Embry’s is Closing
And another era ends in Lexington
By Sammy Beam
Embry’s, a beloved Lexington retail establishment for nearly 120 years, is closing. This might not mean much to recent generations, but it’s a sad passing for those of us who remember the faces, personalities, the aura, the reputation, and the merchandise that made Embry’s, Embry’s, for so many years.
I was hired by William R. Embry, Jr. as the Window Designer and print ad Fashion Illustrator for his business in September of 1982. I will always cherish the memories of my formative adult years there, and consider the experience the most valuable asset of my education. When I left Embry’s, I took with me the commitment to excellence, ethical practices, compliance, and completion that I had picked up from my employer and my colleagues at that grand old retail institution. And was it ever grand!
In the autumn of 1904, the “Mr. E” that we all knew and loved was yet to be born. His paternal aunt was running a hat shop in a section of the first floor of 141 East Main Street. At the time, the four-story building also housed a tea room and a bath house, among other smaller businesses. Mr. Embry’s father persuaded his sister to allow him to come on board and to consider adding ladies’ “shirtwaists,” (dresses), to their retail offerings.
She agreed, so off he went to New York. Using charm and wit, he secured a line of credit, and placed the company’s first orders. And that’s how Embry’s, as we knew it, was founded.
In only a few years, it would warrant the use of the entire building and eventually become the most elegant retail establishment in town, offering merchandise and atmosphere comparable to what could be found in Cincinnati or even New York. Shopping at Embry’s on Main Street was a sensory experience that aimed to delight. One might have been drawn inside by the fragrance of the day, be it Jean Patou’s Joy or Pierre Balmain’s Vent Vert, that was wafted into the street by a seemingly magical, super-sized electric atomizer. Embry’s is often recalled, by anyone who remembers it in its downtown heyday, as “that store that smelled so good.”
When I arrived in Lexington, the original downtown location, on East Main Street, was no longer used for sales, but was still the company’s corporate headquarters and distribution center. Times had changed, and Embry’s had changed with them. Retail focus was aimed at several mall locations across the state, and on the satellite departments that were leased to other exclusive retail establishments across the country.
Meanwhile, every area of the once glamorous downtown store was pressed into service to accommodate a booming, modern fashion retail business. I recall the surreality of the situation and I was appreciative of its absurd charm in real time. Buyers claimed office space wherever they could: in defunct fitting rooms or in areas penned in by outdated sales cases. My office was in what had been the designer dress salon at the rear of the second floor. It was crowded with old mannequin parts, tools, and Christmas trees, but it also had an enormous Empire chandelier, miles of peach-colored satin draperies, and two enormous and ornate gilded pier mirrors.
Embry’s did not own the building at 141 East Main Street, but it enjoyed the advantage of a 99-year lease that kept it in place for eighty four years or so. They relocated to other headquarters shortly after I left their employ, so most of my memories are centered on the building where I began my career. I do have one more memory of the old place, though, after Embry’s had moved on.
By the early 1990s, the Embry’s building on Main Street had sat vacant and abandoned for a while. Aside from being used as a Jaycee’s Haunted House during one Halloween season, it was all but forgotten. The general consensus was that it would eventually be torn down.
So one sunny, breezy Sunday afternoon, some friends and I were walking downtown and, when we got to 141, we decided to do some exploring. From behind the building, we could see that a second floor exit door was open and flapping in the wind at the top of a fire escape. We entered, from that point, a storage corridor that led to what had once been my office. Moving through the familiar, forlorn spaces was a lot like that scene from Great Expectations where Pip goes back to Satis House long after Miss Havisham is dead.
When my eyes had adjusted to the darkness, every view prompted a memory of what had stood in that place in days gone by. Trapped pigeons, looking for exits, fluttered past skeletons of chandeliers now looted of their crystals. Abstract black adhesive patterns stretched across walls once adorned by mirrors. A creepy dripping sound in the distance explained the moldy odor that hung so thickly in the air. As I approached the little hallway that had once led to my boss’s office, my heart skipped a beat and then it sank. On the floor were a pile of old, discarded photo albums. They were the advertising scrapbooks that I’d once hated having to glue newspaper clippings into. It had seemed so silly and futile a chore, given that I had far more important things to do. Seeing them strewn about, abandoned, with their pages of my old illustrations rustling in the moldy breeze, made me feel old and tossed aside.
I was elated and relieved when it was decided that 141 East Main Street would be preserved and be given a new life as a black box theater and an art gallery. When visiting Lexington from California, I was so tickled to visit my friend, Ann Tower, at her gallery in the beautifully revamped place of which I was so fond. Then we lost Ann, many years too soon, and it became “The Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center,” or something like that. Considering this choice always takes me back to the same question: How and why is the Embry name not attached to this historic building after being known as, and loved by, all of Lexington as “The Embry’s building” for eighty four years? But I digress.
Over these many years, I’ve remained in touch with the Embry family and with several of my esteemed colleagues from our days together. Many are now dear life-long friends. I mourned the passing of William R. Embry, Jr., whom I will always consider my first boss and whom I’ll always consider one of the finest men that I will ever know. I mourned again when I’d heard that the company was sold, out of the family, a few years ago… although I understood the situation and I know how all things must change with time.
Now, facing the finality of the diminished company’s closure, rather than mourn its passing, I’m so much happier to look back at its past and remember how much it mattered to so many Lexingtonians, and for such an impressive length of time.
Sammy Beam is a Kentucky native and artist known for his work in Lexington murals and interior design. Beam now lives in California and was most recently the lead scenic painter on Jordan Peele’s film, Us.
This article also appears on page 5 of the March 2020 print edition of Ace Weekly.
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