Commitment to responsibility is a tough word to illustrate today, but Betty Blades and family are a great example of what the word means. A&M Clothing has been in business for 48 years and is now closing its doors. As soon as I heard the news, I went down to the store and sat down with Betty Culver Blades and her personable daughter-in-law Polly Blades (Rich) to reminisce about the store and our longtime friendship. Very quickly I learned that this decision to close was made by Betty with much thought and prayer.
Betty Culver and Richard Blades both went to Weogufka School. When I first met them, Betty was the capable, efficient secretary at First Presbyterian Church, and Richard worked at Sylacauga Cash Store. Richard was one of the kindest men I have ever known. He was the exact opposite of the pushy salesman stereotype. He wanted to help his customers find what they wanted or needed, and that commitment is still apparent at A&M today. While I was there, Willie Wilson (now retired) came in and told me how he had always bought the steel-toe shoes required for work at the quarry from A&M. “I traded here because I could get quality clothes and shoes, and they often gave me a discount.”
Richard’s Dad had operated a small clothing store in Talladega, and he became a part of the family to me and lots of people because he supported Richard with help at the store at times and because of his love of his grandchildren. We shared a love for baseball, and we both loved to watch his grandson and my son play in Little League and Babe Ruth League.
When the Cash Store closed, Richard decided to start his own store. In 1975 he rented and later bought the current building from Kay Arnold. Later they rented and then bought the adjacent parking lot from the Goldberg family.. At that time Betty was still at the church, but she was a vital part of the store even then. She would save her vacation days from the church and work at the store during Christmas rush days. She knows so many people, and has that gift of being able to call their names. With the business skills and organizational skills of a good executive secretary, she has remained invaluable to the store in ordering and keeping inventory and has continued to handle most of that since Richard passed from ALS in 2016. Her son, Rich, and his wife have stood beside her in the gap. Polly Blades said, “She has the sharpest mind of anyone I have ever known.” When your daughter-in-law says that about you, that is quite a compliment!
A&M has always been a family affair, but things have not always been easy. Richard and Betty had two children, Donna, a sweet and sensitive little girl that I met at Main Avenue School when their son Rich and my son Ray started there in 1968 in the first grade. Donna and I hit it off, and she and I exchanged hugs in the afternoons during car pick-ups on that Main Avenue back driveway. We had fun conversations as only an adult and a fourth grader can do. Donna became an LPN after schooling at Nunnelley State Technical College, and sadly passed away young at the age of 43 in 2003. Rich has the calm laid-back personality of his Dad; and he continues to work for Resolute Forest Products in Childersburg where he has been 43 years, as well as helps at the store, alongside Polly and Betty.
Rich and Polly’s children, Josh and Elisha, became after-school regulars at the store as soon as they got big enough to enter school. Elisha says it beautifully, “ It is hard to put into words what this place means to me and my family. It’s my dear grandparents legacy to start. A place that taught me how to give correct change, how to run a credit card machine(which back in the day wasn’t simple)., how to wait on customers with patience and a smile (ok we tried on that one), how to count and track inventory, and the list goes on. I think the most important thing it taught was how to treat people no matter who they were or what they looked like. My grandparents taught us through their own actions that very important rule in life.” It was not all work, because they had a ball field of sorts in the back of the store where Josh and Richard could practice catch and throw. Josh at 16 would open his own business, an archery shop at a room in back of the store. Josh(Emily Stone) now has 3 children and works for a law firm in Montgomery. Elisha (Matt Bailey) has two children and works for the State of Mississippi in Jackson where they live.
The people who have worked part time with A&M have been an important part of their success. Michael Woods is almost a fixture after 28 years, and the mutual respect was evident to me in the courtesy he showed Betty while I was there. Others like Betty’s sister, Christine Harris, and many who worked part time like Candace Hamilton, Paul Wright, Jessica Strickland, Alyssa Sullivan, Emily Criss, and others have special memories at A&M.
So come on down and check out the close-out bargains at A&M as everything must go. Be sure to come for the celebration of this successful business and congratulate Betty on her retirement and the wonderful store that started in 1975, not so long ago at that.