Cover Story

Closing Time

Abdalla's prepares to close the doors of its last location, after 110 years as an independently owned retailer. When it goes, Lafayette loses much more than just another place to shop.

There was a moment when it appeared that the Oil Center location of Abdalla's might not happen, at least not the way the brothers had planned. Edward Abdalla and his younger brother, Herbert, had operated the family's downtown department store since the 1930s. When the two decided in the late 1960s to attempt a second location in the still-new oil and gas center, they secured a loan for $450,000. Or so they thought until the eleventh hour.

"Two days before," recalls Herbert, "they said, 'We're not going to make you the loan. It's just you and your brother; we're afraid that y'all won't make a go of it.'" He laughs.

Discouraged but not defeated, Herbert approached another banker in town. "I said, 'Look, I've got a problem. We had a commitment for $450,000 to build in the Oil Center, and they backed out on me.' He said, 'Herbert, you don't need 450 ' you need a half a million.' He called his secretary and had me sign a note. No collateral, no nothing.

"'Don't think you're going to make a go of it.' 'We're leery about it,'" he says, shaking his head. "Can you imagine?"

For generations of Acadiana shoppers, that's impossible. Opelousas, New Iberia, Lafayette ' Abdalla's has always been the place to go for new sneakers, winter coats, school uniforms, first business suits, party dresses. The same heady scents from the packed and sparkling perfume counter have always greeted customers as they pull open the heavy glass doors. And if it seems that the same women and men have waited on grandmothers and their children and grandchildren, it's because most Abdalla's employees have been with the company just that long.

The history of the Abdalla's operation ' with all its quirks and characters ' mirrors the story of an ever-growing Lafayette. Members of the family were here when the population was a mere 6,000; they are here now as the city continues to push at its boundaries, spilling over in all directions. But the time when Abdalla's was ahead of its time has long since passed. In the years since its beginnings in St. Landry Parish in 1895, the family-owned and operated independent retailer has shuttered 11 separate retail operations. The closing of the Oil Center location will make a perfect dozen.

Still, in the world of independently owned retail ' that ultimate survival game ' Abdalla's has managed to outplay, outwit and outlast a list of Louisiana giants: Maison Blanche, D.H. Holmes, Selber Bros., Wormser's. When that massive chandelier at the center of the store on St. Mary Boulevard is darkened for the last time later this month, Lafayette loses more than just another place to shop. It loses a community institution.

Tales of the Abdalla clan represent some of Acadiana's favorite lore. "I think they've told it all before," says Herbert's wife, Evelina, her tone a perfect mixture of family pride and polite dismissal. She's right, of course. But it's a singular story and one that can't start anywhere else except the beginning.

In the late 1890s, Lebanese immigrant George Abdalla left his post as an interpreter in New Orleans and headed west to the steamboat town of Washington to try life as a peddler. When the railroad went to Opelousas, George and his young wife, Jasmine, went, too, and opened a store. It didn't take long for the family to become a part of the town and its surrounding areas.

"Last year, this woman came into the shoe department," recalls Barbara Abdalla Black, Herbert and Evelina's daughter who operates the Oil Center store with her husband, Tom, and their partner, Charles Chatelain. "She said she grew up right outside of Opelousas and lived with her grandmother. And Mr. Abdalla would come by with his cart. In this little community, they were all kind of scared of him, except for this woman's grandmother. She would not only invite him in, she'd feed him, she'd give him something to drink, and she would take care of him. And so when he opened the first store, he sent a car for her. When she got there, he said, 'You can have anything you want.' None of us had ever heard that story."

George and Jasmine worked side by side in the Opelousas store, George pacing the aisles with his hands behind his back and thinking over investment opportunities and Jasmine sitting on her perch on the balcony so she could see everything that was going on. "She always wore a hat to work," says Harold, Herbert and Evelina's son who heads up Abform, a uniform supply company. "Always had white gloves, and she'd go inspect and make sure there was no dust."

It was full partnership between husband and wife, a pattern that would repeat itself for the next two Abdalla generations. "When they opened that first business, they rang up a nickel on the first day," says Barbara. "He was ready to shut down, and she said no way. We wouldn't have gone 110 years if it hadn't been for her. I mean, she raised all her children ' literally ' in the store. Because that's what she and my grandfather had to do to keep it going. I think it was just understood that if you were a woman in that family, you were a part of the business."

Perhaps it was just understood that if you were "in that family," male or female, you were in the business. George and Jasmine had seven children ' Anthony, Jacob, Edward, John, James, Herbert and Rose ' all of whom had some connection to the family's operations through the years. Stores opened up in New Iberia, Abbeville and Lafayette; the company branched out into real estate.

