CULLMAN, Ala. – This month, Bennett Tire Service will celebrate 50 years in its U.S. Highway 31 location in Cullman. Owner Doug Bennett stressed that the Bennett family and selling tires go back much further than 50 years. He is proud of the family business, started by his parents Guy and Viola Bennett. Much has changed over the years, and Doug Bennett sat down with The Tribune to tell about it all.
Bennett Auto Supply first opened in 1934 and is known as Bennett still today. It was a B.F. Goodrich franchise and offered tires and other auto parts. This was in the Great Depression and prior to World War II. Guy Bennett was drafted for the war and, according to Doug, as his father was getting ready to leave he said to Viola, “Honey, sell the business. Give it away! Throw it away! I probably won’t be returning from the war.” Viola was having none of it and said, “I will keep the business going and it will be here when you get back.”
That’s exactly what Viola did. She successfully ran the tire store while Guy was overseas. Doug Bennett is very proud of his parents for the successful business they worked hard to grow. He is especially proud of his mother, who fearlessly took over a business few women would dare attempt to do at the time. She was a pioneer.
Guy Bennett did return from the war and rejoined Viola. Not too long after that, the business changed.
Doug Bennett explained, “After the war was a time of great innovation in America. More and more appliances were coming out, and B.F. Goodrich began carrying items for homes. The store was known as an A & H center which stood for automotive and home.”
Although B.F. Goodrich did not manufacture appliances and other home products, it did sell them in its retails stores. The home products expanded into toys and all types of home goods.
“My parents offered financing and sometimes it was on crop terms. They had an accounts receivable department and customers would come in to make payments. My mom, she had a ledger sheet for them. She’d ask, ‘What else are you going to need?’ They might say ‘I’m going to need a food freezer next.’ Well, on top of that ledger, she’d dictate food freezer. So next time they came to make a payment she’d ask, ‘You ready for that freezer?’ They were offering people credit and business was great.” Guy and Viola Bennett’s willingness to help customers finance with them led the Bennetts to be named B.F. Goodrich’s retailer of the year more than once.
“Back then, a man’s word was pretty good. Business was done on a handshake,” Doug Bennett said.
At Christmastime, the Bennetts’ store became known as “The house of Santa Claus.”
Said Doug Bennett, “That was mostly due to all the toys they carried. My daddy was a good merchandiser. He’d set up the floor. He had the personality, the salesmanship and the flair. Mom had the brains to manage the money.”
A scrapbook kept by the family shows several photos from those early years. The store carried a huge variety of toys such as trains, games, rocking horses, bikes, wagons and more, as well as the latest in appliances.
In 1962 the businesses next to Bennett caught fire and burned down. The fire began in what was once the theater and destroyed the block, including the original All Steak Cafe. The alley, which still exists on the south side of Bennett, kept the fire from spreading. A picture in the scrapbook shows a young Doug Bennett on the roof of the building working to prevent the fire from spreading as the fire department fought the blaze.
Doug Bennett graduated college from St. Bernard in 1969, and soon after, B.F. Goodrich sought a return to selling just tire and automotive parts. The tire company wanted to leave the appliance business. Guy and Viola Bennett weren’t ready to leave the appliances behind and they lacked the space to adequately service cars. Wanting to remain as a B.F. Goodrich franchise, they decided to open the tire center a few blocks south on U.S. Highway 31. Having just finished college, Doug Bennett was asked to run the tire center.
He did, and now, 50 years later, he still does.
He shared, “We are the oldest family selling tires in Cullman.”
He has many great memories working at the business but admits it’s getting harder, not easier, explaining, “It’s getting harder for us little independents to survive because of online shopping. It’s not just us, it’s affecting anything retail. First there were mom and pops. Then came department stores. Then came chain stores. Now it’s online shopping, and every step of the way-the service is losing. We are losing personal service.”
Doug Bennett gets emotional when he talks about the struggles facing not just himself, but all local businesses today.
He paused to gather this thoughts and asked, “You know how the cuckoo flies backwards? He don’t care where he’s going. He just wants to see where he’s been. People now don’t know where they are going because they don’t know where they’ve been.”
He continued, “Years ago, when we could make money on tires, then the service- they got along. Now, we can’t make the same money on mounting tires people wanna bring in here unless I slivery slap them with what I’m going to charge them to put the tires on.”
The pressure on small business from giant online retailers affects more than just the business owners, said Bennett.
“The customer has the best of both worlds if he can buy them for nothing and I’ll put them on for nothing. Where’s that leave me? People want good service. To give good service, I gotta pay my guys a good salary for the hard work they are willing to do. If I don’t charge for good service, I’m helping Amazon put me out of business.”
Besides great service and decades of experience, Bennett Tire still does truck and tractor work.
Bennett laughed, “Changing one of those big tractor tires-that’s what separates the men from the boys.”
Tire service can also be dangerous and tough on a person’s body. Bennett’s has his fair share of injuries through the years but also insists, “It keeps you fit.”
In 2011, Bennett Tire Service was severely damaged by in the tornado of April 27 that hit downtown Cullman.
He recalled the events of the day, “We heard there was a possible tornado coming. We were all going to stay here, but my wife Carol called and said, ‘No, you’re going home.’ We all did what she said. We closed and left. A few minutes later, I’m not sure how long, the store was hit.”
The area in which Doug Bennett and his staff would normally seek shelter was the old pit in the back used to work on big trucks. The pit took a direct hit. A front end loader was pushed into the pit, collapsing the walls. The main building and its front were spared, but the roof was ripped off the building.
Of course, it has a new roof now, and if you haven’t been by the center, you might consider stopping by to see the “newly themed waiting area.”
Doug Bennett has begun combining his love the tire business with his other passions in life. He loves going to thrift shops and antique stores. He loves all things patriotic or religious in theme. Several years ago, he began collecting items with those themes, in particular, all things done with needle point, and has begun hanging the items.
He laughed, “Probably not what people would expect in a tire center. Kid walked in the other day and asked, ‘Is this a tire store?’” The items he collects are meaningful. He shared, “Each has a message. I’d guess most of them were done by women and they were done with love. It’s a passion with a message.”
Besides the many pieces of framed cross-stitched works are flags and salutes to veterans.
“Our freedoms come from the sacrifices of veterans. Not the preachers or newspapers or politicians. We are free because of our veterans,” he shared.
Many of Doug Bennett’s loves are represented through the artwork. His love of God, country, family, community, Alabama football and animals are proudly displayed on the walls and throughout the tire center. A picture of a gorgeous orange cat with white paws is carefully displayed in the corner. The cat he referred to as “Socks” called Bennett Tire home for 17 years.
He smiled and said, “I loved that cat.” A gray cat named “Momma Kitty” and a lab named “Callie” have also lived their lives at Bennett Tire as beloved members of the family. He added, “I love animals. I can’t stand anybody that would abuse an animal.”
Doug Bennett is a Cullman man through and through. He was a member of the 1962 state champion Cullman High School football team but admits he didn’t play, saying, “I wasn’t even a good blocking dummy to those guys.”
He enjoys the history of the city and often helps his good friend Bill McCartney at the Red Door Cafe find old pictures for his restaurant.
He shared, “I wish I could find an old picture of the original Globe Drive-In. It was just like the movie ‘American Graffiti’ back then.”
Doug’s wife Carol still runs the original Bennett location. They no longer sell appliances but still have toys, unique gifts, gourmet cookware, Lionel trains and other fun home items.
As for retirement, Doug said, “It’s kind of my life and I don’t want to give it up yet. I feel like you gotta keep going.”