The shelves at Bethune's have begun to clear out behind proprietor Marsha Marshall with her going-out-of-business sale. She expects to stay open another week or so.
Though this week brings the excitement of a new place to eat and drink opening soon in the abandoned premises of a long-important Dade restaurant (see previous article), there is also a note of sadness as another iconic Dade institution fades away: Bethune’s Garden Center confirmed Thursday it is preparing to close its doors.
Bethune's sold bedding plants, garden seed by the scoop, sweet potato slips from a big metal bin full of dirt, feed for every conceivable farm animal, and baby chicks in the spring. The service was always good and even the big tailless cat on the counter was friendly.
But it wasn't making anybody a huge amount of money, said Marsha Marshall.
“This place here, you don’t have a big markup,” said Ms. Marshall, who, with her son, Justin, and husband, Alvin, ran the folksy seed-and-feed for the past seven years. “Feed? You’re lucky to make a dollar, dollar-fifty, two bucks. Then you have to have labor to load it.”
And labor is part of the problem, she explained. Husband Alvin had always worked at Shaw in Chickamauga, but son Justin was a mainstay of the business, working at Bethune’s since he was 19. “When you’re young that’s fine,” she said. “You can make nine or 10 dollars an hour, but then when you get married…”
“…you can’t live off that anymore,” Alvin finished the sentenced for her.
Now the grown-up Justin has a good job with benefits, insurance and a much better income than the family business could possibly supply him, said his mother. “Yesterday he came by here when he got off work and he said, ‘I’ve made more money today than I’ve ever made in my life.'"
Other factors in Bethune’s closure are competition and simply the weather, said Ms. Marshall. The last three springs have been off, she said. “People think they’re going to run their own business and it’s going to be wonderful and they’re going to make all kinds of money,” said Ms Marshall. Actually, she said: “It’s a lot of hard work and a little bit of money.”
The Marshalls have been leasing the garden center from Davis and Bernice Bethune, who had operated it since the early 1980s in its precariously-placed nook in a horseshoe bend on 136 West as it switchbacks up Sand Mountain. (The death-defying left turn against traffic hurtling down the mountain around blind curves is not the part of the Bethune's experience some valley dwellers will miss most.) Before that, added a customer who had dropped by in hope of seeing him, Davis Bethune had run the business from his home, so that she thought Bethune's Garden Center had been around 50 years all told.
Now, said Ms. Marshall, Bethune is 79 but had been at the store the day before trying to load bags of feed for her. He doesn’t want to let the business go, she said. “Davis is wanting to keep the building, and I told I’d help him for a little while,” she said.
It is possible he’ll try to find a new tenant for the place, said Ms. Marshall.
Meanwhile, Ms. Marshall is trying to clear out the place with an everything-half-off sale. Business has been hot and heavy since the word got out, she said, but she still has hardware, dog collars, leashes and garden supply items that have to go.
Ms. Marshall said she’ll keep the doors open until the shelves begin looking too bare.