Pillar of the community: Downing’s General Store celebrates 50 years in Anniston
by Sara Milledge
smilledge@annistonstar.com
Jul 07, 2013 | 3568 views |  0 comments | 43 43 recommendations | email to a friend | print
As Downing's General Store turns 50, the downtown Anniston landmark is getting a new name and a new website. Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
As Downing's General Store turns 50, the downtown Anniston landmark is getting a new name and a new website. Photo by Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
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Hannah Downing sits perched next to the antique cash register on the counter of Downing’s General Store in downtown Anniston. She takes a long, slow sip of coffee as she surveys the seed side of the store.

“I’ve pretty much grown up here,” she said. “At some point, pretty much all of the cousins have worked here … It was a place for them to be able to teach us about hard work and how to treat other people. We learned a lot of values down here working.”

As she opens the store’s front door and welcomes in customers, it’s evident those lessons stuck.

Hannah’s grandparents, Thomas and Lois Downing, opened the store 50 years ago in 1963. It was originally called The Mary Carter Paint store.

“Mary Carter was the brand of paint they sold. My grandmother kind of ran the place, and I guess people thought her name was Mary Carter,” Hannah said, laughing. Some Annistonians still call Mrs. Downing “Mary.”

A year later, the couple bought the fabric store next door and Downing’s General Store was born.

“A little while later, a seed rack appeared on the paint side and it evolved from there,” Hannah said, explaining the store’s shift from selling paints to plants and garden supplies.

Now, five decades later, Downing’s is getting another new name — Downing & Sons. The name change comes just in time for the store’s 50th anniversary and the launch of a brand-new website — downingandsons.com .

Hannah said she thinks of the new name as a tribute to her grandfather, who died in 2011. Her father, Robert Downing, a former county commissioner, took over the store in 1986. Her brother Lewis has been learning the management ropes since 2009.

To celebrate 50 years and a new name, Downing’s offered extended hours and daily discounts every day during the last week of June. That Thursday’s sale was 25 percent off all fabrics, which Hannah described as a steal.

“We never have sales on our fabric because our prices are so much lower than everybody else’s,” she explained.

The store also hosted a customer appreciation cookout on Friday of that week, and a private party the following Saturday.

But for some customers, 50 years doesn’t sound quite right.

“I seriously thought it was longer than 50. I’ve been coming here since I was a little girl,” said Gail Perkins, who drives from Talladega to shop at Downing’s. “I love it. When you can’t find it anywhere else, come here. Why don’t you just start here?”

Perkins isn’t the only Downing’s customer who makes the trek from another city. Hannah said the store welcomes regular customers from Randolph County and Gadsden, as well as decorators from Birmingham and Atlanta.

“You cannot beat the downhome touch,” said Kit Downing, a self-proclaimed “Chocolocco Downing,” and one of the store’s most familiar faces.

“And the customer service,” added Xochitl Norton, who has been working in the fabric side of Downing’s for 10 years.

Hannah said a number of people also venture to Anniston to take advantage of the store’s low fabric prices. Just about every other season, Robert drives his truck to New York City to pick up fabric by the caseload.

“Buying fabric that way enables us to sell something for $8.95 that would sell in Atlanta or Birmingham for $40,” Hannah said. “That’s what makes our fabric store different from everybody else’s … our prices.”

Low prices aren’t all that sets Downing’s apart. The store’s unusual layout also differentiates it from most modern-day businesses. On the seed side of the store, shovels decorate the walls and bags of peat moss are stacked one on top of the other. On the opposite side, bolts of fabric swirl with colors, patterns and textures and feature everything from ribbons and tassels to burlap and leather hides.

“What makes our store unique, it also makes it hard to work for,” Hannah said, adding that having two parts to the store can make it difficult to know the ins and outs of each product. “We try to stay as knowledgeable as we can about our products.”

Although it can be challenging, the Downing’s employees want to make sure they can help solve any plant problem or fabric fiasco. Right now, Lewis is finishing up a master gardener class, and Norton spent two years studying upholstery.

When it comes to fabric, Norton knows her stuff.

“Look at these hands,” she said. “They’re worn out.”

She said when the fabric side first opened, quilting and dress fabric were en vogue. Now, it’s home décor.

“These colors are back in fashion,” she explained, holding up spools of lime green and bright orange thread. “We listen to customers, to what they want throughout the years, and according to fashion and what seems to be popular.”

Although trends have changed, Norton said one thing remains consistent.

“People still like to patch their clothes when they have a hole.”

The fabric side has now become popular with fans of the website Pinterest, Hannah and Norton agree. The site, which acts as a virtual bulletin board, is popular with crafters, sewists and DIYers. And with supplies ranging from burlap feed sacks to pima cotton, “pinners” are sure to be pleased with Downing’s selection.

“People come in all the time (saying) ‘I saw this on Pinterest,’” Hannah said, laughing.

Aside from the seed and fabric portions of the store, Downing’s also features mixed-media birdhouses handmade by a West Anniston man, as well as a pecan cracker and a brand-new peanut roaster.

“It has been a hit,” Hannah said of their newest nutty addition. “Mostly it’s been a hit with friends and family, or the bail bondsman down the street.”

One of the store’s biggest draws is Lewis’ four-legged pal, Greta, a pup who boasts 820 Facebook friends. She’s at the store every day, and customers greet her by name.

“She’s a Heinz 57 variety,” Hannah says, as Greta leaps onto the fabric counter and readies for a good scratch behind the ears. “People love Greta.”

Lewis found Greta while on a camping trip five years ago. Then, she was 4 weeks old and covered in fleas, a stark contrast to her current status as Downing royalty.

“There are people who come in just to bring her treats,” Lewis said of his well-mannered pet.

Customers aren’t the only ones who make a special trip inside the store to see Greta.

“Our mailman loves Greta. Every day he comes in and loves on her,” Hannah said, adding, “We have the best mailman. He has the best voice … like a radio announcer voice.”

It’s the little things, like knowing the mailman by name and the price and color of a particular bolt of fabric without even looking, that sets this Anniston staple apart.

“It’s really an honor to have a business that’s been open for 50 years … to prove that Anniston is able to keep a business open for 50 years,” Hannah said. “Anniston is on the rise right now, and it’s a good time to be in our city … You’ve got a generation that’s keeping this town alive. They’re choosing to start their lives in Anniston.”

At 50 years old, Downing’s is making plans to serve that next generation. Lewis wants to expand the seed store to include more gardening elements, and the fabric store will begin offering bow-making classes in the fall.

While their services may change in the coming years, Hannah and Norton agree Downing’s commitment to the Anniston community will remain steady.

“I don’t know what it is about this town,” Norton said, adding she has lived all over the world, but there’s something special about Anniston. “It feels like a ghost town with many possibilities.”

Hannah nodded in agreement and smiled.

“That’s kind of the wonderful thing about a town like this,” she mused. “Our values will stay the same.”
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