William Henry Belk, merchant and founder of the department store chain that bears his name, was born in Lancaster County, South Carolina, in 1862 to Abel and Sarah Belk. His father was drowned by Union general William T. Sherman’s troops in 1865. Eight years later the family moved to Monroe. At age fourteen Belk went to work in a dry goods store. At twenty-six he struck out on his own. Belk called his first store “The New York Racket,” believing it “sounded big.” Soon after its opening on May 29, 1888, Belk painted the slogan “Cheapest Store on Earth” on the side of the two-story brick building.
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Belk adopted several innovations such as trading on a cash-only basis and refusing to haggle, as was then common practice. W. H. Belk was the sole proprietor of the business until 1891. In that year he was joined in the operation by his brother Dr. John Belk and the name was changed to W. H. Belk and Bro. The original building was replaced in 1941 with a new, larger structure on the same site. The “Mother Store of the Belk Stores” operated there until it was moved to a mall location in 1979.
The effects of W. H. Belk’s merchandising skills have been felt in practically every North Carolina city and town. The Belk stores were unique in that they were not chain stores or franchises in the usual sense, but in that there was a local part-owner for each store, thus Belk-Leggett, Belk-Hudson, and the like. In time Belk stores, headquartered in Charlotte, numbered nearly 400 businesses in sixteen states throughout the South. The organization is the largest family- and management-owned department store operation in the nation with nearly two billion dollars in annual sales. William Henry Belk’s “genius as a merchant” was hailed during his lifetime, and, through the store name, remains well-known to this day. Less well-remembered perhaps are Belk’s philanthropic efforts and his devout Presbyterianism.
William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, I, 129-130—sketch by Paul B. Wyche Jr.
Howard E. Covington Jr. and Marion A. Ellis, eds., The North Carolina Century: Tar Heels Who Made a Difference, 1900-2000 (2002)
LeGette Blythe, William Henry Belk: Merchant of the South (1950)
Union County Deed Books, North Carolina State Archives
Charlotte Observer, February 22, 1952
The State, November 1, 1952