Western Store in Virginia
CHRISTIANSBURG – Sue Atkinson leans against a counter inside The Western Store she’s owned for more than 50 years, the scent of boot leather wafting through the air and only a smattering of customers stopping by for the occasional pickup.
“Nah, ” Atkinson says. She isn’t worried. At 81 years old, she’s seen business slowdowns before and says “you just have to hang in there.”
Her own health has taken a hit as well. An oxygen tank for her heart and neuropathy in her feet keep her mostly confined to the store’s front counter, but her jovial demeanor fills the entire shop from there.
She greets everyone who walks through the front door, noting that customer service is one of the things that has kept her business afloat all these years. It’s been that, unique inventory, hard work, prayer and “some awfully good help, ” she said.
The Western Store will celebrate more than 50 years in business today and Saturday. Atkinson has stood at the helm since day one.
She’s grown the store, gone toe-to-toe with new online competitors and survived while small businesses everywhere struggled.
She jokes she doesn’t always have a gun behind the counter, “but I’ve got a ball bat over here if need be.”
She opened another location in Roanoke at one point, but it proved too difficult to drive back and forth to manage both stores.
Atkinson said her Roanoke landlord tried to keep her locked in that lease, so she recruited a group of customers in the middle of the night to load her merchandise onto horse trailers.
She was back in Christiansburg by the next morning, Atkinson remembers with a smile. She said she didn’t hear much from the landlord after that.
She never runs out of stories to tell from her years in retail, but much of the tale has been lost to folklore. Even she isn’t quite sure how old The Western Store actually is.
The woman’s 53-year-old daughter, Terry Atkinson, says her mom was selling cowboy gear out of a cinder block building on the family’s farm when she was born, so store managers think a celebration of “50-plus years in business” is close enough.
Atkinson’s now ex-husband built that original cinder block outpost, but she doesn’t give him credit for much since then.
It started when the family began hosting rodeos at its Falling Branch Road farm in the 1960s. Atkinson first sold jeans to the cowboys, and things took off from there.
She eventually moved the operation to downtown Christiansburg, where she set up a few displays in the corner of a Western Auto store she was also managing at the time. A drug store next door eventually went out of business and Atkinson took over the space to claim her first storefront.
In time, the Western Store became a regional staple, carrying cowboy gear such as saddles and silver belt buckles. The goal was to sell the kind of niche items you couldn’t find anywhere else, Atkinson said.
Today, The Western Store sits on North Franklin Street. It’s most recognizable by the statue of a white horse standing guard by the highway. The horse used to be sorrel colored, Atkinson said, but after 40 years it, too, is showing signs of aging.
The shop sells more boots than anything else, with jeans a close second. It also carries a plethora of hats, turquoise jewelry, shirts and denim of all varieties. Some people still go there for saddles and other equipment, but that business has been the hardest hit by online competition.
Customer prom photos hang on the walls, and Atkinson said it’s the kind of place where you become “part of the family” after a couple years of shopping. Generations of the New River Valley’s western-inclined have returned time after time to build wardrobes for special occasions of all kinds.
More than one lifelong customer has even requested to be buried in clothes from the Western Store. Atkinson and store manager Debbie Sarver still remember the $300 boots they sold for one burial years ago.
“If we have something that needs done around here, they [the customers] are right here helping me or doing it themselves, ” Atkinson said. “That’s why I can’t go out of business. I’ve got too many friends.”
Atkinson concedes that she’s had some health issues, but “healthy enough” is fine with her.
When the doctors tell her most people her age aren’t working, she just lets them know she’s not most people.
“I’ll probably stay here until I die, because I’m getting to be an old woman, ” she said with a smile. “I enjoy working. I enjoy the people so much. I’ve got so many friends that I’m just not interested in sitting back and watching soap operas – or whatever you watch on TV. I just don’t have that desire.”