July 2018
Homeplace & Community

When Diamonds Aren't Forever

A father-daughter jewelry business in Selma sees changing times.

 

Roger Butler and his daughter Doris stand beneath a sign that’s a tribute to the family’s jewelry history in Selma.

Doris Butler grew up in the jewelry business. It gave her a direction in life, one that helped her overcome professional and personal challenges through the years.

She didn’t do it alone because her dad Roger Butler was by her side most of the way as a mentor, an adviser and, at times, offering a shoulder for her to cry on.

The Butler family operated one of the largest jewelry businesses in Alabama’s Black Belt region, and Doris became the boss after her father stepped down.

It didn’t take her long to see that she was apparently at the helm of a sinking financial ship.

As majority stockholder, she exercised her authority by personally taking control of the operation and ordering a complete inventory, selling what could be sold.

It also led to a divorce. Doris changed her surname, returning to her maiden name. It was a dramatic decision, one that preceded a final store closure in 2017.

At one time, Butler was a name that meant fine jewelry for prospective brides, but those days are now gone.

Doris moved from a large store in downtown Selma to a second-floor office at a local bank where she personally takes orders from customers.

The Butler jewelry business once had 27 employees on the payroll and was one of the largest of its kind in the region.

A young Roger Butler assists a couple seeking a ring.

 

 

"For Sale" and "For Rent" signs cover part of the front windows of what once was a popular, profitable five-and-dime-type department store.

It all came to a sad ending in February 2017, but Doris was determined to at least keep her family’s name alive in any way she could.

When asked for reasons as to what happened, Doris, 54, is quick to point to similar problems leading to big and small jewelry stores’ closures in past years.

She said her company’s downfall followed inventories that exceeded sales, leaving leftovers to gather dust on shelves where they once had attracted customers.

It was a tough situation for her to face because she literally grew up in the store located halfway between Selma City Hall and the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge.

"I don’t feel like a failure," Doris said during a recent interview. "What we experienced was a ‘perfect storm’ of events that led to closures of jewelry stores across the country."

By that time, there wasn’t much she could do but try to hold on and hope for the best – something that wasn’t going to happen.

"It was like a slow death to watch," she said. "The economy was down all over America in 2008 and high overheads made it even worse. No matter what we tried, nothing seemed to work."

Loyal customers weren’t blaming her and, instead, offered support, but the kind they needed never materialized. The national trend of internet competition and other factors posed too big of a challenge to head off what was going to happen.

The company’s initial sale offer of $349,000 soon dropped to $295,000 and the building might eventually begin looking like so many other Selma businesses with smashed windows and no customers.

Roger didn’t know he’d be engraving names and initials on silver plates or his name would be on the big sign outside his jewelry business.

But that’s just what happened and, now, at the age of 80, he can look back on a successful career – far removed from his "boring" stint at a Selma radio station years ago.

His family’s jewelry business dates back to the 1830s, not long after Selma was created. He never tires of talking about the good old days and reminiscing with friends about the vagaries of earning a living.

"My family was involved in other businesses through the years, but my goal was always to become involved in the entertainment industry," he said. "It didn’t work out, but it wasn’t for lack of effort."

His father ran the popular Wilby Theater not far from where his jewelry store would, one day, be located. He never worked at the theater because of nepotism prohibitions.

One of the benefits that came his way was being able to see lots of free movies as he grew up. He saw so many, in fact, he had visions of working at one of the major studios in California.

He decided on a college education. It wasn’t long before he was on his way to Tuscaloosa where he obtained a degree in radio and TV arts at the University of Alabama.

After that, he served a hitch in the Army as an officer in the Signal Corps where he helped to prepare training films. That would be his closest venture to Tinseltown or combat.

He didn’t let it get him down and just moved in a different direction. As it turned out, he made the right decision at the time.

Once again, it didn’t turn out as he had hoped. He spent his days at a desk pushing and sharpening pencils.

"I was supposed to be the program director, but instead I wound up typing daily radio logs," he said. "I eventually got into sales and even became an on-air announcer for a while."

His persistence finally paid off – thanks to Julius Talton, a brilliant businessman who bought the radio station where Roger had worked.

Talton told him it was always better to be the boss and let him know he had what it took to succeed.

As a result, it led to a small piece of a partnership with Talton and three other Selma businessmen, but it didn’t involve the entertainment industry as he had hoped.

 

Roger and Doris Butler have memories of better days of their old jewelry store in downtown Selma.

What did happen enabled Roger the chance to enter the high-finance world of diamonds, watches and table settings.

"I didn’t know a thing about jewelry, but I was sent to New York to learn the ropes," he recalled. "It was only a two-week course at first, but I kept at it and began to get the hang of jewelry management."

One of the first things he did was buy an engraving machine. He made mistakes at first but discarded his initial efforts and, before too long, everything seemed to come together.

"I finally found something I could do and enjoy," he said with a laugh. "I wanted to be a scientist, but I guess being a businessman was just too much in my blood."

His grandfather had been involved in a general store, and it wasn’t long before it left no doubt he was in the right business.

Along the way, he became a gemologist – as did Doris, who would later become president of the family jewelry business.

She is always quick to give her dad all the credit when it comes to the business world and its many nuances. His interest in technology would eventually merge with the family’s background, forming a business combination leading to quick success.

It usually takes more than that to succeed, but Roger’s outgoing personality soon won over potential customers. Doris had the same success, thanks to her dad’s winning ways in business management.

"In Walmart, he’d disappear," she remembered, "and we’d find him in conversations with customers. It was like trying to catch a moving train. He was always on the go … even as he aged."

When Roger finally slowed down and Doris took over management of the store, he continued to greet people as he walked up and down Selma’s downtown streets.

The Butler family business suffered its biggest blow in 1977 when Craig Air Force Base closed. As a result, many businesses throughout Selma had a hard time recovering.

Losing Craig meant the loss of a $5 million annual payroll – money that could buy a lot of diamond rings and place settings for customers.

Roger kept his family’s business open as long as he could, but belt-tightening procedures only worked so far. It got to the point where he and Doris were the only employees left.

Selma’s current condition downtown doesn’t do much to entice new business development, but Doris and her dad are hopeful things will, one day, be a lot better.

In the meantime, Roger is still basking in the glow of having recently received the Lifetime Membership Award from the Alabama Jewelers Association.

 

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.