May 4, 2005 For decades, the L&C Milliner Department Store served as a mainstay for residents of St. Thomas, providing them with clothes, toys and household items. Now, the store on 7th Day Adventist Street will soon close its doors to the public.
The store was a dream come to life for owner Leslie Milliner and his first wife Claudia. Milliner, then 26 and no stranger to the business community, sought to purchase the property where the store is located from the Price family in the 1950s. By that time, Milliner had already owned several grocery stores in the Contant and Savan areas, but he had a bigger vision in mind.
Encouraged by families and friends, Milliner sought a loan of $5,000 from the then West Indies Bank & Trust Company for the purchase of the property. The West Indies Bank was later obtained by Chase Bank, which is now owned by FirstBank of the Virgin Islands.
Milliner recruited eight prominent men in the community to serve as signatories to his loan, including David Chinnery and Alexander Moorehead, who both served as members of the bank's board.
"David Chinnery and Alexander Moorehead threatened to leave the board if I didn't get the loan," Milliner said. "That's how tough it was to get a loan then."
After obtaining the loan, Milliner invested in the property and construction of the department store. Milliner named the store L&C Milliner after his wife and him.
"It was something we started together," Milliner said.
He sighed as he reminisced of the early days of the store, which also housed a grocery store back then. "Claudia died in 1957, a year after we started," Milliner said, adding she was only 25.
Milliner said he thought of giving up the store then, but always felt Claudia was there with him in spirit telling him not to quit. The store grew and blossomed in its early years a time when 95 percent of businesses were locally owned.
Despite remarriage and difficulties that came and went in the later years of the store, Milliner said he kept the name in honor of Claudia. Though the name L&C Milliner will remain in the minds of residents for years to come, the landmark will no longer testify of the owners who fought to bring it to fruition.
"I'm getting old," said Milliner, who is in his early 70s. "I know that the time has come for me to go. If I was a younger person, I would stay."
Milliner said at his age, he does not have what it takes for the business to succeed. He said he would be selling the entire property for the "best reasonable offer," as one of the signs on the outside of the building states.
But Milliner would have liked to see the business continue. Most of his 10 children live abroad, though, and the ones on St. Thomas are mostly teachers and are not too keen about entering into business.
"There's some interest in continuing the store, but the chances of them surviving are kind of slim," Milliner said. "It's not easy for black people to do business in St. Thomas, anymore. It is tough."
Milliner said his biggest disappointment is the lack of interest among local people to enter into business.
"Somewhere we've missed the boat," Milliner said. "That bothers me."
Milliner said he used to go to the schools and speak to young children about owning their own business. He said he is upset with young, black males for their lack of vision, but can't pass the blame on them alone.
"They're swimming in an ocean of wealth, and yet are drowning in poverty," Milliner said.
He hopes to close the store before July. As Milliner walked past aisles of sale signs on racks of clothing Tuesday morning, he said, "All good things must come to an end. I can't continue forever, and I would like to walk away, not be carried away."
On the first floor of the store, residents who had come to purchase the heavily reduced items kept store employees busy. Mariel Brutus, a store clerk, said she enjoyed her time working at L&C Milliner. She has worked at the store for the past 12 years.
Meanwhile one frequent customer stood outside looking at the many "For Sale" signs on the building and watching the vehicles come and go. "I've been shopping here from since I was small," Mervin Woodley said, reminiscing on the times his mother brought him to buy clothes at the department store. For the last several years, Woodley said he had been doing the same with his own children.
"I don't know what will become of the store," Woodley said. "But I hope whomever takes over will be good people."
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