by Julie Mabus
In today’s world of football games, spring formals, special lingerie, and hashtags, an essential question at Ole Miss is and always has been: “Where did you find that fabulous formal.” Hashtag: #GoToNeilson’sSweetieTheyHaveEverything.
I was at Ole Miss some fifty years ago, and we mainly wore bellbottoms, university sweatshirts, and Clarks Wallabees to class; but the answer to the all-important question was the same. While in those days, “#” meant pound or the number sign (what does hashtag even mean?) Neilson’s was THE place to buy that important dress, find that perfect gift and discreetly pick through the padded bras and half-slips.
My mission today was to take a fresh look at this time-honored retail establishment. As I approached the store, the sun bounced off gilded letters on the royal blue marquee, “NEILSON’S 1839.” Two beautiful, single-lit glass doors, substantially framed in mahogany, created the main entrance into the department store. Over the years, I’ve passed through those doors more times than I can count, but this was the first time I’ve stopped and studied them—a Greek key pattern is embedded in the doors’ mahogany panels. And two art deco sconces frame the massive doors, setting an elegant standard for the store’s entry.
While the department store is ever-evolving, memories of college days wash over me like gold fairy dust every time I enter. The feeling is exhilarating but always tinged with bittersweet reminders of days gone by.
The floor layout is much the same as it was when I was in school, but the displays are bubbling with current fashions for both young ingenues and their more worldly parents. The ample cosmetic counter sits front and center with a tempting selection of products. I so wanted to sit down for a makeover. That would have to wait.
To the right, among men’s classic suits, crisp dress shirts, and campus wear, I spotted a table of merino wool pullover sweaters and made a note to pick one up before I left the store.
A young woman greeted me, “Hi, I’m Amanda Lewis Hyneman.” She was wearing a wool pullover with a long-sleeved white tee peeking through—my kind of gal.
I studied her sculpted cheekbones and bright green eyes as we walked back to the inter-sanctum of the store. Office ladies demurely spoke when we passed. The family’s patriarch, Mr. William Lewis, Jr., co-owner of the store with his three children, sat behind his desk, anchoring the office with a sense of calm and wisdom. But I didn’t miss that twinkle in those wise eyes. Once Amanda led us to a private room, the history of the establishment started flowing.
The Neilson and Lewis families are the two pillars of the 184-year-old retailing institution. W. S. Neilson founded the company in 1839 as a dry goods store. The company stayed exclusively in the Neilson family until 1930, when Mr. William Lewis, Sr., a long-time employee, entered into a partnership with the Neilson family. Lewis, Sr.’s two children, Olivia Lewis Nabors and William Lewis, Jr., bought out the Neilson family in 1964.
Today, William, his devoted wife Patty, and his three children, Goodloe Lewis, Lydia Lewis Myers, and Amanda Lewis Hyneman, maintain total ownership. But throughout the family iterations, Amanda and her father now run the show.
“I love the retail business. I guess it’s in my blood.” Amanda has had two great mentors in learning her trade. “For as long as I can remember, Dad has run the business from behind the scenes. He holds the reins. And I studied my Aunt Olivia for over twenty years as she worked the floor and managed the Ladies’ department.”
After Amanda graduated from Ole Miss in 1994, she worked at Oak Hall, a premiere clothing store in Memphis, for several years. But Oxford was home, her Aunt Olivia was slowing down at the store, and the city was on fire with energy and unprecedented growth. Plus, her love and future husband, Brian Hyneman, had stayed in Oxford after he finished law school and was practicing at a local firm.
In 1996, it was time for Amanda to come home. The couple married in 2003 and have two children, Henry, eighteen, and Howard, fourteen. Today, Brian continues to practice law and is the newest member of the Board of Aldermen for the city of Oxford.
Amanda has managed to raise two active boys, help her husband get elected to public office, and operate one of the oldest and most successful businesses in the South. Her energy seems boundless. As Amanda talked, her infectious spirit and wry wit filled the air.
“What’s your favorite part of the business?” I asked.
“I love connecting with our customers. It’s the best feeling when a customer is excited about a purchase. And I love reconnecting with people who return to Oxford for a football game or bring their kids to Ole Miss.”
Those sentiments resonated throughout our conversation. And it’s a common thread that has been an integral mission of the company throughout its history.
Amanda has the solid-gold gift of comfortably guiding her customers through the new inventory and the latest fashions. Plus, Ole Miss can be intimidating for a first-year student when school begins in the fall. “I love seeing all the new freshmen each fall and helping them navigate Oxford.”
“But I also love the buying,” she continued. You have to predict your customers’ fashion whims and then calculate the inventory needs.” To me, it sounds like rolling the dice, but she’s obviously very good at the tasks.
“Lane keeps me in line,” she added as she pointed to the general manager, Lane Wilson. Lane took the position in 2014, providing freedom for Amanda and her father to continue the store’s growth and prosperity.
Lane jumped into the conversation at that point. “A business either succeeds or fails with tight inventory control.” Amanda nodded her head in agreement.
I left the store, but the front doors caught my eye again. Neilson’s familiar logo of the palm fronds is etched in the glass. I sent Amanda a text asking about the historical importance of the logo. Her dad, William, answered the question, “We found it on some old store stationery from the 1920s.” It is another beautiful reminder of the Lewis family’s preserving history while blazing a trail in this extraordinary city.