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Pieces of the Past: Bristol department store was monument to H.P. King
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Pieces of the Past: Bristol department store was monument to H.P. King

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For generations, families across the Mountain Empire took trips to downtown Bristol to shop inside the expansive H.P. King Department Store on State Street.

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The store stood as a monument to the late H.P. King, whose business empire had humble beginnings in the Piney Flats community. As part of the store’s 50-year celebration in 1939, the Bristol Herald Courier published a front page spread dedicated to King and his legacy.

King’s first venture into the retail business was selling watermelons with his older brother, Anderson. The newspaper reported he sold his first melon for 50 cents.

He later went on to start his first store in Piney Flats in the 1880s before opening the first H.P. King Co. on the Virginia side of the state line in 1889.

In 1891, King moved his business back to Tennessee and the infamous King building was built in 1899. As business continued to boom for the King family, the building continued to expand. A major expansion was completed in 1928, allowing the store to span across the entire street. The 1939 celebratory spread listed 37 departments over more than 67,000 square feet with over 200 employees. A 1956 article showed the store had grown to 53 departments spanning over 100,000 square feet.

The store had a long legacy of respect in the community with many employees staying with the company for more than 20 years, according to articles in the Bristol Herald Courier. The store was also a family-operated company with King’s sons and grandsons playing important roles in the operation of the store.

Customers who entered the store were welcomed by a greeter who punched parking tickets, checked packages and offered a comfortable chair where tired shoppers could relax.

An old-fashioned cage-type elevator with an operator lifted customers to the second and third floors and each year, the second floor transformed into Toy Land, and a visit to King’s to see Santa was a family tradition for many.

The store’s magnitude was visible monetarily also. The Herald Courier reported that the store’s payroll was listed as $184,000 in 1939. In today’s currency, that would amount to $3 million. The store also used more than 200 tons of coal annually to heat the building.

King’s store continued to be a State Street staple until the store closed in the early 1990s. The building became the home of 620 State in 2011.

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