In the very early 1950s, a furniture store by the name of Butler’s opened for business in a building that was located between the Athens-Limestone Hospital and the Athens US Post Office on Market Street. It was started by Cecil Butler and at the time, the store offered a bit of everything from seed to used furniture to antiques. Because of hard work, outstanding customer service, and just following the Golden Rule, Butler’s was blessed and grew to be one of the best-known furniture stores in the area. It also became a landmark in Athens-Limestone County. As was the case with many businesses in North Alabama, the building was hot in the summer and cold in the winter; air conditioning was considered a luxury. It was there that Mark Butler, the grandson of Mr. Cecil, the son of Arthur Lee Butler, as well and the current store owner, told me that he “cut his teeth” on furniture. Mark grew up at the store and started officially working there when he was 14. He did everything from assembly, repair, and delivery, then graduated from high school and headed off to Auburn. He attended college for a year, and then came home to help his dad at the shop, as Mr. Arthur Lee’s health was starting to wane.
Abra, who is married to Mark and met him while working at the original store, filled in the rest of the sequence of the family story. When Mr. Cecil died, Mr. Arthur Lee took over the business. “Mr. Arthur Lee was good, fair-minded, and had an infectious laugh,” she told me. He also was a past president of the Southeastern Home Furnishings Association. Mark said that he learned more about the furniture business from his dad than he could have in college. He started to work full time, and then took over in 1980. Since then, he has also learned what it takes to make repeat customers. Now people come into the store who say to Mark and Abra, “My mom and dad bought their first couch from Butler’s when Mr. Cecil owned it,” or, as was the case recently, “Every piece of furniture in our house when I was growing up came from your store.”
Mark says that the family’s one approach to running a successful business since 1950 stems from the belief they are “in the people business, not the furniture business.” I saw that to be true as I was in their store, which is now located at 26795 US-72, in Athens, and for several years has been known simply as Butler’s Home Furnishings. I observed how they interacted with the steady stream of folks who walked in the door. I knew that I would be doing the interview with Abra and Mark between customers, which is most often the case, but that solid and satisfying feeling of watching people being treated well was present in my bones the whole time I was in Butler’s. People from newlyweds to senior citizens came in looking for various pieces, and each one was greeted in a friendly manner. However, there was no sense of someone trying to “close a sale”; everyone was there to meet the needs of the clients.
While Mark and Abra were busy with customers, I spoke with Leesa Zayas, who retired here with her husband three years ago. She spent 30 years as a legal secretary, and now works behind both the counter and in one of the vendor booths, which we’ll discuss in greater detail below. I asked her why she thought Butler’s had been so successful, and she quickly replied, “Customer service.” Leesa and Abra proceeded to tell me that Mark can tell you the names of everyone who comes in, what they purchased, what kind of service they may need, and even has the prices of the hundreds of pieces of furniture, which are in the more than 18,000-square-foot shop, all memorized! To them, he is a human computer of sorts, and a customer service superhero. For example, a while back a customer came in who had purchased a recliner some 8 or 9 years previously, and the mechanism for reclining was no longer working well. Mark was able to not only remember the original piece of furniture, as well as its owner, but made arrangements to get the now hard-to-find replacement piece and install it himself.
That kind of story served as the answer to my question, “I have choices when it comes to purchasing furniture in North Alabama, so why should I come to you?” Abra smiled as she said, “We live here, and we see our customers at the grocery store or at church.” “In other words,” I said, “You have to live amongst your customers and want to be treated the way you are at their shops?” “Yes!” was her heartfelt and honest reply.
Abra went on to talk about the major change they had made in the store recently by opening up floor space to local vendors in order to sell used, antique, and re-purposed furniture; and the selection changes daily. They call it Butler’s Easy Pickins. The booths also carry wall art, memorabilia, and collectibles; and there is plenty of room for more vendors. “We have had to let go of several of our lines, even ones that we carried for years,” she said. “The quality got worse and worse, the customer service was impossible for us as well as our customers, and we were not willing to sell inferior merchandise. So, we decided to open up some floor space to let people bring in their products, and that’s how we met Leesa,” she said. "We also have other friendly and capable women helping out behind the counter, including Karen Baldwin, who runs our Facebook page. We have a really good group of vendors, and they keep the same high level of quality on the Easy Pickens side as we do on the showroom floor,” said Abra.
In a way, Butler’s has come full circle and returned to their roots by carrying new and used furniture, and each of the name brands of the new pieces is of the highest quality. They include: Liberty, Craftmaster, and Best, which is also their recliner line. In addition to a large display of bedroom, dining, and living room furniture, outside the store is a cheerful display of brightly colored wooden Adirondack chairs and rockers that will be perfect for spring. And if you need a landmark in order to find the store on Hwy 72, look for the yellow single-engine plane that looks like it took a nose dive in order to get there! For the past year, that crazy plane has helped many a customer find the store that is a legend in Limestone County. Come see for yourself, and enjoy the third generation of a family-owned business — Butler’s Home Furnishings / Easy Pickens.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner