Welcome to our Small Biz Spotlight series! An interview series focusing on local retailers and what makes them special. This is a special installment as we had the opportunity to speak further with one of our Local Business of the Year finalists, Mollie Graybeal of The Gray Mill. Mollie captivated the Promoboxx team with her answer to a single question: What makes your business special?
Over the course of our conversation, we dove deeper into her tales of lifelong customer loyalty, the importance of helping to build and maintain local businesses, and The Gray Mill’s commitment to the community of Logansport, IN, without fail since 1952.
In your submission, you told a wonderful story about a doctor, new to town, to whom your grandfather extended a courtesy credit. Can you tell me more about your customers? A story or a thing you love about them?
Here is one of my all-time favorite stories about my grandpa, Bill Graybeal Sr. and my uncle, Bill Graybeal Jr, from my uncle’s perspective.
A woman walked into our store a few years back. She couldn’t talk well because she was sick, and it had affected her voice box. Once a customer exceeds a certain purchase total, one of us always steps in to make sure that a Graybeal extends not only a handshake but a very sincere ‘Thank you’, as we do this we also always ask about their history with us. This gal had totaled up about $15,000 of in-stock furniture. Her tickets had been written, so it was my time to walk in for the Thank You and walk her to the door. I asked her very casually if this was her first-time shopping with us, not ever expecting what she said next…
“I came here today to repay an old debt to this family.” She didn’t know who I was, but I asked her what she meant and this was her reply. “My husband was seriously hurt in a work-related accident and he lived the rest of his life in a hospice room. The old man (Bill Graybeal Sr.) was in the assisted living wing of the hospital when this happened and for some reason, he went into my husband’s room every single day to keep him company. Now, he was the only person that wasn’t family or hospital staff that took the time to talk to my husband. Every day he would stop in, and every day my husband told me how much it meant to him that a businessman like Bill Graybeal Sr. would take time to talk to someone like him. A few years later, before my husband passed away, our entire home flooded and we could not afford anything. Bill Graybeal Jr, who had visited my husband with Bill Sr., sent an entire house of flooring to our home and installed it free of charge. I told myself then that I would do whatever I could to repay the family for their kindness and compassion. My husband has been gone for over 10 years, but this week I finally received the settlement from his accident, and I know that spending this money in here at The Gray Mill is exactly what he would have wanted me to do with it. People are not kind like the Graybeal’s are, and their kindness meant so much to us in our hours of need.”
Now, this gal didn’t know me from Adam. She had no idea that I was a Graybeal. I kept that to myself in the beginning of my career because I wanted my customers to respect me for my knowledge and salesmanship and not just for my last name. She realized very quickly when I was wiping tears away from my face. Silent acts of kindness can truly change the world.
That is a wonderful story! You briefly mentioned Graybeal’s sponsorship of local organizations in your submission as well. Could you expand on your involvement in the community a bit?
In 2012, I hosted my first Gray Mill fundraiser for our local backpack organization, which sends home food on the weekend to children in need. In my community, 50% of children are living in poverty with severe food insecurities. “Headboards 4 Hunger” came from that need. I had a headboard manufacturer from Peru, IN donate ten youth-sized headboards. Then, I had ten local artists and organizations hand paint the headboards to be put into a silent auction to benefit the Logansport Backpack Program. I turned the front half of the store into the North Pole, snow globes and all. I decorated our front windows as Santa’s Living Room and Mrs. Claus’s dining room. One of our long-time customers and his wife worked their entire lives as Santa and Mrs. Claus. Six months of begging and two free recliners later, I talked them into doing one last performance.
The kids were greeted by Santa and Mrs. Claus, they got to have their pictures taken for free, and got to talk to Santa in their hometown. I transformed our bedding department into a “drive-in movie theater.” We set up a movie projector and screen across the entire window and played Jim Carrey’s ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ on loop. One of the best moments of my life was walking into that bedding room and seeing over 50 kids lounging on our beds watching the movie, laughing, and making new friends.
That night our store had more than 300 people come through, countless smiles on the faces of adults and kids alike, Christmas spirit came back to this community, and the most outstanding part was that we raised over $3,200 for the Logansport Backpack Program. That money was used to fund a full month of food for children with food insecurity.
While the Headboard 4 Hunger was a huge success for our community, my most recent project has been my most successful personal achievement. Over the course of one month, I painted four large-scale murals on the backs of our buildings, in an alleyway that most of Logansport would never walk through. The murals were a project that I had always wanted to do on our buildings, but I never imagined the response that came after.
My local newspaper covered my story, and the alley was soon filled with groups of people. Parents called their kids to come back home, something cool was happening in Logansport. People started to make downtown Logansport, and our alleyway, a destination. In the meantime, other business owners on Broadway took notice, and one after the next offered me their buildings to mural. Starting next spring, I have eight buildings along the same alleyway to mural. I’ve got local artists living all over the country that are ready to come back home and mural blast downtown of Logansport. The Associated Press picked up my story and newspapers from coast to coast ran it as well. The Indianapolis Star, The Washington Times, and the Miami Herald just to name a few.
I have begun to completely transform my community into an art destination through my own work and through the businesses that I assisted in developing. We all have the power to change the world, we just need to believe that we can. I live that life, through my work, and my philanthropy. It’s something that is very easy to do when I remember that downtown Logansport built this business for my family. It’s my responsibility as the third generation of the family to say thank you and do all that I can to give back.
In June of this year, Sears of Logansport closed its doors as Graybeal’s celebrated its 65th year of business. At Promoboxx, one of our core values is Believe in Retailers. How is the retail/small business community looking in Logansport?
Logansport was a thriving community for many years, from about 1880-1990. In my lifetime, I have watched 11 major manufacturing plants leave my hometown and the median income drop from upper middle class to floating at the poverty line. When The Gray Mill opened in 1952, Logansport had a bustling downtown. There were shops everywhere, and from what I’ve heard you could not find a parking spot anywhere. Now, one in three adults are not working, and one out of every two children do not know where their next meal will come from. We still have some major global manufacturing that is locally owned, but I’ve watched my community fade away.
Three years ago, my parents made a huge investment and purchased our warehouse building, one of the oldest buildings in Logansport. Since then, my parents and I have renovated over seven storefront properties, and run them at an affordable rent to assist other local businesses in following their dreams and allow people the ability to actually afford to stay in business. In just three years, we took one empty building and filled it with seven new businesses. Part of my work is doing business consultations, sharing my knowledge with others to help them thrive in downtown Logansport, as my family is the downtown veteran, and we have experienced true success here. I have assisted in opening over ten new businesses in my local downtown and I am proud to say that I was a crucial component in reshaping a downtown that just five years ago was empty with few desirable attributes. Through different philanthropy projects, we have added over eight new pocket parks, countless sculptures pieces, and public artworks.