The Southern Jewish Store

Tobacco farmers, civil rights, Emmylou Harris, working class history, Japanese denim collectors, and bell bottom jeans - how one Appalachian variety store remained a touchstone in its community for over 80 years. 


In the early 1900’s, Trade Street in downtown Winston-Salem was home to a vibrant and bustling merchant community. Tobacco, furniture making, and textiles were the backbone of North Carolina industry - and they were flourishing. Tobacco season was especially busy, and once a year farmers from local counties would drive into town to sell their crop. Trucks lined the streets carrying wagons full of the annual harvest with homespun quilts adorning each buggy, keeping its agricultural contents safely tucked underneath. This would be the biggest payday of the year for local farmers, and when they would do the majority of their clothing and supply shopping. At the time, as many as 50 Jewish owned businesses lined Trade Street. They were part of a migrational movement in the early 20th century where Jewish families became important contributors to the economic prosperity of the American South. Many working as shop keepers and merchants - the Millers were one of these families. 


Left: Portrait of Henry Miller. Right: Early advertisement for Henry's tailor services.


In September 1920, Ella and Henry Miller made the 80 mile trek from Charlotte to the Camel City. Henry, an expert tailor, set up shop above an established downtown menswear store, Frank A. Stith Clothing Co. There he served as an in house tailor for the department store, while also offering bespoke suits of his own making. The success of the tailoring business allowed Ella to open her own womenswear store, Miller Hosiery Company, in 1929. She worked 15 hour days, a trailblazing move, as the idea of a woman running her own business was unheard of at the time. The store was quickly followed by the 1931 opening of Miller’s, a menswear store, located at 608 North Trade Street — with this, the near century long story of Miller’s Variety Store had begun. 


Left: Miller's storefront, circa 1930s. Right: Ella Miller (second from center right) with her daughter Bella (right of Miller) and her father Jacob Goldstein (center with hat) in front of the store, circa 1930s.


The Miller’s mainly served farmers in the early days, and they relied heavily on the busyness of tobacco season to provide a bulk of their yearly income. Frank Miller (grandson of Henry and Ella) worked in the store from childhood and recounts — “They [farmers] would sell the tobacco in the warehouses in September, and that would be their money for the year. Then they would take that and buy the kids school clothes. The father would come in with a stick, the size of the shoe, and put the stick in… and if it fit that would be the size of the shoe. Then they would take a string… they would measure it, and that would be the waist for the pants. You never saw the kids, and I never heard any complaints that it didn’t fit!”


Left: Robert Miller with his sister Bess, circa 1940s. Right: Robert in front of the store, circa 1940s.


In 1947, Henry and Ella passed the store down to their son Robert, who had just returned from service in the second World War. Robert knew the ins and outs of the business, he had been working there since he was 8 years old. He and his wife Natalie would run the store for the next half century, never shying away from making unprecedented and progressive choices that made a major impact on the history of the community around them. 

In the Jim Crow Era South, local and state laws were in place that enforced racial segregation and did not allow Black customers to shop in stores that were White owned. Natalie and Robert Miller fought strongly against this law, and were the first White owned business in Winston to offer integrated shopping as well as credit to Black customers. In their store Black and White customers shared bathrooms, changing rooms, and drinking fountains — an unheard of practice in the South. They faced objection from many Whites at the time, with their store often being referred to with anti-Semitic as well anti-Black racial slurs. Professor and Rabbi Andrew Ettin elaborates — “Jews in the South found themselves a minority that was indeed, so small... that they were not well understood. There was some anti-Semitism in the South, and it could be quite nasty at times, but Jews in the South were even more likely to run across ignorance than active hostility. People did not know that there were Jews there.”


Natalie Miller smiles while helping children pick out shoes, circa 1950.


