Billy Phillips retiring after more than 50 years downtownPublished 9:32am Friday, March 1, 2013
BY STEPHEN H. COWLES/CONTRIBUTING WRITER
FRANKLIN—A downtown Franklin merchant will close up shop after more than 50 years in business.
Billy Phillips, 75, has sold hats, pants, shirts, suits, ties and tuxedoes to countless men and boys in Western Tidewater since August 1961. Billy Phillips Ltd.’s last day will be Saturday, March 30.
“It’s time. I am ready.” Phillips said. “I had a conversation with the Lord and was told ‘You’ve done your work.’”
He will have a going-out-of-business sale, but has no immediate plans for his building at 103 N. Main St.
After World War II, Phillips’ family came to Boykins where his father ran the theater. A few years after high school, Phillips apprenticed at the Sportsman’s Shop downtown.
He came back to men’s wear following a year in the Marine Reserves.
“I decided I always liked clothes,” Phillips said.
When he first opened, postage stamps cost 4 cents each; heating oil was 14 cents a gallon and gasoline was 20 cents a gallon. He paid his store help 85 cents an hour.
Looking through scrapbooks, he points out clippings from The Tidewater News. He pointed to a swatch of fabric attached to an ad. The best advertising for him ever was getting boys to wear T-shirts with his store logo.
A younger Jim Councill was among the many Phillips seasonally employed.
“He was very generous about hiring young high school boys on weekends and after school. He was very kind,” said the former Franklin mayor. “It was a wonderful hangout and a focal point for a lot of boys. On Saturday mornings we could get nickel Coca-Colas out of a box in back.”
He, along with his father and brother, bought all their clothes from Phillps and rented tuxes there.
“The quality was great,” Councill said.
“Unfortunately, it’s an institution that’s hard to replace, but something our town could use,” he added. “I’m sorry that end of a career is coming.”
“He has the kindest heart I’ve ever known,” said Walt Brown, who remembered needing a tux for his prom at Hayden High School. Lacking the $10, Phillips let him have it a no charge.
“Two weeks later I paid it back. I’ll never forget that,” said Brown, a former Southampton County Supervisor from Newsoms.
When Phillips wasn’t working, he enjoyed teaching ballroom dancing to pre-teenagers. Councill and Dan Howe, executive director of the Downtown Franklin Association, each said their children took cotillion lessons from him.
Before the Blackwater River flooded from the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Phillips carried a lot of clothing for men. Afterward, the stock was greatly reduced because it was damaged.
“If it weren’t for the tuxedoes, I’d have never come back,” he said.
Once he did 250 proms in a week. Then there was the time he did 17 weddings for one weekend.
“It didn’t seem like a good idea to quit then,” added his wife, Toni Phillips.
A brain surgery in 2003 also compelled him to keep selling clothes.
“My doctors said, ‘Don’t stop working.’ But I never had a full day working after that operation,” he said.
Phillips can remember decades ago when downtown Franklin was a busy place for retailers.
“If they weren’t downtown, they weren’t merchants,” he said. “Then the malls came along… .”
Billy Phillips has been a mainstay business for years downtown, said Howe.
“He’s given back a lot to the community as well. I would hope that we’d have a business even in the same spot,” Howe said.
In addition to “enjoying the quiet,” as Phillips puts it, he also hopes to travel more with his wife. They can more often visit their six grandchildren and two daughters, Joanna Kunz of Charlotte, N.C., and Maryanna Koehring of Vermont.