HISTORY WORTH SAVING - Ronald Burson has served the citizens of west Georgia for nearly 60 years. As the proprietor of Burson Feed & Seed he's never put his products first, Mr. Burson has always focused on simply serving his customer's needs.
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MJ: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.
“We can offer you service and load your product and tell you our knowledge about how to use it and offer you a competitive price too. So service is our number one thing that we have to sell. Personal service.”
MJ: Ronald Burson the proprietor of Burson Feed and Seed in downtown Carrollton, Georgia has devoted his life to service and the needs of his neighbors.
Today small towns, and small town shops that offer real customer service and employ people who actually know how to provide it as well, have become so rare they’ve become the cliche’s of romance novels, cable movies and fodder for stories told round the campfire about greener pastures and a time when people valued neighbors helping neighbors and small business owners that sold service first and then they’re product. Ronald Burson is a man who understands this. He’s become a reliable service provider for the citizens in western Georgia for nearly sixty years.
"Well, it's just all I know. It's really the only-- I came here right out of college. I was planning to go to medical school, but I graduated from college at an odd time of the year so I was killing time here, but I enjoyed it so much. I've been here 59 years.
This was originally built as a farm supply store and a grocery store, at the front of the store. Started by Mr. Robinson and Walker. A partnership that existed for many years.
Some years went by and owners too - but eventually Mr. Burson’s father, a fertilizer salesman showed up. My father was a fertilizer merchant, he sold fertilizer to farmers. And they offered him this space to use for his fertilizer business and gave him a year's free rent. So he was a struggling business man and that was right up his alley. To get a year's free rent. And that's how it started. The next year, Mr. Jackson decided he wanted to retire and so he sold his portion of the business to his son, AT Jackson Jr., and my father. And it became known as Jackson Burson Seed Store. And it operated in this fashion until 1956, the partners decided to buy each other out, and my dad out-bid Mr. AT Jackson Jr. for the high bid. And it became Burson Feed and Seed since 1956.
And now you're the next generation running this.
Yeah, I'm the next generation. I've been here for 59 seasons, 59 years here. I'm 80 years old."
MJ: Now, I’m an optimist about a lot of things - but customer service isn’t one of them. But I’d like to be - but for now I’m a firm believer that old fashioned customer service - the Ronald Burson kind - is quickly drying up. Walking into Burson Feed and Seed is as much a museum to the way it used to be, then it is a feed and seed store. He’s become one of the last apostles of customer service - a disciple to the true cornerstone of any business.
After spending a few minutes at Burson’s, listening to him help other customers, it makes you wonder why retailers across the U-S-A are crying that the internet is killing them. Not only does Burson’s not have a website or social media presence - it’s not likely he ever will - but that’s not to say he’s opposed to technology. While working there he’s seen the first man on the moon - the end of the cold war and now the post nine eleven era. Through it all though - his success has come through technology - it’s come through customer service - it’s always been his hallmark. Turns out, taking care of people, something that should be first - not just in business - is something people still want and are will to pay for.
At Burson’s there’s also no self checkout - to shop here, you’ll actually need to speak to someone. The truth is - a lot of people come to Burson’s to do just that.
There's a lot of America rolled up in a store like this. I mean, you can't deny it. I mean, this is something that-- when you run into the big box store, you run in as fast as you can.
"When you come here, you're probably going to be offered a popsicle if it's a hot day or something.
Tell me about that because it's really part of the community here.
Well, we have several chairs up front where customers and friends like to come in and relax and shoot the bull. And we talk about everything from politics, religion, sports, you name it. That's a big plus to a family-owned store like we have."
MJ: Allen Murrah found a cool spot to sit - right next to the wind chime display - the day I visited. Our conversation was brief because the popsicle was more thought provoking than me with a microphone.
"How long have you been shopping here?
Well, as long as the store's been here I guess. Yeah."
MJ: Allen, like most of Burson’s customers are folks who grew up shopping in this type of store. And Mr. Burson, being the smart business man he is - caters to them.
"Well, they're important because there are a lot of senior citizens in any town, and they want to know if you have a product and if they can rely on you if they drive to your store that they can get the product, and you can tell them how to use it and load it for them in their car if it's necessary."
MJ: Mr. Burson not only knows his customers, he knows his products too. And he has such a variety - you just have to see it. The warehouse behind the retail store might as well be a warehouse for the Smithsonian. It’s filled with old stock, new stock and really - really old stock and it’s nestled behind an ominous - turn of the century - fireproof door.
