Pearl anniversary for The Diamond
RAND, W.Va. -- Florence Roach remembers the twinkling Christmas display that illuminated the windows of The Diamond Department Store in downtown Charleston.
"People flocked to see it," said Roach, who worked at the department store from 1970 to 1983. "The way that blue light shined down on the manger scene -- it was breathtaking."
Roach and nearly 40 other former employees of what was once the state's largest department store gathered at the Rand Community Center on Sunday for a reunion 30 years after the store's closing. It was a gathering of what former employee Cathy Proctor calls "an extended family."
The employees have held a reunion every year since the store closed.
"It was just one big, happy family," said Proctor, who started in the store's drapery department in 1979. "It was devastating when we received the news that they were closing us down. I'm not sure whose idea it was originally to have a reunion, but it sounded good."
The Diamond opened around the turn of the 20th century as a shoe store owned by Wehrle Geary. Geary partnered with retail store owner A.W. Cox in 1926. The building, at the corner of Capitol and Washington streets, was built in 1927 and was purchased by Associated Dry Goods in 1956.
The store closed its doors in 1983, the same year Charleston Town Center Mall was constructed and shortly after Fred Haddad purchased The Diamond and its Parkersburg branch, according to former employees. The building now houses the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
"The Diamond was different than the department stores you see today," said Bill Smith, a manager at Diamond from 1970 until it closed. "We had a great many more sales associates, the customer service was better; each department was like its own little store."
In its prime, The Diamond was "a mall in itself," according to Roach -- with a basement and five floors of shopping. The store offered everything from clothing to appliances to books, as well as a large cafeteria -- and even the state's first escalators, which were installed in the 1940s.
"They would bring school buses of kids in, and they would come in one door, go up the escalators to the fifth floor, come back down, go back to their bus and leave," Roach said.
The main floor of The Diamond housed hosiery, fine jewelry, cosmetics, accessories, menswear and sportswear. The basement featured a budget store and a section devoted to Hickory Farms, and the second floor had a bridal shop, the shoe department and a range of women's fashions.
The store's third floor had draperies, furniture and carpeting. The fourth floor offered linens and children's clothing. The fifth floor had china, appliances and a cafeteria with "the best cinnamon rolls you've ever had," Roach said. The two upper floors were entirely stock and office space.
Smith said he was one of the last people at The Diamond when it closed. This year's reunion was billed as the last, but Smith said he's already heard about plans to keep it going next year.
"I turned the lights out," he said. "It was just a lot of fun, which is why these people have stuck together for so many years. I just can't give the folks who have been organizing this enough credit for doing it; that was the kind of loyalty employees had for a company that you seldom see anymore."
Reach Lydia Nuzum at email@example.com or 304-348-5189.