Downtown Gold Standard

Three cities that have nurtured an eclectic collection of locally owned downtown storefronts.

Gigi & Jay’s offers clothing for children of all ages on a busy downtown corner in Fairhope.

Homegrown Retail Gold on Mobile Bay

If it were possible to cut and paste a picturesque New England village into Alabama, the result would be Fairhope. 

Merchants have called its bluff — the physical one, in the town where authors write, artists paint and retail flourishes. Fairhope is a village, a pretty one at that. But there’s more. 

“This is a village that works, ” says Diane Douglas, owner of In the Company of Angels, on De La Mare Avenue. “We work hard to make the retail community inviting. I think when people come here they feel welcomed. There is nothing artificial about Fairhope.”

In The Company of Angels keeps good company. Douglas’ shop is one of about 80 dotting downtown’s Section Street, Fairhope Avenue, De La Mare Avenue and surrounding area from downtown to the wave-lapping shores.

- Sponsor -

Intriguing nooks like The French Quarter are part of Fairhope’s allure.

Many are mom-and-pop stores, handed down for generations. One such is M&F Casuals, a shop for clothing and accessories, in the family for 87 years, 42 of those years in Fairhope. “We have seen the town evolve into a tourist and shopping destination, ” says M&F’s Barbara Levitt. “Lots of people take group, day, weekend or week trips to shop in town.”

Most Fairhope downtown storefront owners do not answer to a corporate headquarters. The person at the cash register is the CEO. Elizabeth Collins is one of those. She moved here from Jasper about 10 years ago and opened a bedding, furnishings, clothing and accessories store on Section Street, which she called Living Well. It is well named.

 “We have a wide mix, ” Collins says about her customer base. “It is about as unique as Fairhope is.” She credits much of her success to Fairhope’s supportive community and the Downtown Fairhope Business Association.

Others credit the City of Fairhope — cleaning the streets, hanging the flowers and creating an atmosphere. Shoppers do not just park downtown, run in for a gallon of milk and leave. They linger, often at cash registers. 

“I am always amazed how hard the workers stress customer service and presentation, ” says Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Heiko Einfeld. “Most of these shops are independently owned and operated. Walk up and down these streets and look at the windows, ” he says, pointing down Fairhope Avenue. “It’s beautiful!”

The city of about 18, 000 started as a colony of dozens in 1864. Legend says while speaking to original settlers, an early leader proclaimed, “We have a fair hope of success.” The name stuck. So did the success. 

“Before bridges were built over the bay, people came from Mobile by ferry, ” adds Einfeld. Mobilians established summer homes here, and Fairhope worked to maintain its bayside village charm. “I think it just evolved that way, ” adds the chamber’s director.

Acknowledging that most of central downtown has no chain or big-box stores, Einfeld says, “Corporately, national stores do not seem to know we exist downtown. They don’t seem interested.”

Strolling shop to shop along brick sidewalks adds to the charm.

Retail Fairhope is fed by local people, friends and visitors, with a strong desire to stay that way. The busiest time of year is summer, with exceptions — particularly the Fairhope Arts and Crafts Show in the spring.

Local shoppers account for 60 percent of the retail trade, as a rule. Out of towners make about 40 percent, as a rule. The Fairhope Arts and Crafts Festival breaks the rules.

During the long weekend springtime arts event, Fairhope will see up to an additional 300, 000 people. “I’m always amazed how the art show visitors also want to buy clothes, ” smiles Carol Eberlein, sister of Barbara Levitt, of M&F Casuals. And she’s not complaining. 

Neither is Diane Douglas. “We don’t really have a down time anymore, ” she says. “Snowbirds ask me, ‘What do you do when we go back home?’ I tell them, that is when the local people come out and shop.”

Other exceptions to the summer peak moments of retail are Mardi Gras and Christmas. Actually, says Diane Douglas, “There is no off season.”

Merchants quickly point out that these are not tourist-shop stops. Yes, if you search, there are snow globes and “Grandma went to Fairhope and all I got was this T-shirt, ” T-shirts. But Fairhope retail includes antiques, traditional and cutting edge art galleries, sportswear, formalwear, designer clothes for designer dogs. There is an iconic bookstore to browse in, or listen to a lecture from cast members of “Duck Dynasty.”

In a city known for artists, Fairhope’s third-generation independent bookstore, Page and Palette, is ground zero. “We have a lot of expansion in progress, ” store President Karin Wilson says, showing the ever-evolving bookstore, coffee shop and more. Today, work on the “Book Cellar” is underway. When it opens, be sure to order the bookstore beverages: “Tequila Mockingbird, ” “Old Man and the Seagram” or “Rum Forrest Rum.” 

