Appliance dealer shutting doors after more than sixty years

After 61 years, a downtown Franklin staple is closing, making room for a new business to move into an in-demand area.

Friday will be the final day Smallwood Appliances, located at 27 W. Monroe St., will be open for business.

Owner Paul Smallwood, 76, said his age is a big factor in his decision to close, but he added he’s ready to see the building sold to another downtown upstart — whether it be a restaurant or a new store or something else. And with the recent resurgence in interest in downtown Franklin, finding a new business to move in likely won’t be difficult.

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Smallwood began working at the store when he was in high school, and it’s been his entire career. He’ll continue his service department and will service electrical or mechanical issues with household appliances, such as washers, dryers, dishwashers and ranges. Customers still will be able to reach him at his store’s phone number for service calls.

Smallwood’s wife, Marilyn, who worked for decades at the business, will retire. Two of the couple’s four children worked at the store for more than 30 years, and a grandson also worked there for more than eight years.

The store’s customer base has been fantastic, Smallwood said. In some cases, the Smallwoods have served multiple generations of the same families with products and service.

“A lot of them are like family, not just customers,” he said.

The store has served local customers for 61 years, starting in 1955, when Smallwood’s parents, Donald and Gertrude Smallwood, first bought a franchise for Western Auto Associates. They had moved their family from the east side of Indianapolis for the new business venture.

At that time, appliances weren’t the main part of the business. For years, both the auto parts and appliances business were steady.

“As the years went by, the appliance sales increased more and more. In 1974, I established the name Smallwood Appliances,” Smallwood said.

In the years the store has been open, they have seen many changes not only to Johnson County, but also to national retail trends.

“Business was altogether different back then. There were no charge cards. Back then, businesses had their own charge system. People made weekly payments. We’d keep 3-by-5 cards, and on Fridays, people would come in and make payments. That used to be the credit arrangement,” Smallwood said.

Now, customers often buy appliances with credit cards.

Another change is the selection of appliance brands available in-store. Stores that sold appliances might have sold a few brands, but it was never a merchandise mainstay until more recently, he said.

“No one carried a big selection. It was always secondary to the main business,” he said.

As time went on, staying competitive with big box retail stores like Sears or Home Depot was tough. Smallwood joined a merchants buying group that allowed him to buy appliances at a lower cost. But competition with the bigger stores could be crushing — they could still have unbeatable sales or sell appliances at cost just to get customers in the door, he said.

Last of its kind

The closure of Smallwood’s store will signal the loss of a business among the last of its kind. The Smallwoods’ business has been operated in much the same way it was in the 1960s — they sold, delivered and serviced the appliances — the individual services weren’t contracted out to third parties, he said.They have survived big changes in retail shopping, such as in the 1960s when new shopping centers were built in Greenwood and on the southside.

“When the Greenwood center (that became Greenwood Park Mall) opened up in probably the mid to early ’60s, it really hurt downtown Franklin. It hurt sales and a lot of stores went out of business. Stores closed up. The ’70s through the ’90s were pretty depressed,” Smallwood said.

Before then, downtown Franklin was the place to shop.

“Traffic was worse,” Smallwood said. “Semis came through downtown. Shopping patterns were different. Everybody came downtown to shop — especially the rural people. First it was Saturday nights — all the rural people came into town. Then it got switched to Friday evening.”

Coming full circle

Smallwood said he remembers when there were two grocery stores downtown — a Kroger and another store within walking distance.“One of the big things from back then was the mix of merchants. There were all kinds of small retail — shoe stores, grocery stores, everything you can imagine. Now it’s mostly restaurants, entertainment and professional offices.”

Downtown Franklin has undergone many changes, but in recent years, has come full circle, Smallwood said.

“It’s kind of 360 degrees. When we first came, the downtown was vibrant. It went through a real decay in the 1970s. There were a lot of empty storefronts, but we stuck with it in our location. Things started reviving and then surpassed what it was when we came to town. It went from good to bad and back to good again,” he said.

The building that houses Smallwood Appliances was built around 1900 and has unique, historical features like a hand-cranked elevator. Smallwood is eager to see a business that will take full advantage of the building’s aesthetics.

“I hope that it’s a benefit to the downtown. I hope that (the new owner) can use the full aspects of the building and what it has to offer. It can be some kind of venue that would address the historic aspects of the building.”

Small-town feeling’Krista Linke, community development director for the city of Franklin, said historic buildings like Smallwood Appliances have helped bring in a new customer base. The mix of old and new has an appeal to shoppers looking for a small-town vintage shopping experience.

“People are kind of getting back to that small-town feeling, getting connected with community,” she said.

Franklin is growing in new ways, and grants and loans offered through the Franklin Redevelopment Commission, a city board, and the Franklin Development Corp., a nonprofit organization, funded with money from the city’s tax-increment financing, or TIF, districts, have been a big part of that in recent years.

“We have a diamond in the rough here. People come to the festivals and events and see it for themselves. We don’t have to sell downtown Franklin as much as we used to. There’s been a lot of buy-in and people want to be a part of the action overall. I think that the initial brave souls who made the investments have seen them pay off and more are following suit,” Linke said.

Shopping experiences are different than most modern stores, and appealing as a throwback of sorts, she said.

“It’s more individualized customer service. Businesses that are located downtown are a different type of business. I don’t think they’re in competition with those on U.S. 31,” she said.