By BECKY GILLETTE
“Front Street was the place to be. That was where all the action was. If you made it on Front Street, you could go places.”
— L.C. Ulmer, a blues music legend who died in 2016.
LAUREL — Back in the 1940s, Blues musician Blind Roosevelt Graves sang and played his guitar in front of Lott Furniture at 320 Front Street almost daily.
“He and his brother, Uaroy, drew massive crowds to Front Street just to hear them play, locals and travelers alike,” said Rodney Rowell, who owns Lott Furniture with his wife, Angie. “It’s been said that Blind Roosevelt was a big influence on the Delta Blues musicians who would stay to listen between train stops.”
The musicians were welcomed by the founder of Lott Furniture, Reuben Lott, as it drew customers to the store at a time when the country was still recovering from the Great Depression. Another blues musician who played in front of the store, L.C. Ulmer, who passed away in 2016, said: “Front Street was the place to be. That was where all the action was. If you made it on Front Street, you could go places.”
But after malls became popular, businesses located in downtown areas across the country saw their fortunes change. In addition to the toll taken by World War II and the Great Depression, urban renewal in the early 1980s turned out to be a disaster for Laurel.
Lott Furniture, which will be 100 years old in October, managed to be nimble and innovative enough to continue operating in the downtown. And now the owners are delighted to see Front Street coming back bigtime.
“I have never seen a town so on fire in my life,” said Rowell. “The vibe in this town is the warmest I have ever experienced. I grew up here in early 1970s when the streets were full of people. In the early 1980s, urban renewal ruined us. But now Front Street is coming back. Laurel Mercantile has opened in the old Smith Furniture building that had been closed for 15 years. That has opened up a lot more traffic to the area. Another vintage store is coming in. If you come to downtown Laurel, the shopping experiences can’t be matched. We have a butcher shop, and a bakery that is fantastic. We have several women’s stores and a children’s store that just opened, and an exclusive men’s store is coming this spring. Pretty much a year ago, half of downtown was vacant. Now something is coming to almost building.”
Even on his days off, Rowell is drawn downtown.
“If I get a day off, I find myself coming down to the store,” he said. “It almost feels more like my home than my home. I have so many friends, it is like family down here every day. The merchants all support each other.”
Rowell attributes the revival in part to people in their 20s and 30s who are starting new businesses including the three couples involved in launching the Laurel Mercantile. Those includes one couple, Erin and Ben Napier, who will be featured in the HGTV “Home Town” series starting March 21.
“Company’s coming,” Rowell said. “This town is going to be seeing visitors over the next year. We feel certain people will be interested with Laurel getting exposure on a national television network. We feel people will stop to see us. Laurel is a beautiful town. People will stop in here just to browse.”
Rowell is delighted to talk to people who come into the store and ask him about the history of the downtown.
“The millennials have more interest in history,” Rowell said. “The young people are super interested in Laurel’s heritage. People are always asking about an old building or a person who is no longer here. I feel like with a store as old as ours, we have a responsibility to share its history with our community.”
The Rowell’s daughter, Keri, recently joined them in the furniture business.
“It has been a wonderful feeling to have her here,” he said. “She is young and empowered, and sees the world with younger eyes. One of the things she has done is write a blog on our website about Laurel’s history. We feel like one of the things we can do to contribute to community is to share our knowledge of Laurel’s history. And we are in a position where we need to show leadership to stand up and make things happen.”
Reuben Lott, who opened the store when he was only 20 years old, found a way to survive even during the Great Depression. He would send salesmen out to outlying areas and make it easy to do weekly payments.
All the ledgers have been kept by hand even to today.
“When I came in 1984, I thought the first thing I would do was put everything on computer,” Rowell said. “But there is a connection with pen and paper that you don’t get with a computer. People come in. We know their name. We are one of the few furniture stores in the country that does its own financing. People come in every month to pay their bill and we have an opportunity to sell them something else.”
Lott Furniture has reached out to bring more upscale, eclectic furniture styles such as mid-century modern, industrial and rustic. They still carry furniture for people on a budget, but also offer furniture for someone who is looking for a treasure.
The metal façade of Lott Furniture was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina.
“Katrina remodeled the store for us,” Rowell said. “Underneath the metal was this beautiful brick. Now we are restoring Lott Furniture to how it would have looked in the 1920s.”
Rowell’s mother, Nellie Rowell, came to work at Lott Furniture in 1947. ReubenLott had no children, and ended up selling the store to his employees. Nellie bought out the other employees. Today in addition to her son, Rodney, her daughters, Candy and Patsy, have also played key roles at the store.
“My mother was part of the community in Laurel that is like it is today, a big family of friends and merchants who spend time together and support each other,” Rodney said. “We build each other up. It is what we do.”