Under the command of Natalie and Robert, Miller’s Variety Store was able to capture other historic firsts, adapting with the times and remaining loyal to their ever changing customer base. In the late 1950s, they were one of the first stores in North Carolina to carry the newly invented Hush Puppies shoes. Gone were the days of the farmer stopping by to purchase a new pair of overalls, dry goods, workbooks, dungarees, or house paint. By the time the 1960s rolled around the shop had expanded its customer base to include the growing youth movement. They can stake claim to being the first store in Northwest North Carolina to carry Levi’s jeans, as well as one of the few stores on the East Coast to stock bell bottom jeans. The first pair of bell bottoms sold in the Triad were sold at Miller's. The success of denim sales even earned Robert the title “King of the Jeans”. Robert dressed the part as well, wearing the same clothes his customer were buying, and referred to himself as the “oldest Hippie of the ‘60s” though he lacked the long hair to match. Folks outside of the local community also began to take notice and in 1968 Millers landed a mention in Playboy magazine as a “cool place to shop”.


Left: Miller's Variety Store before its final move, circa late 1970s. Right: Robert and Natalie Miller standing on Trade Street, the store can be seen in the far back, circa late 1970s.


Naturally, the shop became a Mecca for local musicians as well as those traveling through the area. Emmylou Harris, then an unknown drama student attending the Greensboro Women’s College, shopped at Miller’s for blue jeans and cowboy boots. Local Winston-Salem garage rock bands Rittenhouse Square and Sacred Irony were frequent customers and were said to have charge accounts. Maya Angelou, decorated poet and civil rights activist, was also a customer. Nathan Miller (son of Natalie and Robert), recounts two visits by particularly famous characters — “When the Jackson 5 were touring, their bus broke down outside of the store. I remember meeting Michael Jackson when he was eight. Oh and what was really cool was when The Drifters were in the store and their song ‘Under the Boardwalk’ came on the radio, the guys were young and they all started to sing at the top of their lungs from different parts of the store. That was fun.” The shop continued to be a hot spot for those with an artistic bend all the way through the 1980s and during this time they made their final move to 622 North Trade Street.

As the new millennium rolled around, Miller’s Variety Store had reached its seventh decade in business. Robert and Natalie, who were also in their seventh decade, were still putting in 60 hour work weeks. Their son Nathan (now the manager) and their granddaughter Shana can be seen helping run the store in the 2001 documentary “The Southern Jewish Store” — from which this article got its name. The documentary is a must watch, and paints a charming, powerful picture of the relationship between the Miller’s and their Black and working class customers. 



At this point in time, Robert and Natalie had pivoted the business yet again and served Black church going people who came to Miller’s for Sunday suits, dress hats, alterations, christening gowns, and the like. Many customers had been coming to the shop since they were children, and can be seen reminiscing with Natalie and Robert in their old age. 

During one of the documentary’s opening scenes longtime patron Gilbert Johnson says — “I’ve never been to a Jewish business that we were refused to come in for services, or food, or clothing… but in other [businesses], if it was non-Jewish, sometimes we had to stand around and wait… and then we were told we wouldn’t be served… they didn’t serve colored here, and we would have to leave.” Another lifelong customer, Willie Thompson, remarks — “I’m 64 years old and it [Miller’s Variety Store] was here when I was a little boy. Yes sir, if you can’t buy your clothes here you can’t buy them nowhere else! …They believe in helping the poor people. These friendly people, they know how to talk to you, and they don’t believe in trying to cut your throat… they just good people here and that’s all there is to it!” 

Beginning in the late 1960s, vintage collectors from Japan began traveling to the American South in search of jeans from decades past. Western influence and denim’s connection with counterculture symbolism and rock and roll had created a great demand for high quality American made denim in Japan. The search for old denim reached a fever pitch in the 1990s, with Japanese dealers emptying out attics, basements, and back stock of old stores. Eventually, Miller’s Variety Store caught the attention of one of these dealers, and Robert Miller started selling denim and other dead-stock vintage merchandise to Japanese aficionados who shipped their spoils overseas. 

