Bill York found his calling as a boy in the waters around tiny Hymera, Indiana. After a few rocky, nomadic years in the fur industry, the 92-year-old businessman and writer established roots in Buckhead and became furrier to Atlanta’s elite, operating in a well-regarded, fortified shop that still stands, one constant in a changed landscape.
My brother and I, we ran the traps before school, every morning. We made our own tannic acid by gouging out an old tree stump, letting water sit in there. That was used for processing skins. Muskrat, beaver, fox, caught a bobcat one time, vermin, weasels, a couple otters. We’d get home from school and skin ’em, tan ’em, flesh ’em, nail ’em out, dry ’em, and sell the skin [to dealers] in Terre Haute [Indiana]. During the Depression, we made more money doing that than my dad made in the WPA, a government job to keep people from starving to death.
I was Navy in World War II. A petty officer. I enlisted when I was 17. I was in the Mediterranean for two and a half years: Sicily, Italy, Yugoslavia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco. That was my job: getting rid of the Germans. And we did.
I was studying journalism and advertising [at Butler University in Indianapolis]. Television was in its infancy in ’48, and I wanted to be Milton Berle, a television star, or a writer for a newspaper. I went to work at the [Indianapolis Star], and the salary was minimal, and I wasn’t accomplishing what I wanted to, so I quit. I went around the corner, and happened to see the Indiana Fur Company, one of the biggest in the country in those days. It had big concave and convex windows, illuminated brightly, and mannequins with fur. I stood there and looked at it: That’s muskrat, that’s squirrel, and that’s beaver. I went in, applied for a job, and started there in 1947. And I spent 70 years in the fur business.
I was [later] offered one of the best jobs in the country, a job as fur buyer for I. Magnin [and Company], the same caliber as Neiman Marcus, no longer exists. I was the buyer for the San Francisco store, but I got fired; I had some marital baggage at that time, and it cost me my job. I picked up the phone and called a fella in Chicago that had leases for departments all over the country. I said, “Do you have an opening?” He said, “Yeah, at Davison-Paxon Co. in Atlanta. Would you like to run it?” “Yes.” “You’re hired!”
I knew nothing about Atlanta. I’d been through here twice on vacation, and I liked it. A lot of trees. They had trolleys with electric lines, running down the middle of the street. A metropolitan area, back in the 1950s. It was a sophisticated, older city. I liked the people. Warm, friendly, appreciative, and respectful of my talent and knowledge.
It was downtown on Peachtree Street—eventually became Macy’s. I could walk the streets downtown safely … Atlanta was culturally good, aesthetically nice. York’s Pool Parlor attracted me, down on Pryor Street. I’d go there, have a hot dog and shoot pool. It was just beginning to be a bustling city. I rented an apartment on Buford Highway—the only apartment on Buford Highway east of … I forget the road, but there were very few back then, mostly houses. I paid $225 a month rent back then. That’s how long ago that was.
Sears hired me, because they were opening a new store in Buckhead, at the corner of Peachtree and West Paces Ferry [roads]. There used to be a big elegant store there, now it’s two office buildings. Buckhead was small, relatively quiet. They didn’t have cocktail lounges all over the place. They didn’t have strip joints. It was culturally interesting. I worked for them for 10 years, met my wife there. We were married in 1972.
I [later] leased a fur department from Regenstein’s. That was one of the fine, old women’s fashion stores, along with J.P. Allen and a couple of others. Before Neiman Marcus, before Saks, before Phipps Plaza—it wasn’t even there. This goes back a long time. I bought a house on Shadowlawn [Avenue] and opened York Furs in Buckhead. I deliberately used that name for geographical identification purposes. You said Buckhead, people knew where you were. That was 1975. Regenstein’s was sold to a guy in Texas. He bankrupted the thing. I outgrew the place on Shadowlawn real quick; within three years, I couldn’t handle the customers, there were too many. The traffic on Shadowlawn is miserable today; people from the shopping centers come over there and park. My customers driving Lincolns and Cadillacs couldn’t get to the store.
I said, “I want to be on Peachtree.” I needed people to see me, and it would get visibility from people out of town going to Lenox. The York Furs house on Peachtree Road was built in 1970. It was a residence initially. When I bought it in 1975 [for $700,000], it was ugly: paint peeling, parking lot asphalt cracking. I spent $360,000 remodeling the inside, outside, building a fence around the property, which it still has. It cost $160,000 to build the vault … 16-inch concrete for ceilings, floors, walls, with rods—vertical and horizontal—every six inches, so somebody could not break in. A Mosler Safe door, one of the best you can buy, which is still in there. It had to be secure. We had it filled. It could accommodate 5,000 fur coats in storage, with proper air-conditioning during summer. I wanted the inside to look elegant; I bought antique furniture, which is still there. I love the place.