Speaking of Forrest Gump, his creator, Winston Groom, speaks here occasionally, as does Fannie Flagg, and hundreds of other writers, from the famous to the soon to be. “The thing about Fairhope is this is a quaint little town but very supportive of its retail community, ” Wilson adds. “That is vital to our success.”

Look for more in 2016. “We believe Fairhope is on a level field with Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and Mobile, as far as retail-tourism is concerned, ” says Einfeld. “We are going to promote more ‘retail packages’ — day trips, weekend shopping excursions. You will see Fairhope emphasize its restaurant industry.”  

The Eastern Shore’s new strategy is to become an Alabama retail destination for food. Dozens of restaurants offer everything from fried chicken to fine chocolates. “Try these and you will never eat gas station candy again, ” smiles Chef Jule, shuffling imported Belgian truffles from her chocolate shop, the Frenchman’s Corner. “Take small bites, it’s very rich.”

Rich, like Fairhope’s retail business and soon to be richer. Heiko Einfeld believes the town will continue growing. “Like everyone else we experienced an economic downturn recently, ” he concedes. “But we came out of it. We will continue to grow. As fast as one store leaves, another comes in.”

Sharlyn Thomas, owner of The One Eared Rabbit, would love to see Florala regain its status as an antiquing destination. 

5th Avenue Mayberry Stop-Off

General Andrew Jackson was pleasantly surprised during his 1818 encounter with the land that would become Florala. His army paused in what is now Alabama before marching into what is now Florida. The general’s stopover may have started a retail trend in what is now Florala.

The Welcome to Alabama and Florala City Limits signs are planted side by side in Covington County’s town of 2, 000. The Sunshine State is literally a stone’s throw away. “From my house, if I had a good arm, I could toss a rock into Florida, ” says Florala Mayor Robert Williamson. He readily admits that much of the traffic going through his city is destined for Destin. But he doesn’t care and neither does the retail community. 

Because even when the goal is another state, a buck is a buck. And traveling to Florida via Florala, the bucks stops here.

Florala Mayor Robert Williamson, like local storeowners, recognizes the value of a great location, in this case just a stone’s throw north of the Florida border, where tourists can make a last stop before hitting the beach.

“Our retail has more external customers than internal, ” notes the mayor. “They know prices are cheaper here. You may pay 20 cents more for gas once you cross that line, ” Williamson adds, pointing down the road to the land of Disney World. “Motorists know, before entering Florida, fill up here.”

Patricia Strickland is director of the Tri-Cities Chamber of Commerce and lifelong Florala resident. “We are a hub city, ” she says. “We market Florala as the Gateway to the Gulf Coast.” 

Florala’s major retail street is 5th Avenue, a strip of more than 20 shops, boutiques and stores, running through downtown, in Alabama’s last chance before leaving. Stores range from hardware to tuxedo rentals — think of mom and pop retail; think of Mayberry, 45 minutes from Destin. And think of meatloaf in the company of mashed potatoes.

“This is a good city, ” notes Sandy Nidy, of the Ranch House Kitchen and trophy-winning barbecue. Speaking about her 5th Avenue eatery and dishing out today’s special at her restaurant, she adds, “Our place is like the other business in town. We serve a mix of local people and motorists passing through.”  During the summer, she claims, “We are bombarded with people.”  But she smiles, during an Alabama, Auburn or Florida college football game, “We are at a standstill.”

The mix is from everywhere. Florala is within 25 miles of Alabama’s Andalusia and Opp, and Florida’s Defuniak Springs and Crestview. Store patrons visit from Montgomery, Mobile, Panama City and beyond. Something compels the other 49 states to visit Florida, and Florala is on the path to get there from many points north.

Like the town’s name (Flor = Florida, ala = Alabama), Florala blends two regions. People often have breakfast in one state, lunch in the other. They work in Florida, come home to Alabama and vice versa. “Thank goodness the borders are in the same time zone, ” the Chamber of Commerce director laughs, “or it would really be confusing.”

5th Avenue’s area buildings are colorful, old and often re-purposed. Last century’s town bank is Florala’s City Hall. Other shops derived from decades-old warehouses, and a movie theater from 1909 became The One Eared Rabbit in 2015.

