FAIRHOPE — What criteria defines a classic?
When it comes to cars, they reach classic status in 20 to 40 years, depending on who you ask. There are no guidelines when it comes to business, …
FAIRHOPE — What criteria defines a classic?
When it comes to cars, they reach classic status in 20 to 40 years, depending on who you ask. There are no guidelines when it comes to business, but for one Fairhope staple, 50 years qualifies them as a Baldwin County Classic in our eyes.
M&F Casuals in downtown Fairhope is celebrating 50 years of serving their loyal customers, but owner Ann Miller's family has a deep history in Baldwin County that reaches back 100 years.
Miller has a kind smile and the accent of a proper Southern lady. She is retired but by a loose definition because she still comes into the store a couple days a week. She is brimming with stories and enjoys sharing them.
Miller's grandfather, Harry Maring Sr., owned a dry goods wholesale business in Selma where he sold clothing and household items like sheets and towels. In the 1930s, the salesperson who covered south Alabama, Roswell Faulkenberry, came to him with an opportunity. A man who owned two stores, one in Foley and the other in Robertsdale, wanted to sell, and Faulkenberry pushed for Maring to move into retail.
Despite Maring's hesitation, he agreed to purchase the two stores if Faulkenberry agreed to run the business. They combined their names, and M&F Department Store was born.
In true family business fashion, the next generation took over. Over the next 30 years, Harry Maring Jr. and son-in-law Lester Yates (Miller's father) helped the business grow and added a third location in Camden.
Miller did not have plans to join the family business. She moved to Atlanta where she worked on polio research for the Centers for Disease Control. It was in Atlanta where she met her husband, Marc Miller, a photographer with his own business. They married and had three children in quick succession. Back at home in Selma, she had two younger sisters. Their mother, Esther, suddenly died in 1965.
"My father (Lester Yates) was just young and distraught," Miller said. "So, we moved back home, and my husband, who knew nothing about retail, and I knew nothing about retail."
The Millers joined the business in 1966.
A lack of retail knowledge didn't stand in the Miller's way. Her husband began traveling to the south Alabama territory. The Fairhope store was not in the cards until he got stuck in the area. He couldn't find a hotel room and decided to head up Highway 98 to find a room in Mobile. His normal route took him up Highway 59, so he was not familiar with the area. On that drive, he passed through a picturesque little town called Fairhope and told his wife they would have a store there one day.
The Fairhope store opened in 1973 after years of waiting for the building they are in now to become available. Miller said it was a little crazy getting everything done, but they got there in the end with help from neighboring merchants.
When M&F Casuals opened, they carried men's and women's apparel and only occupied the front half of the building. Despite having several businesses in Baldwin County, the family maintained their residency in Selma. Miller said they would drive down as a family or her husband would drive down a few days a week. At one point, they built an apartment in the back half of the building so they had a place to stay.
The Miller children grew up in the store, and as each got older they learned different parts of the businesses.
"We made each of the children do something. They kept books and put tickets on merchandise," Miller said. "We needed help."
Carol Eberlein said some of her favorite moments were riding to Fairhope with her dad. She said once a week he would drive from Selma to Baldwin County to check on the stores. The children would take turns riding with him.
The Millers' children grew up, went away to college and began their careers. Eberlein worked for Marriott right out of college and ended up working at The Grand Hotel in Fairhope. Around that time, in the 1990s, Miller felt they were getting a little too old to make the drive three-hour to Fairhope. Before long, they purchased a home and traded Selma for the Eastern Shore.
Eberlein began working in the business again once she started having children.
"I wanted something flexible. I was the least likely to come into business with Mom," Eberlein said. "Mom kept to what she did, and Dad was ready to retire. I kind of took over his end of it. I have always been a techy kind of geek, so we computerized and put the books on computers. I think that is what has helped us stay in business."
Miller didn't disagree with Eberlein's thoughts on why the business has stood the test of time, but she also has her own opinion.
"We wouldn't survive if there weren't other good stores in town. You can't run it alone," Miller said. "And then true survival is your staff. I could buy gold and put it in here, and if they were rude to people, people wouldn't buy it. So, it doesn't matter how good we buy, it's that staff out there that makes it."
Eberlein and Miller both agree the staff is part of the family, and that is evident in the photo album Miller pushed across the table. Not only is it full of advertisements and fliers from years gone by but photos of staff Christmas parties and of staff on buying trips. Each photo, a walk back in time.
In a day and age where it is hard to find employees, let alone have them stay on staff for a year, M&F Casuals has had the same manager for 40 years. Others have been on staff for 20 and 15 years.
Eberlein also credits a loyal customer base with their longevity.
"We have had our core locals that would shop with us. They had their favorite stores, but we have some tourists who have shopped with us for 30 years. That, I think, has kept us going," Eberlein said.
Once Miller hit 85, she decided to retire, though that seems to be said with a smirk and a wink.
"I hit a certain age, and I said, 'I am not going to be one of those old ladies they push around market,'" Miller laughed.
"She just doesn't come in every day and bug us, just every other day." Eberlein laughed.
When asked if there is another generation waiting in the wings to continue the family tradition, Eberlein said she doesn't think so. Not at this point.
"Not unless one of them has babies and wants flexible hours, but they can all work remotely now," Eberlein said.
For now, Eberlein and her sister, Barbara Levitt, will guide the ship for many years to come. Maybe in 50 years, this story will have a whole new generation or two carrying on the family legacy.