Heart of a Business It’s just a plain brick building, but a lot has happened within these walls. A funeral home, furniture store, motor company and the home of boxing matches in the 1800s all resided here. Now a hardware and building supply store occupies this space on North Railroad Ave. in Opelika, Ala. Winston Smith T Building Supply is sandwiched between two non-descript white buildings that look like the empty shells of what was once a lively strip of store fronts. It’s the kind of store where walking in the front door takes you back in time seventy nine years with creaky, worn wooden floorboards and a flaking ceiling that send a nod back to the good old days. One of the only neon signs in east Alabama at the time, an orange and blue ‘Yes Sir’ paint sign still hangs above the store awning. There’s nothing new about this place except for the merchandise. It’s everything the big box stores aren’t. “We just try and have a little bit of everything so that people can come and almost one stop shop,” says Dozier Smith T, 42, the third-generation owner. There is a certain order to the chaos around. The open floor layout is unusual, but it works. And the categories of products are located throughout various parts of the building. Mobile Paint cans line the shelves to the left, just outside the office area, where photographs of Smith T’s great-grandfather and an early 1900s snapshot of Railroad Ave., can be seen on his desk inside. “We’ve been a Mobile Paint distributor for a long time, since the early ‘30s or ‘40s,” he notes. Further back are plumbing supplies and electrical fixtures.
2 Freestanding fireplaces sit in the middle and rows of organized nuts, bolts and screws are located near the windows at the front of the building. The now hardware and building supply store got off to an interesting start. Smith T’s grandfather, Winston Smith T, was in the farm supply business with his father and half brother. After their father passed away, the brothers agreed to amicably split after many years of disagreements. In 1931, Winston Smith T opened a hardware store in the heart of the Great Depression. The store has battled through several economic depressions since its doors opened, now more than ever being no exception. “I read something somewhere, I think from the Wall Street Journal, it was one of the CEO’s of Lowe’s or Home Depot, who said that some point in the near future they would be the only two players around, that there would be no other businesses in this industry,” he says. Smith T felt a pull to come back to a family run business in a small town after finishing college and having been in the business for 13 years he feels confident this prediction would never happen. “They can’t serve every need. There is a niche for this kind of business; whether we fill that niche is up to us,” he says. “We either fail or we don’t. If we fail, it doesn’t mean someone won’t take our place.” Winston Smith T Building Supply has been competing with Lowe’s and Home Depot whether times were good or times were rough. One way they’ve found to compete is through personal customer service. Being able to provide quick and knowledgeable service with respect while maintaining a personal relationship is a rare thing these days.
“We’ll get people who come in here and
3 say ‘I’ve been living in this town for a number of years and didn’t know ya’ll were here’,” he says, “We’re stuck over here on the north side of Railroad Ave., without any other kind of retail establishments so I guess we’re a little bit ‘out of sight out of mind’.” Thankfully word of mouth and family relationships have been an integral part of keeping the business alive. Smith T believes that people want to go where they feel most comfortable and the friendly atmosphere of the store has been bringing people in for years. And just as the business has gone through generations of owners so have the customers. The store has been able to keep such a loyal customer base because of the ideals they uphold. Cecil Rodgers is the guy many people come in asking for. A soft-spoken man with a distinctive mustache and an affinity for all things hardware, he’s been a loyal employee and friend to many. “A lot of them I’ve seen for 38 years and their kids and grandkids continue to come down,” he recalls. “You develop a personal relationship with them and they become your friends, more than just your customers.” In fact, there are only five employees including Smith T, most of who have been with the business for years as opposed to the rotation of hourly employees at most other stores who lack experience, loyalty, and a vested interest in the company. The store has continually been evolving. In an effort to keep up with the changing times, the store provided lumber and still does to a certain extent in the renovated warehouse next door. Now they are mostly characterized as a hardware store that sells plumbing, paint and electrical fixtures.
4 Over the years the store has acquired many distinctive items. A solid, heavy dark wood safe and functioning cash register with gold buttons and a crank handle date back well before the store opened. Both have been replaced, after a break in over 20 years ago, but as Smith T puts it, “Most everything around here is old.” While Smith T plans on staying with the business long term, his children are still young and their plans to continue the family-run tradition are uncertain. It’s a business that is meant to support just one of his six children. “Whether that happens I don’t know and if it doesn’t it would either become selling it or just shutting it down,” he says, “But I don’t think shutting it down would happen. This would be something that someone would want.” It’s a satisfying feeling to be able to run a successful business for so many years as well as forging a special place in the hearts of all who know it in the community. Its about “interacting with people in a small town, being able to meet their needs, give them the services and the products they need in a timely manner and with a little more service than they would get at bigger stores. It gives me kind of a joy.”