Standing three stories tall, The One Eared Rabbit is a one-eared wonder, chocked with antiques, collectables, furniture, clothing and more. As store owner Sharlyn Thomas says about her store’s offerings, “It is up-cycled, re-purposed and re-imagined.”

She credits much of her shop’s success to good working relationships with the Chamber of Commerce and Florala’s business community, and welcomes more. “This used to be a destination spot for antiquing, ” she recalls about the town. “I’d like to bring it back. The more the merrier.”

Matt Webb echoes Sharlyn Thomas’ remarks. He owns Tin Man Customs, just down the street. Can’t miss it: look for the storefront 1933 Chrysler with the skull-adorned engine. “I ship products all over the country, through my website, ” Webb says. “And Florida tourists often come in wondering what is here. While they are here, they place orders.” He makes and/or sells custom furniture, outdoor swings, wood products, automotive accessories and fuel tanks. Good real estate helps make it happen. 

When describing Florala’s prime retail location, locals often cite the economic principles of “Florida factor:” Land here is cheaper than there, and traffic going there stops here. 

“The cost of my building is less than the cost of renting vendor space in some Florida stores, ” Thomas says, walking through her soon to be home, now under construction, on The One Eared Rabbit’s upper floor.  

And in summertime, Florala is a beach town without the beach. It is the smallest city in the Tri-city area (Florala, Lockhart, Alabama and Paxton, Florida) according to the Chamber of Commerce. But it has the most traffic. During summer, shop owners say traffic is bumper to bumper. Traffic snarls are a good thing.

Florala is also a Florida economic indicator. When America’s appendage does well, so does its Covington County neighbor. Florida’s tourist business picks up from May to September. So does Florala’s.

In 2012, the Alabama Department of Transportation recorded a 7-day average of 9, 000 vehicles, rolling through the town’s main street. Ironically, the town that makes its retail living selling goods and services to the beach-bound, now has a shore of its own — Lake Jackson.

Actually, the 500-acre lake has always been there. General Jackson spoke of its beauty in his diary. But on November 1, 2015, the state of Alabama (no longer able to afford it) gave the freshwater jewel back to Florala. “It is the best kept secret in the state, and we don’t want it to be a secret, ” says Mayor Williamson, about Alabama’s largest, self-contained natural lake not fed by rivers.

Williamson adds, “We are in the transitional stages but hope to establish a retail presence around Lake Jackson. It would complement the fishing, boating, hunting and campgrounds we have.”

And once again, the Florida factor comes into play. Forty-nine percent of Lake Jackson is in the other state. “We aren’t sure what happens if your boat drifts into Florida, ” laughs Williamson.

Restaurants and markets are recapturing the vibrant downtown Albertville once enjoyed.

Albertville — Eclectic and Upbeat

In north Alabama, downtown Albertville has an eclectic and upbeat vibe, with a blending of American and Hispanic cultures reflecting the area’s diverse population.

Main Street offers everything from quaint shops and restaurants to a construction company and travel agency. You’ll find longtime family businesses alongside newcomers working to make downtown the bustling area it used to be.

A red baby grand piano sits in the front window of fine dining restaurant Sebastien’s, open for dinner and Sunday brunch. Sebastien’s used to be on Highway 75. It was a local hangout for many until its owners announced the restaurant was to close in 2011. That prompted friends and regulars Pat and Jeannie Courington, Keith and Lesa McGee and Steve Kaple to buy it and retain the staff and chef.

“We started renovating our current location and, after about six months, our chef wanted to pursue other things, but we kept the name, hired a new chef and in 2013, we moved downtown, ” Jeannie Courington says. “Everyone was talking about the renovation of downtown, and I always wanted to see it thriving again.”

Great food nourishes downtown development. The Sandwich Host, which offers “a meat ‘n’ three” (vegetables), in addition to sandwiches, is popular. El Sol King Pollo Mexican Restaurant stays busy throughout the day, and so does Mater’s Pizza and Pasta Emporium.

Courington knew going in that the renovation of the old Hammer’s, a former bargain discount store, would make space for the new Sebastien’s and several new businesses. 

“Our downtown has a quaintness that will continue to be brought out, as other property owners continue to work on it, ” Courington says. “It’s also good to have a nicer restaurant in town, so people do not have to drive to Huntsville, Birmingham or Gadsden.”

This once thriving city in Marshall County, turned sleepy town, is now coming out of the dark ages, she says.

“Downtown was once a hustle and bustle area, until urban renewal destroyed it, ” Courington says.

Richard Barkley, 56, grew up in the family clothing and shoe business. Today he runs Barkley’s Tuxedo Shop. 

