ETOWAH, Tenn. — Ask 82-year-old Carol Ferguson why she named her vast closeout business the Sundry Store, and she gives you an answer straight out of the dictionary.
"Sundry means any number of related or unrelated items," said Ferguson, the scooter-driving matriarch of a family business that features a 69,000-square-foot store and warehouse operation on Highway 411 in McMinn County.
Customers flock across state lines to shop at the sprawling Sundry Store, which marks the end of the road for truckloads of closeout goods.
Go to the store's Facebook page, and you'll find great deals on rolls of hay, compression shorts, baseball pants, iced tea, clothes washers, showerheads, hair detanglers, spatulas, motorcycle batteries, waffle irons and 12-foot fence gates, to name just a few items.
Where else can you buy hay for your livestock and Halloween costumes for your children under the same roof? Nowhere.
"All I know how to do is buy and sell," Ferguson said. "And that's all I've known how to teach my children."
If you live in East Tennessee but have never heard of the Sundry Store, you are excused. The owners don't advertise much beyond a sign on a fence at the local high school football field.
The Fergusons let their prices do the talking. They've discovered that word of mouth is a powerful thing.
Much of the business's customer base is from out of state, said Dallas Ferguson, Carol Ferguson's 19-year-old grandson, who has been tapped to lead the company one day. Many of the store's customers make the trip up Interstate 75 from Georgia, he said.
"If you live in Atlanta and get here once every three months, there may be a whole new store," he said.
On the other hand, Dallas' mom Mindy said Etowah locals are regulars, too. "We have people that come in every day just to say hello," she said.
Dallas Ferguson said his family is in the "deal business."
It's all about acquiring goods at such incredibly low prices they can be sold for pennies on the dollar.
"We've been lucky to figure out what can sell," Dallas said. "Anything will sell at the right price."
For example, ammo canisters sell out immediately, he said. A shipment of kayaks might last a day. A good example of a "deal" is a recent company purchase of 20,000 pairs of shoes — including mountains of football cleats — the Sundry Store sells for $10 a pair.
One whole wing of the store is dedicated to Halloween goods, which the store buys by the trailer load and sells for 10 cents on the dollar. So, a $20 superhero costume becomes a $2 toy for a child.
The origins of the Sundry Store go back about 30 years when Carol Ferguson, whose grandchildren call her "Mamaw," started selling hand-sewn pillows at flea markets in Nashville and Sweetwater, Tennessee.
"When my children were small, I walked into my house one day and I said, 'Lord, I need to work. What shall I do?'" she explained. "As plain as you and I are talking right now, he said: 'Take the fabric available to you and make pillows.' I started making pillows night and day.'
Carol said she got material from her mother's drape-making business and scraps to use as pillow stuffing from a local company that made coats for the armed services.
After earning about $80 a weekend at flea markets, Carol bought a building in downtown Etowah and eventually began stocking it with closeout hardware goods and health and beauty products that she bought by the truckload.
People in the family remember her standing in the store window downtown and gesturing at pedestrians to come inside. It's said that nearly everybody in Etowah knows Carol Ferguson. And if they don't, they aren't paying attention.
When the business outgrew the downtown store, Carol Ferguson said another message from her heavenly hotline directed her to bid on an old clothing factory at 1343 Highway 411, north of downtown.
"Some people say that God doesn't talk to them like that," she said, "but maybe they just aren't listening."
Most of her children and grandchildren have worked in the Sundry Store at some point. Her son, Jim, runs the merchandising side of the business, and his wife, Mindy, works on the retail side.
Dallas does a little of everything and is in the wings as the future boss of the operation. Carol said she has confidence Dallas can lead the business for another generation.
"It has blessed us, and it's been a fun ride," Carol said of her family enterprise. "If you like what you do, it takes most of the work out of it."
Life Stories is published on Mondays. Contact Mark Kennedy at firstname.lastname@example.org.