A family tradition

If I were a pair of shoes, I’d want to be sitting on a shelf at Penland and Sons Department Store in Marshall, N.C., where shoes receive the gift of eternal life. So do girdles, cotton stockings, knee-length panties and knickers.

Some of the merchandise at Penland and Sons has been sitting on the shelves for more than 50 years (yes, literally). George Penland, who took over the ordering from his father, would not even think of discontinuing an item just because it’s gone out of “style.”

Recently, as a customer picked up a pair of lime-green denim knickers, George commented, “How do you like them? Them’s about 35-40 years old now.”

While “snuggies” — long cotton panties — may have sounded the death rattle elsewhere, George Penland still refers to them as “a good seller.”

“I had a woman come in the other day from Asheville and buy a dozen pair. … She’s up in her 80s,” George offers by way of example. But you don’t have to qualify for a senior-citizens’ discount wear snuggies. “We had a fad start two or three years ago. The young girls were buyin’ ‘em and wearin’ ‘em under their shorts,” he explains.

Sound like a good sales pitch? Sure it does. George Penland has 50 years of practice; his brother Joe has only 40.

The two learned the art of persuasion from their father, Jim Penland. Everett Tweed and Jim Penland swung open the doors of Penland and Sons Department Store back in 1926. According to George, Jim Penland could sell you anything: “My daddy was the best salesman that ever been in this town.

“I’m sorta like my daddy,” he continues. “I can look at a fella and tell what size shoe he wears, and what size pants and what size suit … just by lookin’ at ‘em.”

A case in point: Last Friday morning, 86-year-old Marshall Duckett came in from Leicester. If you’d been a pair of shoes perched on a shelf at Penland and Sons, this is what you would have heard:

George: “Hello, Marshall.”

Marshall: “Hello, George.”

George: “Need a fruitcake?”

Marshall: “No.”

George: “Whatcha need? Molasses?”

Marshall: “I need some overalls.”

George: “Whatcha need? ‘Bout a 48-by-29?

A size 48-by-29 is exactly what Marshall Duckett needed. Of course, take into consideration that he’s been shopping at Penland and Sons for more than 35 years. But whether or not George really knows what size a man wears just by eyeballing him isn’t the point. The point is, George Penland knows everybody. And if not, he certainly puts on a good act.

George says he’s slacked off on drivin’ a hard sale, but he didn’t even ask Mr. Duckett if he needed two pair of overalls. He just bagged them up, along with a jar of molasses.

According to the clock on the courthouse, time stands still in Marshall. And if you’re confused by the time, just try figuring out what year it is while shopping at Penland and Sons.

The mannequins that live in the front window were born in the 1940s, and some of the shoes that line the shelves are more than 50 years old.

According to one store calendar, the Marshall Community Birthday Calendar, the year is 1955. But if you go by the Marshall Lumber Company Calendar, it’s 1944.

In the ’40s and ’50s, the streets of downtown Marshall were rockin’. Folks had to fight for elbow room inside Penland and Sons. Marshall had seven cafes, two theaters, two drugstores, three barbershops, nine service stations, five shoe shops and two hotels.

According to George, as many as 15 people would pile into one truck to come to town. On Saturdays, Penland and Sons would stay open until midnight just to accommodate all the customers.

To find one of the Penland clan, all you had to do was go to Penland and Sons, the Balsam Beauty Salon, the State Theatre or Edwards Dry Cleaners. George and Joe’s maternal grandfather, Levi W. Edwards, founded the dry-cleaning business back in the early 1900s.

“Levie” (or “Papa”) moved to Marshall from Fountain, N.C., after being diagnosed with tuberculosis. In Marshall, Levie found a special medicinal tonic, and he and his wife drank several glasses of the “elixir” per day to alleviate any ailments.

George Penland landed his first job at Papa’s dry cleaners. From there, he went into business at the store with his daddy. And while apprenticing, he got an earful. “My daddy was always makin’ up tales,” George remembers.

Pauline Zimmerman enters the store, and George begins telling one of his father’s favorites.

“Dad put sales tax on stuff in the 1930s, and a lot of people didn’t know what sales tax was. We had cloth diapers back then. This woman from over on Laurel come in and picked up a bundle who hadn’t heard anything about the tax. She laid ‘em on the counter back there. The woman working here with my daddy said, ‘Now lady, that’ll be 29 cents plus the tax.’ She studied the diapers a few minutes and said, ‘Lady, you can leave off the tacks — we’re gonna use safety pins.’”

After Pauline — who has been shopping at the store for more than 60 years — let out a hearty laugh, she recalled the days when her mother would shop at Penland and Sons for felt hats. “My mother would always get her a beautiful hat in the spring and a beautiful hat in the fall. I’ve still got one of my mother’s hats. It’s still beautiful.”

And of course, you need beautifully styled hair to do justice to a beautiful hat. That’s where the Balsam Beauty Shop fits in. Jim Penland’s wife, Bessielee, opened the shop in the ’40s.

While the Penland sons were learning to sell Carhartt work clothes, the Penland daughters — all three of them — were next door learning to tease and spray. And after work, if the whole Penland gang wanted to go to a show, they could probably get in free: Bessielee’s uncle owned the State Theatre.

By 1958, a young beautician named Barbara (she’s now married to George) had joined the gang at the Balsam Beauty Shop. These days, she runs the place — when she’s not next door at Penland and Sons helping out, since George and Joe have both had a few minor health problems recently.

Edward Randall, age 88, stopped by Penland and Sons last Friday to pay George a visit. When asked if he remembered George’s daddy, Edward responded: “I loved that man. … One time, I didn’t have any money but I needed 10 pair of overalls. … He helped me keep overall pants on my children goin’ to school. After I sold my tobacco, I’d come over here and pay him.”

According to George, some trading still goes on at the store: “We still do all kinds of tradin’, but I can’t tell ya what we trade for.”

Maybe in my next life I’ll get to be a pair of shoes in the store. And while sitting on the shelf at Penland and Sons, I’ll find out all the details.

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