Following her father’s footsteps

Published 7:07 pm Wednesday, April 7, 2010

When Margaret was just eight years old, she tagged along with her father, Charles Gray, to furniture markets in Atlanta, an annual event for the owner of Gray’s Furniture store in Selma. She remembers being awed by all the people, the fancy elevators and flashy new products.

She never dreamed, however, that one day she would be going to the markets herself as the owner of Gray’s Furniture.

“I’d been working at the store summers for years,” she said. One thing led to another and suddenly she was working alongside her father fulltime.

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This month Gray’s Furniture is celebrating the store’s 50th anniversary, which is something neither Margaret or Charles expected to happen when the elder Gray first got into the business.

Charles Gray didn’t start out in the furniture business, either. After he graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in industrial engineering more than 60 years ago, he landed a good job in Sylacauga with the Avondale Mills, a textile mill that was founded in 1897 and closed in 2006.

After two years he decided to try his hand at retail sales and discovered he liked it, first selling tires for Goodyear in High Point, N.C., then returning to his wife Marcille’s hometown of Selma and selling appliances.

Following a bigger dream, the young couple decided to build a furniture store on family property on Broad Street. Gray’s Furniture opened in April 1960, with Charles on the sales floor and Marcille keeping books.

“The town was hustling back then with Craig Air Force Base,” said Charles, who retired as an Air Force Major after serving in World War II.

Business was good even after the base closed in 1977, which is when his youngest daughter stepped in. “I could see how well Margaret did in the store,” Charles said. “I knew she could take over the business.”

Margaret and her husband, Kent Cogle bought the store in 1989. Their children helped out during summers and tagged along to furniture marts, just as she had as a child. Margaret expanded the store’s furniture lines, added trendy accent pieces, built a warehouse, and brought in a decorator.

“The store has changed a lot over the years,” said Charles, “Margaret has done really well. I’m proud of her.”

Gray’s Furniture celebrated its 50th anniversary last week and, like their business, it was a family affair with the Cogles and their daughter, Callis, (son Gray was working on the family farm) and Charles and Marcille Gray along with their oldest daughter, Becky and her husband Billie Fitzsimmons all attending. They were joined by over 100 community residents and the store staff that includes Mel Heinz, store manager, who started working in the store 20 years ago.

“Fifty years is a milestone,” Margaret said. “I wanted to share it with Daddy, whose dream this was, and with the Selma community who helped it come true.”