Remember When: The P. Lewis story
Published 2:00 pm Friday, March 3, 2023
Outstanding business men of the past are often forgotten. Long before there were business women, there were business men who headed the households and supported their families. This pre-World War I citizen featured today came to Andalusia in 1903-4 to establish a business on the Court Square. His optical and jewelry business grew steadily into one of the largest of its kind in the area.
Dr. Parnell Lewis, known to locals as P. Lewis, was owner and manager of his progressive jewelry and optical firm. Beginning as only a small watch repair and optical shop in a small corner of the W. R. Tisdale store on the south side of the square, Lewis gradually built up a large trade drawing customers from a wide area.
After a couple of years in the Tisdale store, Lewis moved to a store in the Berman Building on South Three Notch for seven years. He later relocated to the east Court Square with faith in the “business stability and economic advancement of this section” according to the 1930 Progress Addition of The Andalusia Star.
Born in Tuskegee, Lewis was educated in the public schools and at the Alabama Military Institute. He later studied at the Bradley Horological School and the Peoria Optical College both at Peoria, Illinois.
It was reported in 1930 that the present valuation of his store stock was $20,000. as compared with that of the start of his company of $150.
“Still, figures don’t tell the whole tale. Time has improved the quality and design of goods both in jewelry and optical departments making them more attainable and their prices more attractive. Additional lines have been introduced in order to make the stock available for the patrons. The silverware, gifts, and novelties found in the store are a delight to the eye. The firm also handles the famous Victor talking machine, records, and radios as exclusive agent here, glassware, small leather goods, and musical instruments.”
From The Andalusia Star September 9, 1930 edition – “The optical department is one of the most completely equipped in the area having testing for the eyes, examinations, and fitting for glasses.”
“Watch and jewelry repair is one of the finest features and best drawing cards of the store. Lewis is watch inspector for the Central of Georgia and the L & N railways, and is one of the most expert repair men in the state.”
“Miss Wilma Patterson renders valuable assistance in the various operations of the company being on duty at all times to demonstrate the commodities in the store.”
“This fine business has been built upon the three essentials of success in merchandising, quality of goods, and service to patrons and honesty in dealing.”
Lewis was a regular advertiser in the local newspaper in his over 45-year career in Andalusia. His little “one-liner ads” brought in the customers through the years.
“We have bracelets, rings, compacts in profusion at your price.”(1937)
“Belt buckle set, traveling set, initial rings, cigarette lighter will suit him.”(1934)
“Why don’t you buy her a fitted weekend bag. “$8.00 up.”(1934)
“P. Lewis Will Give Gold Ring To First 1940 Baby.” (1939)
“Gifts galore for the graduates of your price.”(1940)
“Buy her a diamond set for $16.50 up.”(1941)
“We have ladies and gents wrist watches for $9.90 up.”(1941)
In April 1940, this front page ad appeared – “OFFERS PRIZE – P. Lewis is offering two dollars to the person who guesses the closest to the number of people residing in Andalusia, which count will be known upon completion of the census now being taken.”
In May 1940, the winner was announced – “H. L. Solomon of Andalusia, Route 6, guessed closest to the 1940 census of Andalusia and was awarded the cash prize given by P. Lewis. Mr. Solomon guessed 6,981. The count is 6,862.”
Wonder if that was one of those two dollar bills that could be valuable today? (I just heard about it on the Antiques Road Show!)
In addition to Lewis’ downtown business, he also owned and managed six rental homes besides his own on East Three Notch Street that was built and featured in the local paper in 1930. Coincidentally, the P. Lewis home was owned and occupied by the Dr. Richard Merrill family in later years. Merrill is an optometrist himself.
His wife, Mrs. P. Lewis, was quite well known in social circles in Andalusia. She was a club woman mentioned in society columns in the Lemoine Garden Club, the Mentor Club, the Parnassus Club, the Women’s Society of Christian Service (W.S.C.S.), and member of a committee to build a public library building (1936).
A June 1946 front page article in The Andalusia Star read, “The Johnson Bros. have purchased the P. Lewis Jewelry Co. from Mr. Parnell Lewis, sale effective June 21. The jewelry store will be operated under the management of Mr. Turner Johnson adding a fifth such store to their chain. Their other stores are located at Greenville, Opelika, Mobile, and Pascagoula, Miss. The members of the jewelry family are Starling, James, Woodrow, Elton, Turner, and Hardy Johnson. All are watchmakers, and Mr. Starling Johnson is also an optometrist.
The Johnson Bros. will carry a complete line of watches, diamonds, sterling silver, glassware, and other gifts. They invite the public to visit their store. Dr. Lewis plans to continue the operation of his optical department.”
Carrying this story forward, Pate Jewelry replaced Johnson Bros. Jewelry at the same Court Square location. Jimmy and Diane Pate purchased the business in 1984 and operated it through 1996 with the same quality merchandise and customer service as Johnson and Lewis before them.
In February 1958, The Andalusia Star reported –
“Dr. P. Lewis, Andalusia optometrist, was taken to Covington Memorial Hospital by ambulance on Tuesday night about 8:30 p.m. On Wednesday, Dr. Lewis who is one of Andalusia’s pioneer citizens was listed in critical condition.”
On March 20, 1958, the obituary of Dr. Lewis appeared on the front page – “Dr. P. Lewis, 80, Died – Optometrist Had Practiced in Andy for Forty-Five Years – Dr. Parnell Lewis, Andalusia optometrist for almost half a century, died Tuesday in a local hospital. Lewis suffered a paralytic stroke six weeks ago and has been hospitalized since that time. He is survived by his wife, the former Lorraine Threadgill, daughter of a widely known Methodist clergyman. Lewis was a member of the First Baptist Church, a charter member of the Andalusia Rotary Club, and a Shriner.”
“Funeral services were held Wednesday morning from the Lewis home on East Three Notch Street with the Rev. E. E. Weaver, Missionary of the Covington County Baptist Association and Rev. F. G. Hastings, associate pastor of the First Methodist Church officiating. Graveside services will be held in Tuskegee with Rev. John Lane, pastor of the Tuskegee Methodist Church, conducting. Lane formerly resided in Andalusia where he served five years as director of the Blue Lake Methodist Assembly Ground.”
The P. Lewis, Jeweler and Optician, storefront can be seen in this old photo labeled PUBLIC SQUARE AND CIVIC CENTER, ANDALUSIA, ALA. Brown and Broughton, Druggists, was located next door. I can picture Dr. Lewis frequently walking next door to the drug store for a chocolate malt or a cherry Coke or a cigar. The streets around the square in the picture appear to be unpaved although there are sidewalks which replaced the boardwalks. This picture was probably taken in the late 1920s. Those early automobiles parked around the center park can be easily dated and identified by Ward Taylor whose grandfather Howard Ward ordered those Fords in his new business about that time, the Andalusia Motor Company, and obtained the franchise for Fords.
It is always inspiring to learn about and write about the early business owners of Andalusia who played their part in helping to establish the Andalusia business community and make it what it is today in 2023. The P. Lewis story is just one of those.
Sue Bass Wilson, AHS Class of 1965, is a local real estate broker, former choral music teacher, and long-time member of the Covington Historical Society. She can be reached at email@example.com.