TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Once upon a time in Tuscaloosa, only one business in town had air conditioning. A sign in the window showed a polar bear sitting on a block of ice with words that said, “Come on in. It’s COOL inside.”
Today that building is on the National Registry of Historic places and still maintains a unique place in Tuscaloosa’s downtown business environment. It is the only retail store in Tuscaloosa that was designed and built in the art deco style.
David Jones, the owner of Bamastuff at 1015 University Blvd. on The Strip, is very proud of the designation and of his family’s involvement in the business, which stretches back to 1944. It was once primarily a store that sold textbooks to students at the University of Alabama, but today it fills a different niche, selling souvenirs and apparel related to the University of Alabama.
“The store opened in 1939. My father joined in 1944 when he got back from the Navy. He worked until his death in 1977. I started in 1970. In 1979, I took over the bookkeeping duties that I still do. My son came here to work in about 2002, and he does all the catalog stuff and the internet and the IT stuff. So, the business has been in our family since 1944. We have had partners come and go, but now it is just family,” said Jones, the owner of both the business and the building that houses it.
The store was designed by the architect David O. Whilldin whom Jones described as one of the pre-eminent architects of the first half of the 20th century.
“He built it as an income producer. I bought it from his granddaughter in 2007. My family had rented from them since 1942. Luckily it was still in their family. He also did the Bama Theatre. If you look at the Bama Theatre and this building, they were built the same year. The façade is the same, the limestone, the attic trusses are the same. He designed every inch of the Bama Theatre. This building, the floor is original, the ceiling is original and these lighting globes are original. We have tried to keep everything exactly like it has been all that time.”
While Jones and his family have endeavored to retain the historical structure of the building, they have had to help evolve the business that was inside it many times over the years. The original business was known as the Alabama Wholesale Book Co, later becoming the Alabama Book Store and finally morphing into Bamastuff. Along with the name changes have come an evolution in the type of merchandise sold.
While the business always sold University of Alabama apparel and souvenirs, that was once only a small fraction of the merchandise. The primary business for most of the store’s history was textbook sales. The store was one of three private stores in Tuscaloosa that sold textbooks to students, along with the university’s book store. Jones said his father sold cameras for part of three decades from the 1940s into the 1960s. Where once textbooks dominated the store, the apparel and souvenir business began taking up more and more retail space.
The university began buying out their privately owned textbook sellers and that, ironically, spurred Jones to begin seeking notice for his business a historic place in hopes that it might help stave off purchase attempts by the university.
“The first designation we got was a standalone historic district for the city. Then we went to the state and got on the state historic registry. The same person got me in touch with somebody to work on the National Historic Registry. It took about two years for that. Gene Ford did the work for us. He had a wonderful 100-page description of every brick in the building. There’s more to it than you realize. It’s just a perfect example of modern architecture of that time,” Jones said.
Gene Ford is an architectural historian at the University of Alabama who has done extensive work with Tuscaloosa area historical organizations.
Jones eventually won the battle to keep the store privately owned and purchased the building from the descendant of the architect in 2007. The textbook business, which had been a staple since the store was founded, slowly disappeared with the advent of more and more online curricula until the store dropped textbooks all together and made the switch to only selling apparel and souvenirs.
The store’s architecture isn’t its only touch point with history. There is a human aspect to the story as well. Jones said he started keeping records of how many people the business employed in 1979. Since that time, 900 employees have worked for him. Almost of all of those have been students. Jones said he has employed 25 salaried workers in that time span, while the rest have been students.
“We have been really, really lucky. I have hired children, even grandchildren, of people who have worked here from way back. It’s really amazing. They come in on ballgame days, the former employees,” Jones said.
As far as the future of his historic business, Jones said he doesn’t know what is going to happen. His son works for the business now and he is trying to get one of his grandchildren involved in the bookkeeping so he can retire. Jones said he is one of only two bookkeepers the store has had in its 81-year history.
“We’ve had to adapt over the years, and we have been lucky to do that. As far as the future goes, I hope retirement is the next step,” Jones said with a laugh. “In 1990 I couldn’t have told you we would be where we are now with no textbooks. I thought textbooks would always be necessary. There used to be three private stores and the school stores selling textbooks, now it is only the school store selling textbooks. Every 20 years or so, I guess, we have to evolve into something different.”
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