Gone are the miles of ribbon that Wellesley girls used to buy to tie their hair into ponytails, the white cotton gloves they wore to dances, and the dress shields they slipped on underneath their party frocks. Today, E.A. Davis, the oldest store in town, bursts with the bright Palm Beach styles of Lilly Pulitzer, and the dresses are ready-made, not patterns and fabric.
But while the department store may be a bit more colorful than it was when it opened as a dry-goods store in 1904, it still carries essentials popular for generations: finely tailored Pendleton wool, Geiger jackets from Austria trimmed with fur, Barbour wax-finished coats to keep out any kind of weather.
The times may be changing, but the basics stay the same.
“I wouldn’t consider Wellesley to be trendy,” said Rob Skolnick, owner of E.A. Davis. “I consider us to be classic and traditional.”
E.A. Davis was founded by Emma A. Davis in 1904, and moved to its current location at 579 Washington St. in the heart of Church Square in Wellesley in the 1920s. The Skolnick family bought it in 1975.
The store has maintained a loyal customer base over the years, with about half of its shoppers hailing from Wellesley and the balance drawn from communities within a 50-mile radius.
“It’s our little jewel,” said Wellesley town historian Beth Hinchliffe. “It’s so funny to picture that the same little store — back then, that was when there were trolleys in town, it was just a small little village. To see how much Wellesley has changed in the century that followed, and Davis is still there.”
When the store first opened, she said, it was a meeting place for townspeople, who gathered around its fireplace.
“Here it was, this extraordinary thing for the life of Wellesley, that suddenly here was this store in the middle of the village where they could get all their things,” said Hinchliffe. “That was sort of the era that started Wellesley’s real boom as a developing suburb that then became the center of shopping.”
Wellesley often makes the news, most recently as the setting for “Wellesley Wives,” a novel that takes a playful look at the affluent town, painting it as spoiled and superficial. Skolnick has not read it, but the old-fashioned Wellesley that exists at E.A. Davis looks little like the caricature. Tony, yes — the store sells garments that many people would refer to as “investments” — but classic, too, and understated. More the old soul of Wellesley than the chatty socialite.
The store pays homage to its past: all the woodwork is original, the metal, hand-cranked cash trolley that sent money from the front desk up to the second floor for change still hangs from the ceiling, and the unwieldy old brass cash register still sits on the counter, stamped on the bottom with its delivery date: Sept. 11, 1912. It only calculates sums of up to $10 — life was cheaper 100 years ago.
The clothing, too, is a kind of homage to a bygone era. Skolnick said he looks for enduring style and brand consistency when he curates the store’s collection.
“I think the word ‘icon’ is the perfect description for a lot of the lines,” he said. “It’s going with brands that are steadfast but are also evolving with the times.”
For the classic English coat he turns to Barbour, established in 1894 and “a British brand to the core,” according to its website. Barbour jackets, handmade in Simonside, England, are a top seller at E.A. Davis, a hit with the college set despite their hefty price tags. Pendleton is another staple: founded in 1863, its woolen mills turn out timeless pieces.
“You don’t see it anywhere,” said Melissa Hashemian, a buyer who has worked at E.A. Davis for eight years, fingering a pale yellow boiled-wool cardigan. “Classic, well-known, quality names. That’s our theme.”
But lest the commitment to the classic styles paint a stodgy picture, E.A. Davis is awash in popping color, preppy and beachy and thoroughly modern. Much of the first floor is dedicated to Lilly Pulitzer, for which E.A. Davis is a signature store.
Lilly Pulitzer was made famous by its founder’s brightly patterned shift dresses, which she made to wear at work in her Palm Beach juice stand, where the vibrant colors disguised spilled juice. Jackie O. went to school with her and wore her dresses.
“We carry just about the whole line,” said Hashemian. “People go crazy over the Lilly.”
Before a new collection comes out, she said, the store is inundated with phone calls from excited shoppers asking when it will be in.
“A lot of the girls in Wellesley have to graduate in white, and Lilly Pulitzer makes an entire line of white dresses,” said Hashemian.
In February, she said, E.A. Davis fills with middle and high schoolers who snatch up dresses and post pictures of them on their Facebook pages to make sure that none of their friends buy the same style.
The second floor of E.A. Davis is dedicated to menswear, stocking brands like Peter Millar, a country-club line with simple cuts and no logos; Smathers & Branson needlepoint belts decorated with billfish, whales, sailboats, and glasses of wine (“a special piece makes a special Christmas gift,” said Hashemian); and, of course, Lilly Pulitzer for men.
The basement contains a design studio: Neil Devlin antiques from around the world, including pencil and watercolor sketches dating from the 1500s; an early-20th-century “Versailles” colored postcard book; and old portraits of lords and ladies.
The walls are hung with rows and rows of fabrics: velvet, chenille, leather, silk. E.A. Davis offers interior design services for people who want custom rooms in their homes. Even here, Lilly Pulitzer is ever-present — the brand makes a line of furniture.
In the back hallway of E.A. Davis, relics from the store’s past hang in frames, including old Barbour ads and handwritten receipts from the days when a purse cost 50 cents.
“Wellesley today is very different from how it was 50 years ago. The store and the town have grown and changed together,” said Hinchliffe.
“It defines itself by what people in Wellesley are looking for,” she said. “A lot of other stores come and go. And Davis is always there. And everybody knows it.”