As Natchitoches welcomes new franchises, residents are saying goodbye to locally owned

5094
Graphic by Jim McAlpin, Natchitoches Times

Nathan Wilson | Reporter
Natchitoches has proven attractive to the expansion plans of national businesses in recent years, with the additions ranging from specialty retailer Hobby Lobby to specialty deli McAllister’s.
As national businesses flourish in Natchitoches, the community’s established institutions, some older than lifelong residents, have struggled. Stores and businesses that have shuttered in recent years include Choate’s Interiors, Home Hardware Center, Lee’s Furniture Depot, LH Johnson Wholesale, Mason Salter Fine Furniture, People’s Food Warehouse, Sears, Stage and Thompson Metal Supply.
The People’s Food Warehouse, established in 1951, is owned by Aaron “AJ” Johnson. He blamed issues with his supply chain for the closure. “We’d get about half of the truck we’d order,” he said. “So when people come and shop and you gotta go somewhere else to get what you actually need, you just stop going.” Johnson indicated the store’s smaller sales volume put them at a disadvantage. “We don’t do enough business compared to a Wal-Mart to be at the top of the list.”
Johnson also saw his sales suffer as his customers struggled with inflation. “The number one driver for grocery store costs is transportation cost. It all comes on a truck.” He noted the price of meat as a particular problem. “When your business is driven by meat, and those prices go through the roof and you have fixed income families, it’s not a good recipe.” He pointed to a triple threat of beef, chicken and pork prices. “Usually you only see one of those, or two at the worst, but when all three go up there’s no low cost alternative.”
Johnson described the predicament he faced in closing. “We had very loyal employees who had been with us for years. We didn’t have a manpower issue, our employees were loyal and hardworking. It’s just a decision we didn’t have any choice with.” Noting his business’s years of success, he added, “My butcher was one of the keys there.”
Stanley Salter, owner of Mason Salter’s Fine furniture, is winding down operations as he eyes retirement. His company’s storefront is closed, but he and his team are still working; they have obligations to honor, “We had a very large number of sold special orders that were placed right before we closed, and as you’re aware of the supply chain issues, a lot of those orders have taken six to nine months to come in.”
Salter recalls a long golden age in Natchitoches when his store, established by his father in 1939, competed with its hometown rival Choate’s Incorporated. “It really was quite remarkable, Choate’s and our store. Between the two of us, we offered probably one of the best shopping experiences for better quality furniture in the state.”
He added that his business served an area far beyond Natchitoches. “Our geographical reach went up into southern Arkansas, well into Texas and all the way over to Monroe and the Mississippi state line, so most of our business went outside of Natchitoches Parish, 85-90% of it.”
Salter acknowledges that changes in the furniture industry proved challenging. “The business model of our industry has evolved, and it’s basically disappearing,” he said. “The vendors that we deal with have diminished because of consolidation in the industry.” He countered by describing his company’s defining strengths that they offered clients. “Those people that became educated on quality and sought personal service found us.” he said. “We filled a niche, and so much of our business was word of mouth.”
With much of Salter’s business model based on expertise, he revealed that the mortal blow to his business came when a critical employee left, “Amy Davis, who had worked for us 15 years… the family moved.”
He recalled, “It was at that point Marion and I decided we were never going to be able to replace Amy.” He explained the challenge, “In our business you have to have an extremely broad range of knowledge, and Amy had that. After closing, we talked to one of our primary competitors in Shreveport and they voiced the same thing. They can’t find anyone to fill the shoes.”
Salter dispelled the idea that his business fell to competition, “Frankly, the last few years we were in business, we really had no competition.”
“There was no one in the area that did what we did.”
Davis offered a glimpse into what made the business unique. “I would do everything for clients… paint colors, layout. I would graph out their living room or whatever room they were working on. I would have it all laid out,” she said. “We would do drapery installations, pick out furniture, fabrics, everything in house.”

This article published in the Feb. 26, 2022, print edition

Salter added to the list. “We were full service. We have full-time delivery men, own our own trucks…we offered accounts receivable to our customers. They paid out with us. we didn’t put them with a third party. It was a total personal experience with us.”
Discussing the company’s legacy, Salter offered a somber outlook. “Natchitoches will never have retail furniture stores like ours and like Choate’s in the future. They will never come back to Natchitoches. The income levels just do not support the investment of a store like we had. Because of our longevity and our low cost of operations, we were able to make that presentation here in Natchitoches.” Salter saw a different sort of store filling the void. “The type of product where you buy it in a box and go home and put it together yourself, and that’s what Natchitoches will have.”
With the majority of its customers from out of town, Mason Salter’s legacy may lie outside Natchitoches, but it isn’t limited to the homes it furnished in the past. After moving to Indiana, Davis used her experience to launch her own business, Designs by Amy Davis. She described the impact of her experience. “They have taught me so much. I was very blessed to have had the opportunity to be at that store.” Along with gaining new clientele, Davis looks forward to continuing relationships she began in Natchitoches. “When I had announced that we were moving, I had clients ask me if I was going to offer virtual design, so that is something that I am going to add.”