When Richard Barnes is about to tell you a joke, you’ll know it.
His face will ruddy and his blue eyes will widen, big as bottle tops. Then he’ll lean in close as if to tell you the greatest secret that’s ever been told.
Ok there’s this DEA agent and he stops at a local ranch…
Richard pauses excitedly. “…You heard this one?” he says, as the full potency of mischief radiates from his eyes.
Anyway, the agent meets an old rancher, and tells him, ‘I need to inspect your field for illegally-grown drugs.’ The rancher says, ‘Okay, but do NOT go in that field over there…’
The agent pulls out his badge and says, ‘Sir, do you understand that I have the authority of the federal government with me? You see this badge? This means I am allowed to go on any land…have I made myself clear’?
“The rancher says ‘yeah, yeah I’m sorry.’”
A little later the old rancher hears screaming, looks up and sees the agent running, and chasin’ him’s this big ol’ bull. The rancher drops his tools, stands up and yells “Your badge, show him your badge!”
Richard’s sly brand of humor has been present in the family business since he was 14 years old, when he used to stock and prepare produce at his grandfather’s store.
“He bought me a Barlow knife so I wouldn’t cut myself trimming lettuce,” Richard laughs.
Today, Richard and his son Brandon are busy in their perched office overlooking Bill & Sons grocery store in Carbon Hill, Alabama. Below, the store is abuzz: young sackers are hauling grocery bags to car trunks, cashiers are beeping boxes of Lucky Charms and gallons of Shur-Fresh milk through the register, and customers are fishing quarters and coupons from their pockets. This has been Richard’s routine for the last 41 years. So what keeps him motivated, you ask?
“The 10th of the month, when that house payment is due,” he quips.
But it’s more than that. For a sleepy little town in west Walker County, this country hub has been more than a place to get food and fabric softener. It’s been a place to cash your paycheck, swap stories, or land your first job. The business is also a proud supporter of local athletic teams, churches, and service organizations. In many ways, it is a lifeline for residents who survive on small town values.
“I love the business, but it’s all about the people we serve,” Richard says.
To understand the intricacies of Bill & Sons, one must also learn the history. Here’s a recap:
The business was started by Richard’s grandfather, E.J. “Pete” Barnes. Pete and his wife Sarah moved to Walker County in 1943 with their two sons, Henry and Billy. Pete and Sarah, along with Pete’s brother, E.K., soon opened Barnes Grocery Store in Cordova. After driving through Carbon Hill one day, Pete asked local resident Brunner Nix if he would consider selling his store on Maple Street and Second Avenue. One-half of the building housed the Carbon Hill Post Office. So Pete bought it and moved the family to Carbon Hill. Bill (Richard’s father) became a partner in the store in 1960, and when the post office moved in ‘61, Pete expanded the store. Bill partnered with renowned grocery man Son Humphries in 1965. In 1980, Richard became a partner, and in 1983 Son’s daughter, Sandra H. Lee, joined the team as partner. On April 31, 1988, the current store was opened and incorporated as Bill & Sons, signifying Bill, Son, and Richard. Now the Barnes family is keeping the legacy intact by holding true to the traditions of customer service, friendly atmosphere, and hard work that was instilled in them by their ancestors.
Richard remembers his father, who passed away in 2012, as a pillar of the community and an extremely hard worker. “Daddy helped to start the local Lions club and did a lot for the Carbon Hill community,” Richard recalls. “He thought if he wasn’t fifteen minutes early he was late, and he always stayed late at the store. A few years back, we had a store Christmas party and someone, as a joke, gave mama an 8×10 of daddy so she’d remember what he looked like.”
Brandon, who came back to the store full-time three years ago, also remembers his grandfather fondly. “I think about people who are respected, and those who are highly respected,” he says. “He was one of the few who fell into the category of highly-respected. He would do anything for anybody. He believed in giving back.”
Bill Barnes was not only a philanthropist, he was a shrewd businessman and a churchgoing man. He was on the Board for AG (Associated Grocers) for 25 years and retired as Chairman of the Board. He was also named as “Alabama Retailer of the Year” in 1998.
Watching the afternoon sun golden the store, Brandon leans back in his swivel chair and shares a story about his grandfather. “Several years ago, I was in Birmingham at a Piggly Wiggly. I was standing in line and a man asked me where I was from. I told him I was from Carbon Hill. He said, ‘Do you know Bill Barnes?’ I said, ‘That’s my grandfather.’ Well, it turned out to be the owner of the store. He said, ‘I just played golf with him.’ People from all over knew him, and the stories about how respected he was have leveled me.”
But Bill rarely had time for pursuits such as golf and travel, or much goin’ and doin’. Running a grocery store involves late hours and weekend work, something to which Richard and Brandon, as heirs, have become accustomed. “A while back, my birthday was on a Sunday,” Richard says. “So Brandon volunteered to work for me. Later that day, I called up to the store and asked him, ‘How’s it goin’?’ He said, ‘Ain’t nothin’ to it!’ I said, “Good, you can have the rest of ‘em.’”
Brandon’s been working Sundays ever since.
Regardless of the hours, the reward is that the mom-and-pop grocery store—from the cashiers to the meat carvers to Richard, Brandon, and Nancy—is a family environment. Nancy Barnes Vickery, Richard’s daughter, and Butch Piester, store manager, are faces that the residents of Carbon Hill have come to expect when they visit the store.
“I think people want to put a face with a business,” says Richard. “We want people to know that we’re here to help you.”
Some of the same customers who shopped with Pete are still coming to the store, and then of course there are the weeklies. Expect Mrs. Thornberry to drive over from Kansas (AL) on Thursday, Mrs. Easter Henslee to make an appearance on Saturday morning, and Mrs. Eads and Mrs. Trimm to always come together in tandem.
“Some customers get a little upset when me move certain items,” Richard laughs. “So we try to keep things in the same place. Ever since we opened the store, JELL-O has always been on 9A.”
Richard will admit that the Barnes boys could have not have made it without the support of their wives. Richard first met his wife Pam when she was looking for a dog collar for her poodle, Mitzi, in Son’s Supermarket. She will probably admit that she’s had a harder time keeping Richard on a leash than Mitzi.
These days though, Richard is taking a little more time off. “I work six days a week,” Richard brags. “Tuesday’s my off day. And I don’t mind getting up early. I’m used to it.”
Brandon quickly reminds Richard that he also takes Sunday off, and that his math doesn’t add up.
Caught red-handed, Richard grins.
“Yeah, I’m pretty well not here on Tuesday either.” 78