By Meghan Holmes
Photography by Marianne Todd
Inside her downtown Meridian boutique, Robbie Hales is assembling outfits for the customers she knows best.
“I have a lady coming in this afternoon, and this will look fabulous on her,” she says, peering over a pair of reading glasses at a pair of plaid pants and a matching soft, black sweater. A cloth measuring tape is draped around her neck. She sets the outfit aside and begins sifting through the rest of the newly received merchandise for more pairings.
With fall fashion season officially three weeks away, the regulars are already coming in to make their claims. Dressier dresses and business wear hang near the dressing rooms with the more casual items near the front of the store. The store windows are lively, with a good sampling of the new fall textures and colors. Displays dot the landscape – jewelry, accessories, shoes, scarves, art – all weaving seamlessly like they’re part of the same fabric.
The boutique, opened in the 1970s, still offers the luxury shopping experience of yesteryear, before fast-paced retail emerged with the ubiquity of chain stores and malls – and the Internet. Back then, families often traveled from surrounding counties to downtown Meridian for shopping, dining and entertainment.
“I grew up in Butler, Alabama, and we would come into Meridian routinely for shopping trips,” Hales remembers. “Department stores were different then. I can still remember the beautiful displays, and the elevator ladies who would tell you what floor things were on,” Hales says.
Back then, the four-story Marks-Rothenberg Department Store sat across the street a block away. Further down were more boutiques. The city’s movie theater was around the corner and Weidmann’s still boasted the longest lunch counter in the state. Downtown was alive with activity – and shopping – and locals seem to be pleased to see the returning interest in the downtown experience.
Back in the ‘70s, Hales had attended Bauder Fashion Institute of Miami and returned afterward to take a job as a shop girl in Loeb’s clothing store. She was in her early 20s and dreaming of owning her own retail boutique.
Three years later, in 1975, Hales was only relatively experienced but had made friends with more seasoned employees. “I was buying juniors, and they bought misses. We hit it off going to the market together to purchase inventory, despite our 25-year age difference, and thought maybe it’d be a good idea to go into business together,” Hales says. The women settled on the name The Liberty Shop in honor of a former downtown boutique that had once boasted the same name in the same location. It had been known for carrying the finest women’s fashions in Meridian, a practice Hales still employs. “We are known for timeless looks, not just trends, and that’s something I’ve done since we started as a dress shop,” Hales says.
“The first time I came back from market I had spent $50,000. That was a lot for a young, single woman in 1975. I told my parents I was too scared and that I couldn’t do it. My dad said, ‘Robbie, if you don’t go out on a limb you’ll never know.’ He was right, and I sold the things I had bought, and eventually came to buy out my older partners and own the shop outright,” she says.
Doyle Pierce has worked at The Liberty Shop since the mid-1990s after the closing of nearby Watson’s Shoe Store, where he had worked since the early 1960s. “I’ve known Robbie since she was a teenage girl coming in to buy shoes with her mother and sister,” Pierce says. “Back then, Thursday night was the night to shop in Meridian. We stayed open until 8:30 p.m., and we were just flooded with people. We had two custom couches where people would sit and try on shoes, and now Robbie has those in The Liberty Shop, reupholstered, of course. Mr. Watson designed them so that a heavier or older woman could get up gracefully and not like a walrus, and they’re still that way.”
Pierce also remembers the original downtown Liberty Shop. “I used to walk past the old Liberty Shop going to Weidmann’s on my lunch break. A man named Mr. Bloom owned it, and he kept all of his garments in locked, gilded cases. It was only for the finest ladies in town. He didn’t offer to take anything out for me when I went inside,” Pierce says, laughing. “He knew I wasn’t his target customer.”
Pierce remembers women who saved for an entire year to buy one outfit. Clothes were manufactured elsewhere but had “Liberty Shop” labels sewn in. Pieces are still in circulation in vintage clothing shops as far away as New Orleans or at local estate sales of wealthy families.
Hales and Pierce have watched downtown change over the years, but both are optimistic that coming additions to the area like the MAEX (Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience) as well the renovation of the Threefoot Building into the Threefoot Courtyard Marriott will bring traffic to the area.
“I’ve always told people I would live to see downtown come back again, and I think I’ve just about done it. I just love a downtown. It represents our history as well as the future,” says Hales.
Over the decades, women’s fashion has changed as much as the way women shop. “Well, of course women wore girdles back then,” Hales says, “and they all had to have multiple slips and pairs of panty hose. I haven’t sold a slip in years. Initially, we were just a dress shop. I might occasionally buy a coordinated pants suit, but we sold very few pairs of pants,” Hales says.
These days The Liberty Shop has adapted to accommodate evolving fashions. Hales’ son, Clinton, joined the business after earning an MBA at Mississippi State and oversees the store’s considerable school uniform operation, supplying area public and private school students with clothing, complete with in-house alterations. The shop also prints its own t-shirts, which Clinton designs. One thing that hasn’t changed is Hales’ trips to market, although now she travels to Dallas with her daughter Mary Allison.
“We go to market for at least two days, four times a year. It’s a 15-story building in Dallas with unimaginable amounts of clothing. That’s where we decide what lines to carry in the shop for a given season,” Hales says. “I’ve seen many good quality lines come and go over the years, which shows you how things change, but new lines come and take their place.”
The Liberty Shop’s storefront is a bright green brick with lively colors and artistic décor inside, which Hales and Mary Allison select. The Hales make an effort to change the décor every couple of years, “to keep things fresh,” Hales says. The one constant is Hales’ effortless charm and ready smile.
Hales and Clinton bustle about the shop, helping a variety of customers. Fathers pick up uniforms for young children, an older friend of Hales’ tries on slacks and coats and a teenager has questions about t-shirts. Hales, wearing head-to-toe black, tangerine glasses, a pearl necklace and matching earrings, is at ease in her potentially overwhelming surroundings.
“Good afternoon, come on in,” she says to a gentleman entering the store. For an instant he seems out of place. “What can we do for you?” Hales says. Her warmth and charm put him at ease.
“People ask me how I keep doing this, and I can honestly say that I love it, and that makes the time fly. I cannot believe it has been more than 40 years,” Hales says. “I think a lot of people start businesses and don’t know how grueling and repetitive it can become. You really have to love what you do. I look at this as being able to help people every day.”
Pierce agrees. “This shop is filled with beautiful clothing, and that makes it fun to sell. I love Meridian’s downtown, and I see a lot of room for other boutiques to come in as this area grows again. I remember when we had the Sears, and JC Penney, and parking meters that people checked religiously. I think we are headed back in that direction again, and I can’t wait to see it.”
Want to go?
Visit The Liberty Shop at 404 22nd Ave.
Hours are 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Monday through Friday
and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Saturday.
For more information, phone (601) 693-5331
or visit thelibertyshop.com.