Longtime Warner Robins women’s-wear store Evelyn’s closing

WARNER ROBINS — Come Wednesday evening, Fanise Strickland will lock the doors and turn out the lights on an institution.

After more than 60 years as the place to go for prom, wedding and other formal women’s wear, Evelyn’s, believed to be the second-oldest business in Warner Robins, is closing for good.

“The fact is I’ve been here 50 years,” said Strickland, owner of the venerable business. “Plus the economy is not looking any better, and my family says it is time I call it quits.

“I don’t know what I’ll do with myself, but that’s the plan.”

She chose the end of the year so she wouldn’t have the expense of restocking for spring.

“Now’s the time to be buying the spring line, so this seemed a good time to stop before getting into another new season,” Strickland said.

Evelyn’s debuted in 1947, and Strickland bought the business in 1959 soon after founder Jimmie Rosenburg died.

“I was his bookkeeper. I had come to work for him in 1953,” she said. “When he got sick, he told me I had to run the place until he got back. But he didn’t make it back.”

A native of Lake Butler, Fla., Rosenburg was one of Warner Robins’ leading businessmen in the community’s early years, moving to town from Macon following World War II. Besides owning and operating Evelyn’s, named for his first wife, he was a real estate developer and one of the founders of the Bank of Warner Robins. He was chairman of the Houston County Board of Tax Assessors and the Warner Robins Housing Authority, and he served on a number of other civic boards.

“His first store was way down on Watson Boulevard, not far from the base,” Strickland said. “Then he moved it to Williams Plaza when it opened, and that’s where I started working for him. That was when all the roads around it were still dirt, and Centerville was just a little speck on the map. Now it is all grown together.”

Later the store would move to Houston Mall when it opened, then to The Galleria in Centerville, back to Houston Mall, and finally, two years ago, to Shaheen Plaza on Houston Lake Road.

But through all the years and moves, Evelyn’s was the place to shop for classy women’s wear, prom dresses, wedding gowns and other party attire.

“For years and years, we dressed nearly all of the officers’ wives for special occasions at the base,” Strickland said. “And you always had to be sure you didn’t sell the same gown to more than one woman. People aren’t as worried about that now, but back then it would have been terrible to go to a party or banquet wearing the same dress as someone else.”

Loretta Hall, who has worked for Strickland since 1976, said Evelyn’s has dressed generations of Houston County’s most influential women. Sandy Hartman has worked at the store a dozen years.

“Mothers, daughters, granddaughters — we’ve had so much fun watching all these families grow up,” Hall said. “We’ve thoroughly enjoyed working here.”

LaVerne Norris, an Evelyn’s customer since Rosenburg owned the store, said she’s sad to see it close.

“It was simply the only place you bought your clothes,” Norris said. “If I had back all the money I’ve spent there, I could make a good down payment on a Ferrari. But I don’t regret a dime. They had everything you needed and it was good quality, and the people were so friendly. Jimmie Rosenburg was the nicest person and did so much for Warner Robins in its early years, and Mrs. Strickland has carried on the same way. I’m absolutely sad she’s closing, but she owes it to herself to retire.”

And business has decreased in the last decade or so. As Warner Robins has grown, new people coming in haven’t been as loyal to local merchants, the women said. Now women think nothing of driving to Macon or Atlanta to shop or even flying to New York once or twice a year.

“Once, everyone in the area came to us for prom dresses and party gowns, but not so much anymore,” Strickland said. “We would have big fashion shows, and we had as many as 13 people working for us at one time, sales staff and alteration ladies. Now we’re down to three.

“People don’t dress up as much as they used to, and they have more places to shop. And this economy doesn’t look like it will pick up anytime soon.”

Still, Strickland says she would probably try to keep the business open if not for her family.

“My kids (a son and three daughters, plus 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren) have been fussing at me for a while about quitting. They want me to close up and retire. I’ll be 86 in March, so they think it is time. But I don’t know what I’ll do with myself. I love working, and this has never really seemed like work.

“We haven’t just been a dress shop devoted to selling,” Strickland added. “Evelyn’s has been a place for friends to come and visit and talk with each other while they look for clothes. Any occasion in town found everyone at Evelyn’s busy finding that special gown. We were a part of what was happening in the community, and that’s what we loved and what I’ll miss most.”

To contact writer Chuck Thompson, call 923-6199, extension 235.