The heart of a long-established Cumming gift store was celebrated Thursday.
Kathryn Parsons Willis, the longtime owner of Parsons Gifts and Collectibles in Lakeland Plaza, was honored with a retirement reception at the store, where she stopped working full time about a month ago.
Parsons’ current and past employees, customers and vendors, as well as community supporters and friends, came out to wish her well.
Willis said she’s been at the Cumming location since 1987, but with Parsons her entire life.
She explained the first Parsons location, a dry goods store in Bethesda, was started in 1876 by her grandparents.
“That store burned down and they built one in Gloster, Ga., and this was just a little general store with groceries and dry goods, a feed and seed,” Willis said.
She said when her parents married in 1924, they went into business with her grandparents and opened a Parsons location in Duluth, which moved a few years ago to Sugar Hill.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Parsons was a prominent chain, selling a range of products that included groceries, shoes and apparel, before eventually shifting its focus to gifts and collectibles.
“At one time, we had seven Parsons stores all around north Georgia,” Willis said. Today there are three locations: Cumming, Alpharetta and Sugar Hill.
The first Cumming Parsons location opened in 1946, she said.
“We were in downtown Cumming and on June 6, 1982, that store burned to the ground,” she said. “We had spent a year remodeling and then it burned.”
The store then moved into a spot in Tri-County Plaza until about 1992, before moving into the current location in Lakeland Plaza.
Willis said she took over the Cumming store in 1987, but she’s worked for her family’s business her entire adult life.
“I worked full time for 61 years and I’ve just retired and it’s fun,” she said. “But I feel very guilty.”
Those who know her say Willis shouldn’t feel guilty in the least.
Bobbie Richards, who worked at the Cumming store for 22 years, said Willis is “going to love” being retired and deserves to enjoy herself.
“There’s no better boss,” Richards said. “She’s wonderful.”
Willis’ sister, Ann Parsons Odum, who ran the Duluth location for many years, said she’s happy to finally see her sister take time for herself.
“I stopped [working] long before she did. I’ve always been smarter, it’s true,” Odum joked. “I can’t believe [she’s retired], but we’ve already had so much fun and she’s only been retired a month.
“I think she’s going to find out that retirement’s not all that bad.”
Willis, a resident of Duluth, said she plans to stay busy with jobs she “doesn’t get paid to do.”
“I’m on a bunch of [volunteer] boards in Gwinnett County,” she said. “I don’t get paid, but I work almost full time for the [Gwinnett Medical Center] foundation and then my church, the hospice board, and a bunch of others … so I’ll stay real busy.”
Willis’ daughter, Kay Montgomery, who runs the adjacent Parsons Gallery in Lakeland Plaza, said she’s happy for her mother but will miss working with her.
“We used to visit and talk with each other every day, and now she won’t be here,” Montgomery said. “But I’m happy for her and I love her and she’s been a great influence.
“She’s loved Parsons her entire life. She has dedicated her life to it.”
That’s been appropriate since she’s a great retail professional, said Edith Jones and Kim Rosenfeld, two of the store’s Christmas vendors.
“She’s the most amazing woman. She’s just sharp and she has an eye,” Jones said. “She’s a lady and she’s an incredible merchant. She knows what her customers want and how to provide it for them.”
Added Rosenfeld: “They don’t make them better than her.”