Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Bill Brown, owner of Brown's Custom Shop, dies at 90

Here's the column I wrote about Mr. Brown nineteen months ago:

The sign in the window at 313 East Sullivan reads “For Sale.”

After sixty years and thousands of kitchen floors, Bill Brown at Brown’s Custom Shop is hanging up the old linoleum knife.

Mr. Brown started slowing down five years ago after suffering three heart attacks in a row. He decided to begin phasing down his business two months ago, ending six decades as Kingsport’s go-to shop for flooring of all kinds.

Mr. Brown, who is a native of Lawrenceburg in middle Tennessee, came here from Washington, D.C. in 1946. “After the war I knew what I wanted to do, floor covering. I got a job in Washington for $37 a week with the agreement that I could go to schools and learn about floor covering.”

Soon he was an expert and began looking for a spot to open his own business. “I decided wherever I went I’d be stuck for a lifetime. So I went to the Library of Congress and studied every report.” He narrowed it down to Asheville, North Carolina, Lexington, Kentucky and Kingsport. “Kingsport was young, energetic, growing. Every report said go to Kingsport.”

He moved here and began laying the groundwork for his business by lining up suppliers. That’s where he met the first naysayers. “The folks at Armstrong said, ‘You can’t make it.’ They said I couldn’t rely on getting material.”

But he had confidence in himself and began searching for a space. That’s when he heard about a vacancy in the basement of the old Homestead Hotel. “Mr. Park told me if I’d clean it up I could have it for $100 a month.”

He began hiring a crew. “As we were cleaning up some lady heard about us and came down and wanted me to do her kitchen floor. Then another lady found out and wanted us to do her floor. Then another and another and I never did get to open up.” He didn’t need to. He was already in business. “Kingsport was a good town then. Everybody would help everybody else.”

He says he remember he charged $137 for that first job. “That was the whole kitchen floor, materials, labor and all.” Brown’s Custom Shop was the first floor covering business in the region. “We had the whole thing to ourselves, five states, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee.

We could pick the jobs we wanted. It’s different now with Home Depot and Lowe’s.” Mr. Brown says he built his business on nerve and good credit. “I’d buy a carload all the time. They’d let me have it on credit cause they knew I’d sell it. I could sell anything I could buy” In the early years he says his best sellers were linoleum and Venetian blinds. “We made the Venetian blinds.”

Then in about 1953 he got a call from Irvin Fuller of Fuller & Hillman, who owned a building on East Sullivan. “It was where the old Little Store had been.” The Little Store was the first supermarket in town and it was moving to a new location on West Sullivan in what would become known as Supermarket Row. When Mr. Brown first looked at the vast expanse that had been a supermarket, he says he told Fuller, “I’ll look like a fly on an elephant.”

But he decided to go ahead and take a chance, beginning a half-century relationship with 313 East Sullivan. “The first twenty years, I didn’t have a lease, just a handshake.” Soon he had the building filled with floor coverings, so full that he had to buy two other buildings down the street to store the rest of his stock.

He says the secret to his sixty years of success is simple. “I was lucky. I started out with good employees. They were loyal, they worked. There was no such thing as overtime. Joe Davis, Hagan Mayo, Guy McGrady and Elmo Woods were my first employees.”

Another secret: He worked right alongside them putting down floors, cutting and hanging Venetian blinds.

Over the years he built up an unbeatable stock of floor coverings. If you couldn’t find something you liked at Brown’s, you couldn’t find it. In fact his stock was so vast that when “The River” was filmed here in 1983, the filmmakers bought yards of it for future film projects.

But at age 88 he’s decided it’s time to sell off his inventory and take it easy. He’s moved his records home and is selling his stock by appointment. “I look at the old records and the prices I gave and I don’t see how I stayed in business.” But he did, for sixty years.

There are kitchens all over Kingsport that are testament to that.


At 9:43 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Vince,
Thanks for remembering a long time business man of Kingsport. My husband worked for Mr Brown for 25 years before going into business for himself.
He will be sadly missed.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home