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It Happened Here 11/24/11

Black Friday and the Shopping Palaces of Pensacola
by Jessica Forbes

Originally popularized by department stores, the day after Thanksgiving, or “Black Friday” has become what amounts to a national holiday. The Christmas shopping season took on increasingly more import throughout the 1900s as the size of American shopping centers grew. Taking a look around Pensacola this Black Friday, over 100 years of shopping preferences can be seen in the various places we will (or won’t) go shopping.

Department stores were born in the 1850s, providing a one-stop shopping experience that reinvented American retail. Thanksgiving was adopted as the beginning of the holiday sales season, and large department stores held special sales and events (such as Thanksgiving Day parades) to drum up excitement and bring in crowds.

The term “Black Friday” was first used to describe the Friday after Thanksgiving in the 1960s. Philadelphia newspapers coined the term to describe the hoards of shoppers that crowded city streets and stores in search of bargains. The Friday after Thanksgiving is also said to be the day many businesses move from red to black on their balance sheets, another characteristic that helped the name stick.

Up until the 1950s, Pensacola’s primary retail outlets, including department stores like J.C. Penney’s and Sears, were located downtown. Suburbanization facilitated by post-World War II prosperity and the prevalence of automobiles changed patterns in Pensacola as they did across the U.S., causing development and retail to migrate from downtowns to outlying areas.

Town & Country Plaza on Pace Boulevard was Pensacola’s first suburban shopping center. Advertisements for the complex touted air-conditioned stores, over 250 parking spaces, and more than 40 businesses concentrated in one location. Opened in 1956, Town & Country was essentially a downtown further out, with a Gayfer’s department store, a supermarket, dentist’s office, post office, and clothing, sporting goods, and toy stores among others. In 1964, a five-story office tower opened at the site. Holiday fever caught on at the plaza the same year, with Santa arriving by parachute on the day after Thanksgiving to take photos with local children.

In 1970, Town & Country management announced that the complex would undergo a complete remodel and update.  Like many first-generation shopping centers, Town & Country was facing a significant challenge from the next big thing in retail: the enclosed shopping mall.

Housing dozens of stores beneath one roof, Cordova Mall opened in 1971 in what was a largely undeveloped part of town. Once so remote, a portion of the property had been used as a trash dump in the 1950s.  Gayfer’s and Montgomery Ward were the original anchor stores, with Gayfer’s (a Mobile-based chain) second Pensacola location boasting floor space equal to five football fields. D.H. Holmes, a New Orleans-based company, became the third anchor store in 1986. The cafeteria in D.H. Holmes became Norma’s, a popular local eatery that would eventually reverse the common trend, and open locations downtown. Ever evolving, expansions in the mid-1980s added the Parisian (now Belk) wing and the food court to the popular shopping center.

Not long after Cordova Mall opened, University Mall followed in August 1974. J.C. Penney, Sears, and McRae’s were the first anchor stores at the complex, ideally located immediately south of I-10. J.C. Penny, like several other stores that opened a second location at University Mall, originally kept its downtown location. Sears and Morrison’s Cafeteria did not, and closed their doors downtown to focus on business at the newer venue. With many larger stores moving away from city centers, downtown areas eventually developed new identities as centers for boutiques, art galleries, and specialty shops, as Downtown Pensacola has done.

Both of Pensacola’s malls have undergone additions and renovations over the last 40 years to keep shoppers stimulated and interested in their facility. Even when occupancy rates dropped in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Black Friday drew huge crowds to University Mall. Plans to turn the University Mall site into an open-air shopping center are currently underway, and will give shoppers yet another new outlet for Black Friday bargain hunting in the future.

Jessica is a Pensacola resident with a Master’s degree in Public History. When she’s not digging up history facts, you can fi nd her at Music Box Pensacola.