Through the years, the family gathered each Sunday afternoon at the grandparents' house in Opelousas. Harold remembers driving down the old highway through Carencro and Sunset, his father's Ford passing the buggies on the road. "He used to listen to Fibber McGee and Molly on the radio," remembers Harold. After a lunch of Lebanese offerings like cabbage rolls and kibbe, the men would talk business. Each owned their separate operations but pooled available resources and efforts when they could. "I'd go in there," Harold says, "and they would sit down and scream and holler at each other like a bunch of kids. I guess that was just the way it was, you know?"

The after-meeting card games ' some lasting a marathon five hours ' were just as lively. "It wasn't a high-stakes game ' minor pots, quarters and such ' but the level of noise in that room after about an hour? You couldn't hear yourself talk," recalls P.J. Naomi, a longtime friend of the family. "I mean, they'd be yelling, laughing, and it progressively grew and grew, and you'd swear the world was coming to an end, but it was just everybody having a good old time."

The semi-official story has always simply stated that Edward opened the first Lafayette Abdalla's location, but his widow, Irma Belle Poche Abdalla, remembers it a little differently, saying the family opened up the downtown store, but was having a hard time with it. "And the old lady was proud," says Irma. "She wouldn't think of closing it because she was the one who wanted to open it. She told my husband, 'AD-ward' ' she called him that ' 'AD-ward, you've got to go to Lafayette. I'm not closing that store.'" At the time, Edward was running the shoe department in Opelousas; he agreed to take a look. "Didn't take him long," Irma continues. "He told his mother, 'I'll take it. With one exception. I'm going to take everything in the store and send it back to you.'"

"She used to tell me, 'Anna Belle ' my name was Irma Belle, but she called me Anna Belle ' AD-ward gave me a heart attack! He sent back all the stuff I had bought,'" Irma says. "She bought expensive stuff. You know, that was after the Depression. So he said, 'If I can start from scratch, I'll keep the store.' And that's how we started."

Before long, Herbert finished school and joined his older brother in the store, working ' as they all did ' in just about every department. "When I came to Lafayette," he recalls, "I had $500 to my name. That was it." He and Evelina first lived behind the store, in a $25-a-month apartment on Monroe Street. Before long, the couple built a 3,400-square-foot, $5,400 house in Myrtle Place, a property they still own although the small frame house has since been replaced by a larger home. By this time, the population of Lafayette was around 19,000.

For a short time, when Ed and Herbert were both called to serve in World War II, Irma and Evelina ran the store. The two already participated in the businesses as buyers ' and would continue to do so, traveling to Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago and New York for adventures that could fill many a scrapbook. "The women were as strong, if not stronger, than the men," says Naomi. "What's that saying? 'Behind every good man â?¦?' Well, they weren't 'behind.' They were true ladies, but they were as important in that business as Mr. Ed and Mr. Herbert."

Eventually, Herbert and Ed became partners. The two brothers, and their wives, took great interest in the rising fortunes of their growing community. "Ed believed in Lafayette," says Irma. "So does Herbert. You know, if somebody didn't take pride in the city, it would never grow."

Whenever he couldn't find his dad in the store, young Brother Abdalla knew exactly where to look. "I'd go in the back of Paul's Jewelry and that's where I would find him," he says. "He'd be back there sitting on the sofa with P.J.'s daddy, solving the problems of the world. I remember that like it was yesterday."

According to P.J. Naomi, his father wouldn't have been in business if not for the help of the Abdallas. "Back then, things were pretty tight, with banks and so forth," he says. "No one had a lot of money in those days. It was Mr. Herbert and Mr. Ed Abdalla who went to the bank with my dad and helped secure the loan. He couldn't have done it without them."

Every afternoon around 2:30 or so, Ed ' a crisp white handkerchief neatly tucked into his breast pocket ' would walk next door to the warehouse room at the back of the jewelry store. Although they didn't like to be out of the store at the same time, he would sometimes be joined by an equally dapper Herbert. There was always a fresh pot of coffee brewing and a spot on the sofa. "No telling who would show up," remembers Naomi. "Sometimes it was Mayor Rayburn Bertrand who would come by. Richard D'Aquin would come by. Dr. Authement would come by often. Carlo Listi, the sheriff, would show up every now and then.

"Discussions were not about who was catching fish or who was hunting or anything," he continues. "It was about what was going on in Lafayette and how can we help and what needs to be paid attention to. It was just the business people of downtown Lafayette looking out and seeing what they could do for the community."