"Well, I just like people to know if they've never been to the store, the variety of merchandise that we have to offer, we're presently in our warehouse where we have all kind of deer mixes that you plant now, clovers that you plant now for deer and game, and ryegrass, and Kentucky 31 Fescue, and perennial ryegrass, and just the many, many various products that we have for sale here.
And I love these doors back here, the old sliding doors. So you'd pull your wagon up, or your truck, and load up.
Wow. And tell me about the warehouse door that's up here, up front.
Well, Robinson and Walker, as alluded to earlier, they bought cotton. And back in those days, you had to have cotton in a secure warehouse that was supposedly fireproof. And this is supposedly a sliding fire door on the warehouse up here. This is a metal-coated sliding door. The front closes off the warehouse at night. That supposedly made it fireproof. I don't know how that-- it's never been tested. And then, this big metal-coated door slides down.
Oh, okay. Oh, yeah. Look at that.
Slides all the way down.
And that was to keep the cotton safe?
The main purpose was to protect the cotton and make, of course, the building secure.
Up in the rafters you’ll see century old tobacco baskets and a variety of merchandise from years past. I asked Mr. Burson what the oldest piece of merchandise was - oddly - a small ice cream display unit dating back to the early 1900’s.
Oh yeah. Here you go.
Here's the White Mountain ice cream freezer that I referred to earlier.
And you still sell these White Mountain ice cream freezers?
Yeah we sell them [crosstalk].
So if you want to make homemade ice cream this is—
The electric model now. We don't sell the hand crank—
And I'm looking at it right here. There it is.
Yeah. This is the lady that owned my house. This is, I believe, it says 1921.
Yeah. And there it is. 1921. What does an ice cream freezer go for these days from White Mountain right here?
A White Mountain costs you about $249.95 or $239.95 depending on if it's a four quart, or a five quart, or six quart.
Are they made here in the US?
Oh, they are [laughter].
No. They're made in China.
MJ: Well…even Burson’s has seen the influx of foreign goods but he’s proud to still offer some American made products, in fact they’re some of best sellers.
"What do you sell here that's made here? I'm sure people are asking for American made products now. And I know you have a lot of stuff.
We still have a lot of American made products. Some of our tools are coming back that are made in America.
And what about over here? You have kitchenware over here it looks like.
We have a big display of Rader knives. Some of our best sellers, they're knives that are made in the USA.
My late wife started this many years ago. She had her gifts over here. And we have all kinds of cookingware, and clay pots, and [crosstalk], and we put all kind of hardware over here.
Now you don't have air conditioning in here.
No, we don’t.
Do you have heat?
Yeah, we have just open gas [radiators?].
Have you ever thought about getting AC for the store?
No, I haven't. I still like it the old fashioned way because we get a lot of breeze through the building with the door, so—
It's not bad, is it?
Well, it's pretty bad in July and August."
MJ: But to help relieve the summer swelters, Mr. Burson keeps a neighborly stash of popsicles at the ready. Remember he’s selling service first - the other stuff is just that - stuff.
"Well, I just appreciate the wonderful customers that we've had through the years and we have now that enjoy trading with an independent family-owned business. It's the American way. The family-owned businesses still-- I hope we'll see a lot of it in the future.
But biggest enjoyment I have been is to getting to know the customers and the farmers and hear their viewpoint on things and how to do things and learned a lot of wisdom from all of the people and contacts and farmers and various customers that we've had through the years.
Any words of wisdom for a new farmer?
Well, there're not many new farmers coming along. The only farming we have now is poultry farmers growing chickens by contract and the cattle farmers that raise hay and a few of the farmers here that grow soybeans and corn, but they're the very few now.
And what do you want folks to remember about you after the third or fourth generation takes over out here? What do you want them to remember about you?
Well, I just want them to remember me as a reliable supplier of their needs, and their services that they need, and a convenient location, and service after we sell."
MJ: Did you catch that, listen one more time:
"Well, I just want them to remember me as a reliable supplier of their needs, and their services that they need, and a convenient location, and service after we sell."
MJ: He never mentions anything about the “stuff”, only that he hopes to be remembered as a reliable supplier of your needs and the services that you needed.
It’s often said that the greatest among you shall be your servant. So to you Mr. Burson, when the time comes I hope you hear the words, I hope to hear as well:
“Well done, good and faithful servant.” Well done.
Burson’s Feed and Seed in downtown Carrollton, Georgia, proudly not offering online shopping, self checkout or air conditioning. Go see them and take the time to have a popsicle and and just listen - you’ll be glad you did.
I’m Matt Jolley and that’s History Worth Saving. Find more History Worth Saving at HistoryWorthSaving.com.