By Sam Prickett
Smith’s Variety, the longtime Mountain Brook toy and gift shop, is under new management. But both former owner Jim Glazner and new owner Brad Simpson maintain that the store’s service-oriented approach to its customers and the community at large will remain the same.
Smith’s Variety had been in Glazner’s family since his parents, Lit and Mary Anne, bought the store in 1976. The couple ran the store until Lit’s death in 2003; after that, Mary Anne took over the store until her death in 2017. Shortly afterward, Jim Glazner put the store on the market, citing the difficulty of balancing management of Smith’s with his full-time job at Prescription Aesthetic and Wellness Spa, the Vestavia Hills-based cosmetic medical center that he founded in 2007.
Then came the August 2017 solar eclipse, which changed Glazner’s mind. The store sold 17,000 eclipse glasses – paper eyewear that enabled people to safely view the eclipse – and the community hubbub surrounding the store reminded him how much he loved Smith’s.
The store went off the market. But, for reasons she couldn’t explain, Glazner’s wife, Tammie, held onto the business card of one prospective buyer: Brad Simpson.
In late 2019, Glazner had a conversation with his accountant that once again highlighted the difficulties of maintaining both Smith’s and his medical practice.
“He said to me, ‘You can’t do both,’” Glazner said. “We were spending an average of two to three hours a night on paperwork just for Smith’s, in addition to the medical practice. It just wasn’t working, and I felt that I was actually hurting Smith’s, because they needed someone there on a day-to-day basis who could make decisions. And so when we met, my accountant told me, ’Jim, there’s nothing wrong with retiring from Smith’s. There comes a time.’”
Glazner gave Simpson a call to see whether he was still interested.
“And he said, ‘My wife and I have been praying about this for two and a half years,’” Glazner said.
Simpson and his wife, Amy, had previously owned a retail gift store in Florida, but Smith’s had always been on their minds. They both had attended Samford University, during which time Smith’s had left an impression.
“When making decisions for our Florida store, we always thought, ‘If we had Smith’s, this is what we’d do,’” Simpson said. “Smith’s was always in our minds and on our hearts for years, even before we moved back here … . When we were back in town visiting friends and relatives, Smith’s would always be one of the places Amy would stop. It was something that’s always been near and dear to her.”
The Simpsons moved back to the Birmingham area in summer 2017, and when they heard Smith’s was selling, Brad dropped his business card off at the store.
“I didn’t really hear anything back, so I just figured it wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “We just knew it wasn’t God’s timing at that point … . But then, in December of last year, Jim reached out just out of the blue and asked if we were still interested.”
At that point, Brad had taken a corporate job with Alabama Outdoors.
“I had a great job at that point and was very happy,” he said. “But it had always been on our hearts … . It all really worked out the way it was supposed to.”
In Safe Hands
Glazner said he was drawn to the Simpsons because he felt they truly understood the service-oriented mindset that Smith’s had cultivated over its 70-year existence.
“They love the community, and that was one of the main things we discussed,” he said. “That’s what Smith’s does – we give. People understand that Smith’s loves them, and that’s just the way that Smith’s has to carry on … . The key was, when we met Brad and Amy and went through the store, they were discussing how they couldn’t wait to carry on Smith’s for their kids. What that was telling me was that Smith’s is no longer going to end at 70. It will be there for my kids, and my kids’ kids.”
“Smith’s is just a pillar of the community, and that’s something that is just so important to me and my family, maintaining and continuing that legacy and tradition,” Simpson said. “Smith’s has always been known as a place where people know they’re going to get taken care of, that they’re going to receive service well above and beyond anything that’s expected … . Obviously, at the end of the day, we have to make a living doing this, but we’re going to do that by taking care of people. That’s something my wife and I focused on in the business we had in Florida and what we continue to do – just to put people above all else.”
The sale was finalized at the end of February, weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic placed significant strain on small businesses across the country.
“Looking at it on paper, you probably couldn’t pick worse timing than what we’ve had,” Simpson laughed.
The Smith’s business model has had to quickly adapt, offering personal shopping services and corresponding with customers through FaceTime and other messaging.
“We’re going to have one heck of a story on the back end of this,” Simpson said. “We still have zero doubt that this is what we were supposed to do.”
Without any customers in the store, Simpson said there’s been an opportunity “to do some remodeling, to try to freshen some things up and to bring some new fixtures in. We’re very excited to be able to open back up, because people will come in and say, ‘Wow, you did a lot of work while you were closed!’ It’s certainly not changing Smith’s, but it’s putting our unique stamp on things.”