Ray Authement, who has served as president of UL Lafayette since 1974, remembers these types of meetings as well. Authement first met the Abdalla brothers when he was a young mathematics professor who shopped in their store with his wife, Barbara; the three men developed a friendship, and Authement says the family took him under their wing. "On several occasions, [Ed] called me to a meeting in his office," says Authement, who also remembers Bertrand, D'Aquin and Listi receiving similar summons. "There was some problem that needed to be solved. We would meet in his back office and wouldn't leave until we had, you know, a solution or a direction to take. We nicknamed Ed 'Cagey' because he was so brilliant in terms of logic, and he knew the community very well. Herbert was out mingling in the community; Herbert would know what was going on in the various clubs."

The Abdallas firmly believed in getting locals to spend their money in Lafayette and in getting businesses to conduct their affairs with local enterprises. "The family tied in pretty much all segments of Lafayette as a growing community," says Naomi, citing their involvement in everything from the banking and health care communities to Mardi Gras celebrations, annual Christmas parades and the local university.

"They were very loyal to Lafayette and to this institution," says Authement, who symbolically thanked the family by naming the Abdalla Hall building in 2001. Through the years, the Abdallas haven't been just official patrons of the school, says Authement; the family has routinely ' and quietly ' helped students who want to attend the university but can't afford the tuition. Harold confirms his father's role in this philanthropy as best he can. "I'll never know ' and most people will never know ' the people he's helped because he's very, very much behind the scenes," he says. "Doesn't say anything about it, doesn't tell any of us about it."

On the lighter side, it's often been said with a smile that university football games in Lafayette are played at night to make sure that Abdalla's shopping hours remain free. "They're not the only ones, but they thought that that was business time," Authement says, a touch of mirth tugging at the corners of his mouth. "They thought we were taking away from the shopping, and they thought people coming to a football game needed to frequent the restaurants and such. I asked our athletic director not to schedule them at 4 o'clock, it is true. I admit to that. Herbert Heymann was a little bit like that, too, but he was not as intense about the situation, I guess.

"They wanted to build the community," Authement adds. "They were promoting their business, but always Lafayette was the center of that promotion."

In Opelousas, the Abdallas had made the acquaintance of the Heymanns. "We had Abdalla's on one corner and Heymann's on the other corner," says Herbert Abdalla. "They'd have a band on each marquee every Saturday. One would play 'Happy Days Are Here Again.' The other would play 'Glad You're Dead, You Rascal You.' And we sold ice cream cones for a penny. All that kind of stuff, real tough competition."

Herbert Abdalla and Herbert Heymann became friends. One day in the 1960s, Herbert Abdalla remembers getting a call that Maurice Heymann wanted to see him over at the food center that the family owned and operated. "He says, 'Come here, boy; sit up on this platform with me.' So they'd bring him liquor [receipts]. He'd look at that, and he'd say, 'How 'bout that? It's pretty good, huh?' And they'd bring him [their] meat sales and then food sales."

The elder Heymann was something of a horticulturist and kept a nursery in the area now known as the Oil Center. He had sold an acre or two to oil operations, but no more. When the Abdallas decided they wanted to give retail a try there, though, he sold them the land and put in a street for them. After the brothers secured their loan, Herbert and Evelina ' with a young Barbara in tow ' traveled to California to meet with the architect of the new store, whose design hasn't been tampered with very much through the years, outside of slight remodeling and painting. "We haven't really changed the store since its opening," says Evelina. "After being in the business, we knew what we wanted," Herbert says.

"We went to New Orleans, came back with cricks in our necks from looking at chandeliers," remembers Evelina. "Finally, about two days before we opened the store, the chandelier came in ' the focal point of the whole store ' in a thousand little pieces. And they put it together and hung it up there."

The new store officially opened on July 10, 1967, but one person got a special sneak preview. "[Maurice Heymann] said, 'Herbert, before you open the store, I want you to invite me and my wife to come see it.' So we were stocking it on July the fourth, and we called him and said, 'Come on over.' He came and looked it all over, and I could see his eyes beaming," remembers Herbert. "He really loved retailing. And he said, 'Herbert, if I was 20 years younger, you could name your price for this, and I'd buy it.' I said, 'Mr. Heymann, if you were 20 years younger, you wouldn't have enough money to buy it.'"

The opening of the store was heralded by a 12-page section of the July 9 The Sunday Advertiser, with features detailing the company's long history, the professional track records of Edward and Herbert, and a veritable inventory of the new store, which was praised as "a family fashion center second to none between New Orleans and Houston." Elected officials, local dignitaries, beauty queens and representatives of nationally known manufacturers were in attendance; a four-week grand opening celebration, with a total of more than 300 door prizes, was announced.

