May 2015
Homeplace & Community

Adding True Value

Alden Holley, owner of Holley True Value in Selma, holds a large tray of colorful marigolds from Bonnie Plants Inc. in Union Springs. Holley has many customers who wait for the Bonnie Plants truck to arrive to be first in line for their favorite flowers and vegetable plants.  

Mom-and-Pop business survives by offering unique inventory.

An American institution has been slowly fading away due to the emergence of bigger stores, all-purpose grocery stores and on-line shopping.

Sprinkled across the country and particularly revered in rural areas are businesses known as "Mom-and-Pop" stores that, in the past, have primarily been operated by families from Connecticut to California.

Some remain, of course, but far too many have closed in past decades as encroaching competition from large businesses have claimed small stores that once provided livelihoods for thousands of families.

Surviving in the face of all that competition is Selma’s Holley True Value store, a business that’s managed to weather the storm by offering unique items not normally found in many Alabama stores.

Holley’s has an unusual inventory including a little bit of everything, even including mice and rats for owners of hungry pet snakes. A mouse goes for $1 while rats are bigger and sell for up to $10.

Owner Alden Holley buys the rodents, preferring not to raise them. He once sold lizards, but dropped that item several years ago because he said the profit margin wasn’t sufficient to keep them as part of his inventory.

  Tina Adams loves Bonnie Plants flowers and can’t wait to take her petunias home as Alden Holley of Holley True Value helps her.

Need a thick, black rubber plunger for bathroom emergencies? You can get one for about $7 at Holley’s. Nearby and on display are thousands of nails neatly arranged in small bins according to size. A few feet away is a large gumball machine offering a quarter treat for youngsters.

Randall Smith, a salesman for Danco, a plumbing supply company, spent several hours recently taking inventory of all the items he has provided for many years.

"They probably carry at least 500 items of mine," said Smith, who has provided supplies to Holley’s for the past 14 years. "They do a good job taking care of customer needs. You don’t always see that at the bigger stores, not like you’ll see here."

Holley’s may not sell hoop cheese, soda crackers and R.C. Colas that once were staples at country crossroad stores, but, "We’ve got the best popcorn you’ve ever had," according to the owner who literally grew up in the store.

At the age of 33, Holley’s days are spent in his little office or out front meeting and greeting customers he knows by their first names.

  Rita Sumlin, a 30-year employee at Holley True Value, holds what she calls the “Cadillac” of pecan pickers.

The store has 7,500 square feet of merchandise. The size increase is due to acquisition of adjacent, vacant businesses over the years.

The latest additions to his store, located at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Street and Water Avenue in downtown Selma, once served as a bar, a grocery and a furniture business.

The store was Holley’s playground as a toddler and it wasn’t unusual to see him crawl around rows of plumbing supplies and pet food.

He may not have been able to read the labels but he had fun looking at them as well as the customers who dropped by to buy things and watch him grow up.

He eventually became the boss, but that hasn’t been a problem for his staff. Many have worked at the store longer than he’s been alive, but they treat him with respect because they know how hard he works during the week.

Alden Holley and supplier Randall Smith of Guin chat about inventory and other matters affecting Holley True Value in Selma.  

"We do the best we can," said Holley, a third-generation owner who doesn’t have to be reminded about bottom-line dependence. "We live off the loyalty of our customers. That’s our livelihood."

That’s why he isn’t afraid to come up with products not normally found in bigger stores, occasionally offering monkey and kangaroo food for those who might have them as pets.

"You can call them oddball requests, but we get them here from time to time," Holley said. "I’ve had people ask me to have monkeys for sale, but I haven’t done that and don’t plan to."

Tiny goldfish and frogs splash around in small aquariums in back of the store. Just before Easter, Holley’s provides "peeps" and baby chicks for customers who have come to expect them for their children.

Bonnie Plants are customer favorites at the store, especially during the spring when a new shipment arrives and people line up to buy flower and vegetable plants.

An avid collector of unusual items, Holley keeps some of them near his desk. One is a rusty device that once produced match boxes once a coin was inserted. Near it is an old parking meter.

"A friend of mine had it at his house," Holley said. "It’s supposed to be one of Selma’s original meters. I just keep it at my office."

He said he keeps his store as competitive as possible, but refrains from advertising "loss-leaders" to attract customers.

"We don’t need to do that because our prices are competitive and even better than what some of the bigger stores charge," Holley said. "Our customers know that because they haven’t stopped coming after all these years and we’re proud of that."

Holley’s father inherited the store from his grandfather and asked him what he wanted to do as far as his future was concerned.

"My daddy had reservations about passing the store on to me because he knew all about the headaches that were part of running this business," Holley recalled. "But, it’s been my life and I enjoy every day I work here."

Changing times caused the Holley family to adjust their mercantile thinking and they’ve been able to keep their customers coming, whether to buy a bag of 75 cent popcorn or to pick up some Bonnie Plants flowers.

He went to Wallace Community College and got an education in machine tools, but, in the back of his mind, he just knew he’d be running the family business.

Holley isn’t a stranger to hard work and long hours because he once worked at a catfish farm in the area and it often involved working all week long.

He met his wife Karen at a Selma grocery store and they have a 2.5-year-old son who became introduced to the store not long after he was born.

That means he’ll probably be crawling around rows of merchandise just like his dad once did.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.