North Texas Daily

Senior business owners endure time, city changes

Senior business owners endure time, city changes

Senior business owners endure time, city changes
March 04
03:02 2014

Caitlyn Jones // Staff Writer

Tucked away in a small office cubicle in McNeill’s Appliances on Oak Street, a small, smiling Virginia McNeill sits blogging on her computer.

The 79-year-old business owner fills her blog with stories not of fashion, food or celebrities, but rather stories of her “long and happy” life and the history of the city she was born in—Denton.

“I have 44 photo albums and genealogy is my passion,” she said. “Denton has grown but it’s always been my home.”

With Denton serving as her home-base thoughout her life, little D has als been the location of her business.

Since taking over McNeill’s Appliances in 1964 with her husband Charlie, McNeill has seen businesses around her both prosper and fail while managing to keep her own business afloat. She has seen the growth and change in Denton as well as the rest of the world and has learned to “take the good with the bad,” she said.

“Of course, I don’t like a lot of things that are happening,” she said. “But I do enjoy the things that I can do, like click on the Internet and get all this wonderful information.”

Building Up a Business

The idea behind McNeill’s Appliances can be traced back to the 1920s with two family-owned grocery stores: Ball Bros. Grocery & Market and McNeill Grocery.

“There was two of everything: two dentists, two veterinarians, two banks. But there were 30 grocery stores,” McNeill said. “So of course, my parents decided to go into the grocery business.”

After the stock market crash in October 1929, both families closed their grocery stores and began looking for other business opportunities.

“It was tough getting through that,” McNeill said. “When my parents saw what was happening, they closed the doors and ate the food.”

The patriarchs of the family finally came up with a plan in 1931. McNeill’s father, Dewey Ball, and uncle, Lee Ball, started the Ball Furniture Company next to the Wright Opera House, now known as Recycled Books.

After several moves around the Square, the business finally took permanent roots at 102 North Locust Street, next to the bank building.

“Back then, you would do whatever you could to get an advantage,” McNeill said. “If you thought that a location would give you an edge, you moved there.”

Charlie McNeill’s father, F.C. McNeill, got started in the appliance business. He would tote a Maytag wringer washer from farm to farm and when a sale was made, he would take a portion of the money to buy another washer in Dallas and start the process over again.

After McNeill married Charlie, they took over McNeill’s Appliances in 1964 and moved the business to its current location of 104 West Oak Street. Charlie died in 1997, but McNeill kept the business going with the help of her daughter, Pam.

Same Block, Same Dream

Down the road at 200 West Oak Street, 86-year-old Bill Thomas piddles around Thomas’ Ethan Allen furniture store.

Even though Thomas handed the business over to his son, Craig, he still likes to help people at the store.

“As long as I don’t get grumpy and grouchy around here, they might let me stay,” he joked.

The journey toward his 52-year business began after Thomas’ service in the army in World War II. He got a job for a wholesale furniture company traveling throughout southern Oklahoma and Texas with Gainesville as his headquarters.

“I had been traveling for 12 years and driving 50 to 60 thousand miles every year,” Thomas said. “I had a young son and I wanted to spend more time with him.”

He was finally able to establish a permanent location when he bought his current store in 1962, a spot he has resided in ever since.

“When I bought this store I thought I might have been crazy because there were seven furniture stores in a little town of 25,000 people,” Thomas said. “As the years went on, people retired or closed up so it helped us be more profitable.”

Struggles of a Small Business

Because both businesses have survived for so long, McNeill and Thomas are no strangers to economic hardship.

McNeill’s Appliances opened during the heart of the depression, a rare occurrence in those times.

According to the Library of Economics and Liberty website, 37 percent of non-farm workers were out of work by 1933. Consumer prices also fell 24.4 percent from 1929 to 1933.

Still, the McNeill family persevered. By the time that Charlie and Virginia McNeill took over the business in the 1960s, they had a loyal customer base.

“We had a cigar box to keep the money in and a single ledger,” McNeill said. “We were scared and worried about making a living but Charlie’s dad was known to be an honest man so we had lots of his old customers.”

Thomas had a similar story. When he opened the store, there were six other furniture stores in a town of 25,000, he said.

Today, both owners face competition from chain stores as well as problems with the current economy.

“I don’t think the economy is good for any type of business right now,” Thomas said. “But we’re fortunate to be in the downtown area and still viable.”

Even so, the businesses try to offer good customer service as a basis for their operations

“We try to treat people the way we want to be treated,” Thomas said. “I wanted to take care of the customers and spoil them rotten until they come back.”

McNeill echoed his thoughts.

“Our philosophy is kind of old-fashioned, but it’s ‘service,’” she said. “My husband learned how to fix washing machines when he was 10 years old and he was good at it. That’s hard to find.”

Changes in Denton and Beyond

McNeill and Thomas have both experienced the significant growth of Denton over the years.

When McNeill’s Appliances was founded in 1931, the total population of Denton was approximately 9,587, according to United States Census data. Today, the population stands at approximately 113,383.

“Denton was just a sleepy, little town,” McNeill said. “You didn’t lock your door at night. You left your car keys in the car.”

The Square has been at the center of the change in the city. The area has risen to its former glory with bars, restaurants and shops attracting university students.

“The Square was the whole show when I was growing up,” McNeill said. “Now, we’ve got the students milling around at night. It’s amazing how it’s gone back to the center of entertainment that it was when I was young.”

The two owners have also seen major changes beyond Denton. They have lived through five wars, 14 presidents and three generations.

“I’ve lived a long time and I’m to the point where I think this generation is going to the dogs,” McNeill joked. “I think everyone gets that way but I’ve learned to adjust because you have to. Either way, I’ve had a happy life.”

Feature photo: McNeill’s Appliances owner Virginia McNeill sits at her desk while working on the company website. She and her husband, Charlie, began operating the family business in 1964. Charlie passed away in 1997 but Virginia continues running the business with the help of her daughter, Pam. Photo by Caitlyn Jones / Staff Writer 

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