Store has been in business continuously for more than 150 years

Published 12:00 am Thursday, August 1, 2002

Roger Butler remembers walking by the Kress Building on Broad Street as a boy and being overwhelmed by the mouthwatering smell of popcorn and the novelty of air-conditioned air.

“They were the second place in town to have air-conditioning,” Butler recalls. “The theater was the first. It pulled people in like the Pied Piper.”

Air-conditioning is no longer the novelty it once was, but Butler couldn’t help recalling those childhood memories as he surveyed the crew of workmen preparing the Kress Building for its new occupant: Roger Butler Jewelers.

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“S.H. Kress built a great many fine quality buildings with high ceilings and handsome art deco facades,” Butler says. “These housed his very successful five-and-dime retail stores, which were an absolute delight to visit.”

The renovation is being done by a firm that specializes in designing jewelry stores. The same firm has also designed jewelry stores in New York’s Rockefeller Center.

The new building will feature 17-foot ceilings and boast twice the floor space of the present facility.

“Right now we have a lot of merchandise we don’t have room to display,” Butler says. “That’s not good. Also, at Christmastime we bump into each other a lot and that’s not good, either.”

While not the oldest business in Selma, Roger Butler Jewelers has been in existence in one form or another since the mid 1840s. In all that time the store has been operated by only four families: G.L. and J.R. Poor, circa 1845; S.R. and E.H. Hobbs, circa 1859; I.J. Hix, 1932; and, since 1964, the Butler family.

Butler operates the store along with his wife, Dolly, and their daughter and son-in-law, Doris and Jim Truax. The store will undergo yet another transformation when the move to the Kress Building is completed around mid October, becoming Butler-Truax Jewelers.

The store currently occupies a building just two doors down from the Kress Building. It includes many fixtures from the earlier businesses, including antique wrought iron cashier cages, wooden cabinets and showcases, and a large safe from the S.R. Hobbs store.

“We want the new store to have the same look we have now,” Butler says, “which is much the way it looked after a remodeling in 1919. We are having a few new fixtures reproduced exactly like the old ones. I am in hopes it will be breathtakingly beautiful.”

Roger Butler was working as an announcer and copywriter at radio station WHBB in 1963 when his boss, Julius Talton, asked if he’d like to join a group of investors that was buying a local jewelry store. Butler was tapped to run the store.

“There were five of us,” he says. “The store was much smaller then and we only had two employees. It was kind of like having five people on a shoeshine stand. But we were young and it was exciting.”

Butler and his wife bought out the other partners in 1965 and the store became Roger Butler Jewelers. From the beginning, Butler says, the store has been a partnership with his wife. They even completed their certified gemologist correspondence course together.

“We finished at the same time, but I started before she did,” he confesses.

In some ways, Butler observes, the jewelry business hasn’t changed all that much “since the days of the pharaohs.” But it hasn’t exactly stood still, either.

He notes that the diamond grading system in use today did not really gain widespread acceptance until the 1960s. The system provides a consistent method of evaluating diamonds for cut, clarity, color and carat weight, while offering customers the reassurance that they are getting the quality they paid for.

The advent of microscopes and other jewelers’ tools has also changed how jewelers work.

Suppliers today no longer give exclusive territory rights to certain jewelry stores as they once did. “That was a big thing,” Butler explains. “Only one store in each town was allowed to have certain jewelry franchises, such as Gorham Silver. That was probably not in the best interests of the consumers.”

Butler says industry markups have dropped considerably over the years, especially on higher-priced items.

Being located in Selma, he adds, gives the store a tremendous advantage over stores that operate out of higher-priced retail locations. He estimates that a store located in Birmingham’s Galleria Mall doing the same volume of business would pay at least 16 times the rent that the store here pays.

“That gives us a leg up on the competition,” he says.

Butler takes pride in the fact that they are a full-service jewelry store, offering in-house jewelry and watch repair, jewelry appraisal, bridal registry, and free gift-wrapping and delivery.

“It’s hard for a lot of people to believe that kind of service is available in Selma,” Butler confides. “They don’t ask, ‘Is my ring ready?’ They say, ‘Has my ring come back yet?’ To tell you the truth, that hurts my pride because we’ve gone to a great deal of trouble and expense not to have to send it off.”

He adds that Daniel Mielke, the store’s watchmaker, is surprisingly young. “Watchmaking,” Butler sighs, “is a dying art. Most people today just throw their watches away.”

For those who wouldn’t be dream of leaving the house wearing anything that could take a licking and keep on ticking, however, the store offers a line of Patek Phillippe watches. “They’re like Rolex,” Jim Truax says. “People who are into upper end watches value them very highly.”

Butler says that from time to time he has considered opening a second store but has so far resisted the temptation. “It’s very difficult to run more than one store. About the best way to do that,” he smiles, “is to have a lot of children.”

Butler does have aspirations of positioning the store to become more of a regional operation, though. The new facility should prove a big step in that direction. One thing that will not change, he insists, is the dedication to quality that has been a hallmark of the store.

“I’ve been accused of not being realistic about the store as a business, because I have too much pride,” he says. “But it’s my baby.”