When Stacy Levinson was 2 years old, she sang and danced for the customers at Brittons, her father’s clothing store on Main Street.
When she was 5, Levinson and her siblings made decorative bows to adorn Brittons’ distinctive red Christmas boxes. Their father paid them a penny a piece.
When she was in fourth grade, she and her sister Susan went on their first merchandise buying trip to New York City, complete with a limousine ride.
“And when we were in high school, working here was our summer job,” Levinson said while helping customers at the store, now located on Devine Street.
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At the end of August, when her brother, Lucky, retires after 44 years at the business, Levinson will become the sole owner of the store that her parents, Arnold and Faye, founded in 1946.
“I feel like I’m carrying the torch of my family’s legacy,” said Levinson, 55. “I feel like this is my destiny.”
Arnold and Faye Levinson received their first store – Wade Hampton Clothiers on Sumter Street – in 1946 as a wedding gift from Arnold’s parents, Charles and Libby, who had a department store in Barnwell called The Leader. They closed the Sumter Street store and opened Brittons at 1337 Main St. the next year.
The story goes that Arnold wanted the store to have an English feel, but there was another store already named Britain’s. His mother, Libby, had read a book that had a store named Brittons, so that’s what Arnold went with.
“I don’t know if it’s true or not,” Lucky Levinson said. “But to a little boy it sounded good.”
‘It’s about the experience’
That Main Street Brittons store had to move twice – to the 1400 block and then to the 1500 block – as the properties were bought to build banks. The location on the 1500 block was eventually demolished to create Boyd Plaza at the Columbia Museum of Art.
“Columbia’s progress kept building, and we had to keep moving,” said Perry Lancaster, Stacy Levinson’s husband, who has worked at Brittons for 41 years.
In 1954, Brittons added women’s clothing when Arnold Levinson couldn’t find a pair of madras shorts he had seen in New York that he wanted to buy his wife for her birthday. One of his vendors had a pair, and he added them to Brittons’ stock. They were a hit.
“That’s how we started the ladies department,” Stacy Levinson said. “His passion was ladies clothes, and he was one of the first stores in the country to carry labels like Villager, Liz Claiborne, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan.”
In the 1960s, the family opened a second location as one of the original tenants of Dutch Square Mall. In the 1970s the family opened two more stores – at Richland Mall and the brand new Columbia Mall, now Columbia Place.
The company eventually closed the Main Street store when the large department stores that flanked it, Belk and Macy’s, moved to the malls.
In the 1980s and 90s, as the malls waned, the family closed the Columbia and Richland mall stores. In 1996, the Dutch Square store was moved to its current location at 2818 Devine St.
“It’s all about the experience,” Lancaster said. “We’ve helped four generations in the store. Family after the family.”
‘Always a part of my family’
Part of that experience today is the 25 or more events the store holds to socialize with those long-time customers and to raise money for charity.
Some of Levinson and Lancaster’s favorite events include the Baubles, Booze and Brie Jewelry Party in September, USC Parents Weekend Tailgate in October, Southern Tide Weekend in December, Christmas in July, Devine Evening in November, Christmas Brunch and their Christmas Eve Party in December and Coppley Trunk Show in September.
The store was scheduled to host a Solar Eclipse Party on Saturday and Lucky Levinson’s retirement party is Aug. 26.
However, the biggest splashes they have made involved bow ties.
Brittons sells a lot of bow ties. In 2010, Lucky became somewhat of a star when the store shot a one minute video of him teaching someone how to tie a bow tie. To date, it has more 3.3 million YouTube views.
“I would go out of town and people would recognize me,” Lucky said. “At (Vice President) Mike Pence’s daughter’s wedding, they all learned to tie bow ties from my video.”
In 2014, the store set a Guinness World Record for most people simultaneously tying a bow tie – 823 people, with a big assist from the University of South Carolina’s dance marathon group. The event was held at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center and raised $25,000 for Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital.
“It’s the only Guinness World Record Columbia has,” Lucky said.
Stacy Levinson said that experience, the events and long-standing relationship with customer will help Brittons weather the trend away from brick and mortar stores and toward online shopping.
“The reason I know we’ll survive is that coming into a locally owned store creates an emotion that you can’t get from online shopping,” she said. “The touch, the feel, the experience. Our store will continue to be supported by our customers.”
Brittons does have an up-to-date website (brittonsofcolumbia.com), an online store for their unique Gamecock items, and it stays in touch with customers through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as well as by telephone.
“It’s important that we we use all those avenues to stay in touch with our customers,” Levinson said.
One of those customers is Carla Crawford of Forest Acres. She moved to Columbia 23 years ago after graduating from the University of Virginia, and has shopped at Brittons for two decades.
She buys clothes for herself, custom jackets and menswear for her husband, Geddings, and outfits for their three teenage boys. She said the staff’s personal touch keeps her coming back.
“When they get new items in, they call me,” she said. “I can take it or leave. They’re not pushy and they look out for me. They’ve become part of my family.”
When Lucky retires, Stacy plans to carry on the same attention to quality and customer service that she said has been the store’s hallmark since 1946.
“This store was part of my growing up,” she said. “It’s always been a part of my family. We even have a customer who can remember what I was wearing the first time she saw me as a 2-year-old, dancing and singing.”