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Floyd's Farmers Supply sounds swan song

Floyd's Farmers Supply sounds swan song

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FLOYD — Standing behind the checkout counter, Terry Thompson gestured to a pot-bellied stove near the front of the store.

“I remember being a kid coming in with mom and dad, and I’d see the old men sitting around the stove, just talking,” he said on a recent Tuesday.

Thompson said he’s worked at Farmers Supply for about four months. But like many Floyd natives, he’s known it all his life. Now he’s one of a handful of staff who is seeing it through its final days.

The town landmark is set to close for good on Nov. 28, longtime general manager Janice Yearout-Patton said.

But with inventory already running low, it’ll likely to shut before then. Since they announced going out of business discounts, sales have jumped from about $3,000 a day to some $15,000 days, Yearout-Patton said.

Customers do like the sale prices, but still feel the loss.

“I think it’s really sad for the community,” Lucille Harris said. “They would cut glass for us, make keys for us. You knew the workers.”

“It’s an icon for us, a cornerstone,” said Cathy Banks, Harris’ daughter.

For decades, the family came in for things they needed, Banks said. “Today it’s for keepsakes. We understand they’re tired. We just hope somebody comes in and makes something worthwhile here.”

Despite financial struggles, Yearout-Patton and store owner Jack Lawson were hesitant to close the business.

“We agonized over this for two years. I can’t tell you the conversations we had — the implications for the community, the tradition,” Yearout-Patton said. “We hate it because we know it will take a chunk out of … the downtown and because it’s history with both of us.”

Lawson chuckled.

“Well, as we started looking at the financials the past year, it kind of became easier and easier,” he said.

The business dates back to at least the early 20th century. Farmers Supply had built up a clientele operating out of the present-day Floyd Country Store on Locust Street, Jack Lawson said.

The Lawsons bought it. According to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, they moved it to its current location in the 1920s. And, for a time, they ran a Ford dealership and garage out of what is today the Farmers Supply stock room. The doors big enough for cars to pass through still open onto Locust Street.

Jack Lawson took the hardware store over from his dad in the mid-1970s and modernized it with a computer inventory system, Yearout-Patton said.

Her dad was general manager then and had been working in the business with his brother for many years, she said. Eventually, the Yearout boys retired, and Lawson worked with other managers.

Yearout-Patton had married and moved to Kentucky to work as a journalist. But by the early ‘90s, she had returned to Floyd.

“I was working at the chamber of commerce,” she said. “And Jack was on the board of directors.”

One day, Lawson invited her out for a meal. Yearout-Patton thought he meant to talk about a chamber project.

“In the middle of lunch, he tells me it’s time to put another Yearout back in the hardware,” she said. “Well, my jaw dropped about a foot.”

She protested; she knew nothing about hardware. But Lawson promised that if she brought her management skills, he’d teach her the business. She took up the general manager post held by her dad for decades before. In truth, she herself had a long history with the store.

“In high school I’d follow dad around with a clipboard during Christmas break, taking inventory,” she said.

Still, she did have a lot to learn.

“It was truly baptism by fire,” she said. “I didn’t know a plumbing elbow from a quarter-inch nut.”

But Lawson and the customers taught her the business, Yearout-Patton said. For nearly three decades, she and Lawson have focused on stocking products unavailable elsewhere in Floyd County. And they’ve catered to the needs of locals, as well as tourists and seasonal residents.

“It used to be quite a business back in the day,” Lawson said. “But Floyd has changed so much.”

As the post office and pharmacy have moved to the edge of town and other businesses have opened on the outskirts, downtown foot traffic has dwindled, he said. And the retail industry itself has shifted from brick and mortar to online.

Competition from Amazon and Walmart coupled with rising tariffs over the past four years have made it hard to stock the store, Yearout-Patton said. For a time, they tried to compete in e-merchandising, but it required a major investment and extra staffing without a guaranteed payback.

Generations of Lawsons and Yearouts have labored together to keep the store going, with brothers, nephews and cousins stocking shelves, replacing window screens and threading steel pipe. But the younger generations have lives and careers elsewhere.

Besides, Lawson said, “the business doesn’t provide an income. I can keep people working here because people want to work in Floyd, but I can’t really give them a livable wage and benefits.”

“We make a good wage for Floyd,” Yearout-Patton said. “But you don’t have health insurance.”

With economic forces against them, they decided it was time to cut the losses.

“We were becoming dinosaurs,” Yearout-Patton said. “Sales were going down; we were both getting older and having health issues. We just began to think, how much longer are we going to live?

“Maybe we’d like to do something else before we die,” she said.

At 70, Lawson said he’s hoping for a second act, and he wants to give the Farmers Supply building a new life, too. The Lawsons are considering a major remodel that would update the downstairs retail space and convert the upper levels to apartments.

It would add to the rich history of a structure that has stood at intersection of Floyd’s historic and commercial district for more than a century.

Built in 1897 by Horatio Howard, scion of a Floyd commercial family, the Farmers Supply building sits on the foundations of another commercial building that burned in 1896, according to VDHR. During its long life, the site has operated as a mercantile and once-a-week butcher shop and later had gas pumps along the street front. But hardware has been its longest running business.

Then there’s the family history. Yearout-Patton said she still sometimes comes across items with her dad’s handwriting on them. Just as he worked to retirement among the channel iron and mortar mix, now his daughter has, too. At 68, she said she’s ready to rediscover her rosebushes and put more hours into her half-acre vegetable garden.

Both said they would mostly miss the people — their coworkers and their customers. And, they said, each other.

“At first it was kind of like a wake; people come to the counter downcast,” Yearout-Patton said. “They’ll miss us, and we’ll miss them. It’s been a good ride.”

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