Over the past few weeks, customers have stopped by a favorite local store, Parsons Gifts, to shop for the last time and share memories of the soon-to-be-closed store, which owners have said has been the most touching part.
Parsons Gifts, which has more than 140 years of history in Georgia and has been in Cumming for more than 70 years, announced in late 2018 the store would close this February. Cris Willis, who owns the store with her husband, Gary, said there have been lots of emotions from her family, employees and customers.
“Deciding this timing and when it was going to happen was gut-wrenching, telling my employees was the hardest part because we’re such a close-knit family and everyone here is such dear friends, and we’re just together all the time and sometimes spend more time together than with our own family, so it’s been really sad, that part has been really hard,” Cris said. “Then telling the customers, the tears that have been shed, it’s been gut-wrenching.”
As tough as the decision to close was, Willis said it has also been a chance to see how much the store meant to some in the community.
“Every time I think I’ve shed my last tear and don’t have anymore, today someone came in and had me crying again as they shared their memories, but that’s what’s so wonderful about this weekend especially but just this last month is everyone coming in and sharing their wonderful memories,” she said.
Willis and her husband came to the family business in the 1990s for what they thought would be a short time to get the business’s computers up to date.
“Once we computerized the store, we realized we weren’t making any money in clothing and all of our money was in gifts and collectibles,” Willis said. “So, we changed the store over in 1995 and took a gamble and made it Georgia’s largest gift and collectible store, and it paid off. We’ve been here ever since. We went through collectible, that was the heyday, and the thing Parsons has always done is keep changing with the times.”
Adjoining the main Parsons store is the Christmas Shoppe and Thomas Kinkade Gallery, which is ran by Willis’s sister-in-law, Kay Montgomery, and her husband, Mike.
“I grew up in the store. Ever since I was a little girl, I was always there,” Kay said. “I went to college, came back and started working at Parsons the day after I graduated and have been here ever since but have loved every minute of it. It’s just been in my blood and our family has always done such a great job of preserving the store and I’ve always been so proud to be a part of it.”
Since announcing the closing, the store has offered a memory book for customers to share their memories of the store.
“We want everyone to come in and fill that because I just want to take that home with me and just have it forever to remember all the wonderful stories and memories of Parsons,” Willis said. “The outpouring of love from the community has just been so much.”
Jamie Betsill – who was shopping with her sons Aaron, 8, and Noah, 20 months – was among the customers to write in the book and said she had been shopping at Parsons since she moved to town in 2009. She was sad to hear about the closing since the family came in “at least two or three times a month.”
“I was writing how I will never forget bringing my sons into Parsons because I came in pregnant with my [oldest] then brought him in, then got pregnant with [my youngest] and brought him in,” Betsill said. “So all the ladies here have seen the whole progression of my family. I was writing how I’ll miss bringing them in, and the oldest one will remember the store, I’m sure, and our trips here.”
Parsons has an interesting history as a family business, which stretches across three centuries and a variety of names.
According to Willis and Montgomery, the first store opened in Gwinnett County in 1876 under the name Alford. In 1925, the first Parsons store opened in Duluth, which Montgomery stressed would stay open after the closing of the local store, before coming to Cumming in 1946.
“When we opened our store in Cumming in the late ‘40s, it was on the square in downtown Cumming and it was there for decades,” Montgomery said. “Then in 1982, on a Sunday afternoon, it burned to the ground. There was some faulty wiring and it caught on fire. At the time, we weren’t sure what we were going to do but we ended up moving to a shopping center outside of town near where we are now, then in 1991 moved to Lakeland Plaza, where we are now.”
Montgomery joked that her grandfather, who opened the local store, was “50 years too early” for the growth that came to the area.
Willis said there were nearly 20 Alford and Parsons stores over the years.
The Cumming Parsons has seen a lot of changes in its seven decades, including time as a grocery store, a store known for fine china and crystals and a retail store.
“If [customers are] talking about the olden days, they’re talking about their Red Goose Shoes and their golden egg. I think that is peoples’ fondest memories,” Willis said. “The doll shows we would have, that was so much fun.”
Since deciding to focus on gifts and collectibles, Parsons has had to keep up with the latest fads for customers.
“We just kept changing. Just whatever the public was buying and into at the time, that’s what we were doing,” Willis said. “We’ve been through the crazy Beanie Baby days and our doll shows. Dolls used to be a big part of our business, and you can see now, we don’t really have any dolls because everything has a lifecycle. We’ve been through Silly Bandz and the spinners … and Troll dolls back in the day, that was a big thing a long time ago, back in the ‘80s. There’s always something.”
While Parsons is closing its day-to-day operations, that doesn’t mean the legacy of the store is over.
For one, the Willis family will teach other stores the lessons they learned at Parsons.
“We’ve realized that there is more consulting that needs to go into than we had originally thought might be, so our next foray is to take our knowledge that we have gained over all of these years and we’re going out into the consulting business,” Cris said.
The new venture, Retail Clarity, will help with marketing, staff development and inventory, but won’t be the only way Parsons lives on. The couple will also operate PG Overstock once the store has closed.
“We are going to have an overstock business that is going to be open four days a month in this location, so we have some awesome deals and steals,” Willis said. “Over Valentine’s weekend is our big sale. We’re open four days – Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday – and every month it will be different items.”
Parsons is known locally for its monthly “Parsons on Mission” projects to bring awareness, support and donations to local groups, and the store will host a final drive through the end of January that will match donations from customers up to $10,000 for a total of $20,000 to go toward local nonprofits.
Willis said she plans to continue “Parsons on Mission” with other local stores and said she will continue posting videos online to let customers know.
“I just want to bring together independent business owners, all my Parsons peeps out there, who want to know where to shop and all the local charities,” she said.
Montgomery said once the gallery closes, she and her husband are planning to retire, which they expect to be a big change from the store’s daily needs.
“For the first time in our lives, we’re going to do what we want to do,” she said. “We’ve been working here every day since the day we graduated college … and I don’t know, it’s kind of a new feel. We don’t know how it’s going to work out.
“We’re going to stay busy, though.”
For both Montgomery and Willis, closing the store has brought lots of tears and well-wishing from customers.
“Our customers are our friends and have always been really close to us,” Montgomery said. “It was really difficult telling them about the closing, and they have just been so nice and uplifting to us about it. We’ve just been really happy about that.”
Willis said even with the emotional decision and memories, she’s not worried about the future.
“I just keep telling everyone, ‘God is good. He’s got this. He is sovereign. It’s going to be OK. He’s opening so many doors for so many people here, for my husband and myself, for Kay and Mike,’” Willis said. “It was time. Change is never easy, so it’s been very hard, but it’s time. At this point, it’s still sad, but it’s going to be OK.”