by Dillard’s. 

In June, investors purchased the old building for $1.462 million. Perhaps, with the resurgence of Downtown, the former home of this once-beloved retailer will find a new purpose.

Text by Tom McGehee

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