“I’ve been here my whole life, ” Barkley says. He remembers when urban renewal led to Main Street being closed off and turned into an outdoor mall. At first, it was good. The best part about it, he says, looking at historic photos of his hometown, is empty warehouses behind the downtown stores were torn down and converted into parking.

By the 1980s, however, stores starting closing up. The city tore down the covered walkways and reopened Main Street in the 1990s.

“It’s been a positive thing since the street opened back up, ” Barkley says. “It’s exciting to see what’s going on now since Sebastien’s came downtown, and we have a nice mix of businesses.”

Courington, the executive director of the Albertville-Boaz Recycling Center, also serves on a statewide small business committee. She wants to see Main Street return to the bustling area she remembers when growing up. She believes it’s well on its way.

“It was a great plus for us to move Sebastien’s downtown, and we helped bring in other businesses. Some have not made it but others have, and the city is focusing on making our downtown a destination for tourists.”

Ja’Moka Coffee Co., next to Sebastien’s, serves up more than lattes and a quiet place to meet with friends. It’s also a space for business meetings and birthday parties, says the friendly and helpful Courtney Padgett and Mariam Reese who work there.

210 & Co. is another business in part of the renovated Hammer’s store. Stacey Galloway used to work at a local pharmacy and gift store that closed. She thought the town needed a unique gift shop, and that’s what she and husband, Kenney, have created. The shop has baby and bridal registries, along with gourmet food, jewelry, collegiate attire and collectibles, as well as specialty pottery.

Outside of the renovated Hammer’s building, The Gift on Main has grown so much the business plans to move across the street early this year to a larger location, says employee Rachel Zavaleta.

“We are so busy we need more space, ” Zavaleta says of the Hispanic gift store. “We didn’t want to move until after the Christmas season.”

There are hair salons, a special occasion store and a Mexican grocery store. You can buy or get a cell phone repaired, get your taxes done or get a loan. 

There’s also the Shabby Chic Boutique, with trendy clothing, among the other unique stores on Main Street.

From grant opportunities to recruiting business downtown, the city is interested in making the central business district a welcoming, energetic and fun place to shop and dine, says Melody Whitten, director of Economic and Community Development. 

“I think a successful downtown business district is essential to a community, because it’s indicative of the economy to see locally owned businesses doing well, ” Whitten says. “It also creates a sense of community and positive quality of life factor when people can gather at the heart of their city to visit, shop, dine and enjoy time with family, friends and neighbors.”

How does the city help? There are several events to draw crowds to Main Street.

In 2015, more than 47, 000 attended the free Main Street Music Festival, which is held for two days each August, Whitten says. LifePoint Church approached the city in the Spring of 2015 about hosting a variety of free activities in downtown, such as free movie nights and a dodge-ball tournament to give families something to enjoy and generate traffic in the downtown area. 

“The series of events was called ‘Summer in the City.’ LifePoint has now engaged other churches in the community and is planning even more events for 2016 with activities expanded to spring and fall, ” she says.

Downtown Albertville also was the location of a Downtown Brewfest in October. A group of local residents created a promotional corporation to host the event at the Albertville Farmers Market downtown, with craft beer tastings from 20-plus breweries, Whitten says. The Brewfest is to become an annual event.

Whitten says the city also has worked to revive its downtown farmers market with new policies and procedures put in place to establish an Alabama State Certified Farmers Market, which guarantees that all produce is fresh and locally grown, with no resellers allowed.

“The market is open two days per week, with many activities hosted around seasonal fruits and veggies, dairy days, live music and food trucks, ” Whitten says. “Of course, the reason for hosting events downtown is to bring people downtown in hopes that they shop and eat with local merchants while attending these events and create a sense of community for our citizens.” 

Whitten says downtown Albertville will only get better in time. The city recently became a Main Street Alabama Network Community, allowing it to access the organization’s expertise in applying a four-point approach to downtown revitalization that includes organization, promotion, design and economic restructuring. 

“The city’s downtown master plan was also written around those same modules, so that the plan would be compatible with Main Street Alabama as we begin implementation, ” Whitten says.

“We’d like everyone to come visit us, locally and from everywhere else, ” Courington says. “We’ve got something for everyone.”

Emmett Burnett, Elizabeth Gelineau, Wendy Reeves and Tyler Brown are freelance contributors to Business Alabama. Burnett is based in Satsuma, Gelineau in Mobile, and Reeves and Brown are based in Huntsville.

The latest Alabama business news delivered to your inbox