WASHINGTON — Window shopping has all but disappeared in downtown Lumberton, except for one store.
Since 1973, Washington’s Men’s Store has displayed its wares in the windows at 302 Elm St. Besides summer suits, Washington’s is currently displaying tuxedoes for prom season.
On Wednesdays, W.C. Washington has one special item on display in front of the store — his prized 1948 Plymouth Club Coupe. Green and shiny, it harks back a time when window shopping in the downtown was a feast for the eyes.
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Washington talked about his career and the business he runs with wife Joan, and their son, Wesley. It’s been a long running success story.
“I was the only black-owned store in 1973,” Washington said. “I got good support from all the merchants.”
It helps as well to be have friends in high places, a testament to Washington’s integrity. Community leaders, such as the late Hector MacLean, CEO of Southern National Bank, and the late Sen. Sam Noble, were friends and advisors.
“Mr. Hector was my favorite,” Washington said. “He used to come by and talk.”
“Sam Noble got me involved with Progressive Bank, and he was my friend,” Washington said. “I was on the board of directors of the bank.”
Over the years, Washington became a community leader and a leader for downtown business. He was on the boards and committees of the Chamber of Commerce and on several downtown development committees.
In 1995, Washington was appointed to the board of directors of Southeastern Health and continues to serve to this day.
Connie Russ, coordinator for Lumberton’s Downtown Development, is a long-time fan of Washington’s.
“Mr. W.C. and I live in Bladenboro, so I’ve known him even before I started working in Lumberton,” Russ said. “He is easy to work with and very helpful.
“Part of the solution, not the problem, is a good way to say it,” Russ said. “He always wants to see progress.”
The men’s clothing business has changed, and the downtown has changed too. It was a thriving center of commerce in 1959 when Washington got his first job in retail clothing sales at Larkins Clothing on Fourth Street.
“I felt like that was my calling,” he said. “That was in Lumberton’s heyday.”
“When the owner of Larkins died, 35 to 40 of his stores closed,” Washington said. “I had to create my own job.”
Retail, he says is “where you are, and who you are. You offer quality, price and service,” he said. “I have many long-time customers.”
Washington does not spend much time worrying about the decline of downtown Lumberton, and instead if active in continuing efforts to revive the area. He is confident that good days are head.
“There is an ebb and flow to downtowns,” he said. “People’s habits will change again.”
As a hometown merchant, Washington is an advocate for shopping local.
“Shop small,” he said. “This money turns over here.”
Washington’s inventory of men’s dress clothing is lighter than usual in May following the Easter shopping season. May is tuxedo time as his store windows indicate.
“There are weddings and proms this time of year,” he said. “These days, we even have sixth-grade and eight-grade proms.”
Washington’s changes with the styles and seasons. When will W.C. Washington have his last season?
“Retire? I can’t retire,” he said. “My name is still on the building.”
Scott Bigelow can be reached art 910-416-5649.