To capitalize on the growing trend of vintage clothing in the States, Robert also stocked the back half of the store with clothing that had sat in the shop’s basement — some items dating back to as late as the 1950s. Local vintage enthusiasts bought pink denim bell bottoms and fuzzy purple hats from the stores '60s and '70s back stock. Miller’s also supplied the costume departments of Hollywood productions with vintage from their archive — North Carolina filmed Mr. Destiny (1990) and Masterminds (2016) being noted.

By the 2010s, Miller’s Variety Store had stood as a fixture on Trade Street for 80 years. Robert and Natalie had passed away in the late 2000s, and their son Nathan had taken over as last captain of the ship. During this closing chapter was when I encountered Miller’s Variety Store.

As a teen growing up in small town North Carolina I had few things I looked forward to as much as going to the “Gallery Hop”. Beginning in 1995, the Downtown Arts District Association would block off Trade Street on the first Friday of every month. This event encouraged engagement with local businesses, restaurants and galleries — and served as a playground for a budding weirdo like myself. Every month I made the 20 minute drive from Davie County. I would approach Winston-Salem as the sun set — a shadowed skyline of brick tobacco warehouses, with their once towering chimney stacks, now dwarfed by several modern office buildings. One of my primary stops on Trade Street would be at Lucky Strike, it was a frequent haunt of mine and the first vintage store I ever shopped at. 

On one of those early evenings, likely hauling some loot from Lucky Strike, I stumbled on a store I had yet to explore. The the sign read “Miller’s Variety Store - Complete Clothing”. Intrigued, I opened the burgundy painted wood door and stepped inside. The front of the store had neat displays stacked with straw Panama hats and a rainbow of felt wool fedoras. Racks of colorful mens suits, work uniforms, and vintage christening gowns followed. As I walked along the trail of florescent drop ceiling lights to the back of the store my eyes widened. It seemed like I had stepped back into the 1970s, where racks of blouses and jackets from the period hung — all with their original tags still attached. At the very back wall stacks of new old stock jeans sat in little cubbies, arranged according to color and size.


Showing off my bells from Miller's in one of my bedrooms during college, circa 2016.


Over the next five years I would continue to make trips to Miller’s. Nathan would be working the front and was always friendly and attentive to any questions I had or eager to share stories of the shop. One day he helped me pick out a pair of black elephant bell hip huggers. I made my way to the center of the store where I pulled back a light colored curtain and stepped inside the small wood paneled dressing room. I slipped the jeans over my hips and zipped them up to reveal a perfect fit. I remember the day warmly, and sliding on a pair of decades old jeans in the original store that sold them was surely as close as I’ve gotten to time travel. In the 1990s a vintage dealer offered to buy the store’s entire back stock, but Robert Miller refused — saying that he and Natalie were having too much fun watching young people buy the old clothes. I feel blessed that he made this decision. 


Miller's mural by Marianne DiNapoli Mylet. Located at 204 W 6th Street.


All good things must come to an end, and in late 2016 Nathan locked up Miller’s Variety Store for the last time. Health issues had stopped his ability to keep up with the demanding operations of running a store, and after half a century of dedication, he was retiring. Although his daughter Shana had grown up working in the store, she did not share her father’s desire to be its commander. Nathan Miller, third generation proprietor, passed away in October 2023 at the age of 69. A mural commemorating Miller’s can be seen today across the street from where the store once sat. It depicts Ella Miller in front of her store surrounded by smiling customers.

Through 88 years of change, Miller’s Variety Store remained a community constant and undoubtedly a powerful source of magic. At the time of this writing, it’s been nearly a decade since the store closed, but the lessons from The Southern Jewish Store are as relevant now as ever.


By Kari Koty

Feature image is Miller's storefront after a shipment, circa 1940s




The Southern Jewish Store (2001)

Heard It Hear - Millers Variety Store 

Miller's Variety is leaving the building...

Miller's Variety Store to close after 88 years in Winston-Salem