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Young William Henry Belk
Starting from a small dry goods store in Monroe, North Carolina, William Henry Belk opened retail stores in Charlotte and other communities across the southeast from the end of the nineteenth-century through the mid twentieth-century. An innovator in retail methods and business partnerships, William Henry Belk led the Charlotte-based Belk stores to become one of the leading retail enterprises in the southeast during the twentieth-century.
William Henry Belk was born in Lancaster, South Carolina, and his family moved to Monroe, North Carolina. Belk’s father had been killed by Union troops during the Civil War. Belk worked at a dry goods store in Monroe and became the manager of the store in 1877.
Using a loan and some savings, Belk obtained a quantity of goods on consignment from a bankrupt store. On May 29, 1888, he opened his own small store in Monroe called the “New York Racket.” Belk advertised his store as “The Cheapest Store on Earth” later explaining that he chose the name as it “sounded big.” Belk soon made a profit on his investment.
William Henry Belk around 1930
Belk pioneered inventive partnerships in order to expand his business. He saw that the south presented an opportunity for the large department store and that stores could join together to gain price concessions from manufacturers. Belk built partnerships with stores across the south. Belk’s company provided management expertise and supplied these stores with items from the company warehouses in Charlotte. Many of the stores in this chain had the Belk name hyphenated with another name such as Belk-Leggett in Virginia; Parks-Belk in Tennessee; Belk-Gallant in Georgia; and Belk-Hudson in Alabama. The logo of the company was a sunburst with each point representing a partnership.