I put York Furs on the [façade], and I remodeled the whole building; the windows I dropped down and made longer, and put mannequins with bright lights in. I took a red fox coat—Canadian, gorgeous skins—put it in the window, put a bright light on it, put a red scarf around the cuff. It had been there about three hours, and a guy walked in: “I like that coat in the window. How much is it?” “$12,000.” “What size?” “Size 10.” “How long?” “60 inches.” “Good. My girlfriend’s tall—I’ll take it!” An orthopedic surgeon from Columbus.
John Portman was a customer of mine. [Former Atlanta Mayor] Sam Massell was a good friend. Jimmy Carter bought a coat from me. I sold Ralph David Abernathy’s wife a very fine mink coat, because she was going to Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in Washington. I had some basketball players and football players that bought from me; we custom-made a lot of fur for ballplayers—too damn tall, we had to make ’em longer. [Transgender people] liked the way I did business. They didn’t feel uneasy coming into my shop. I would do that for two reasons: First, they’re human beings. Second, I’m going to get a $10,000, custom-made coat here. They felt uncomfortable going in other stores.
I had a Delta pilot, played golf with him. One day, he walked into the store, had a fur jacket on. He said, “I got you!” “What do you mean?” “You don’t know what jacket this is.” I said, “It’s a sea otter, you bought it from the Inuits in Alaska. They’re the only ones who can sell it. It’s on the Endangered Species [List]. I was one of the people responsible for it being on there. We put that on the agenda with leopards, jaguars, tigers, spotted furs—endangered. Can’t sell ’em.” He couldn’t stump me.
In the ’70s, there was much less traffic. Buckhead was a destination then, because of the nice shops, the restaurants, but the high-rises were nonexistent. The Ritz-Carlton hotel was across from Lenox, and one adjacent building was a high-rise. Dante’s [Down the Hatch restaurant] was there. The silver [Buckhead Diner] was there then.
They didn’t have people back then who could envision what Atlanta was going to be like. Buckhead looks like New York City now, Chicago. When I came to Atlanta, the tallest building was the [Hyatt Regency Atlanta] with the blue revolving thing on top. You can’t see the damn thing now. There were two apartment complexes on Peachtree that were 16 stories. Those were the tallest buildings around. Look at it now! Everything’s changed radically.
The store’s visibility was good, but we had five consecutive warm winters, and that affected outerwear, including mink coats, sable coats, things we sold. Business went from a positive cash flow, to negative cash flow, pretty heavily. My debt service was killing me. We had such a great reputation in Atlanta for quality and ethics that I couldn’t stand to think of seeing York Furs bankrupted. It means I’d failed. I could not emotionally, psychologically imagine my picture in the paper, and a picture of the store: “York Furs Bankrupt.” That would have killed me. So I sold it. To [furrier George Haralabatos] in New York, 1991, who manufactures the best furs in the world. I knew him and had bought a lot of furs from him. He had a store on Rodeo Drive in California with wealthy clients, and I had wealthy clients here. And he wanted it for that reason. I really didn’t sell it; I gave it to him for what I had in it. I made no profit.
He still owns it. He’s having a problem selling it now, because of zoning. This was to become part of a complex with a 22-story high-rise—he had sold it, big bucks—but that fell through. People along Shadowlawn could not accommodate the cars coming through there. It’s too small, too narrow, can’t widen it. The zoning didn’t pass. Too many complaints, lawsuits filed. So this [building] will stay like it is, probably with a different name and décor on the front of it.
Today, when I see the store, I feel sadness. I wish I was still there, monetarily and physically, but I had an economic oblivion. I’ve had three strokes, and that’ll take the wind out of your sails. But I have great memories. I was one of the best ping-pong players in Atlanta; I won tournaments. I played at Augusta National four times.
In the store, they’ve made the transition from mink coats and sable coats to boutique items from Milan and Paris—gorgeous things they’ve got there. My tongue hangs out when I go in. A lot of people have called me, said, “I saw your store, went by today, are you still there?” People who haven’t seen me in a long time. I say, “No, I’m not, but I wish I was.” I’d like to be selling a mink coat today.
York’s story marks the initial installment of “My Atlanta,” a first-person series that shares the experiences of Atlantans—of all ages and backgrounds—who have unique, compelling perspectives on the city. Email suggestions for future subjects to email@example.com. Please use the subject line “MY ATLANTA.”