The festivities over, the family got down to business. Once settled in the new Oil Center space, Herbert Abdalla became a booster for the area. Before long, he started working on his old friend, Paul Naomi. "He was literally dragged over here by Herbert Abdalla," says P.J. "Dad was not one for change. If he made a move, it was a long, thought-out, calculated thing. Herbert Heymann and Herbert Abdalla basically said, 'Paul, you're coming in here, no matter what. You're just going to move in, and everything's going to be fine.'"

And everything was fine, for many, many years. The Abdalla retail empire continued to grow, with new operations like Brother's on the Boulevard and its second Acadiana Mall location joining the Jefferson Street and Oil Center stores. The family continued to remain active in civic clubs and community happenings. Members of the family's third generation grew up in the stores and eventually assumed leadership roles in the company.

Then, in 1998, a legal battle over the businesses' management and assets divided the family ' and ultimately divided the company into separate entities, one side held by Herbert and his family and the other held by Ed's widow Irma and her children. Ask the Abdallas about it now, and words like "inevitable" and "natural progression" come up. "It wasn't brother and brother working together any more," Barbara says. "It was just kind of a natural time to do that. Because, you know, you have basically different entities, different customers, and you're not all working in the same building."

"Like any other family, you have ups and downs and problems," says Brother, who started his career in the Oil Center location's Red Lion Shoppe before stepping out on his own with his namesake operation. "I wouldn't be here today if I didn't have the background and genes from my mother and my father, but the person who really, really helped me out and gave me the break was my Uncle Herbert. He was really good to me."

Irma points out that she and her sister-in-law Evelina ' "we are just like sisters, just like we always were" ' still play cards together. She calls the separation "better all around" and proclaims that she is "proud of the Abdalla name. And that's the truth."

Talk of the lawsuit was all over town in the late 1990s. The chatter eventually subsided, and it was business as usual ' but the business changed. Chain and discount retailers such as Dillard's and Wal-Mart siphoned off customers, and the advent of Internet and home shopping further strained independent retailers like Abdalla's. They held on as long as they could.

Just a few weeks ago, a letter was mailed to longtime Abdalla's customers announcing the department store's going-out-of-business sale and subsequent closure. The mailing had hardly left the building, Barbara recalls, before the phones started ringing. Reporters positioned themselves outside the store and stopped patrons on their way out. "The customers hadn't even gotten their notices yet," says Barbara. "It was overwhelming. I hadn't prepared myself like I should have."

On a sunny, chilly, late-November afternoon, large Dayglo-orange signs hang in the windows, announcing markdowns and expressing thanks. The parking lot is filled with cars, has been ever since the news broke. Little old men sit patiently behind the wheel, their wives and daughters inside the store. In the fitting rooms, workers like the 80-year-old Verna Castille, who has worked for the family since she was 16, flutter around customers, providing that brand of motherly poking and prodding for which Abdalla's has always been known. But the merchandise is slowly beginning to disappear, and one corner of the store is now filled with empty tables, bare shelves and undressed mannequins. The Christmas sleigh sits near the entrance, a "sold" sign taped to the front. Just the other day, a young couple sat their daughter in it for one last holiday photo.

Herbert and Evelina still come to the store most afternoons, as they have for years. Evelina stands amid the still-full racks of colorful dresses and suits, her eyesight dimming but not her enthusiasm for these customers who have become friends. Every so often, she takes a break to watch Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? back in Herbert's office, but the two spend a lot of their time now reminiscing with the clientele they have served for years. Both support the decision to close, but are understandably sad. "As right as I think they are, it's tough to see it go," says Herbert. He is the only one of the Abdalla brothers whose business will shutter in his lifetime.

"I just never wanted to do this while my parents could see it," says Barbara. "This was their dream. They put their heart and soul into this business. But, you know, you work hard, everybody works hard, and you're spinning your wheels. We were doing OK, but we were not trending up. We were not going where we would hope to go. Everything has its time, and I guess it is time."

Outside the offices, in the center aisle of the store, a little blonde girl totters toward the doors, struggling to hold on to an Abdalla's box that's as big as she is. Her mother reaches out to steady her, fingers brushing the now-iconic black-and-white diamonds of the store's logo. She looks up and smiles. "Third-generation Abdalla's shopper," she says, inclining her head toward her determined daughter. They take a few more slow steps toward the exit before she turns around to add, "I suppose I should say 'last-generation Abdalla's shopper.'"