Visiting Bell Buckle is like stepping back in time. The small town – with a population of about 500 – provides an unforgettable experience.
“Bell Buckle offers a slower pace of a bygone era. It’s a place where everyone feels comfortable. It’s like going to your grandmother’s house,” said Billy Phillips, owner of Phillips General Store in Bell Buckle.
When you visit Phillips General Store, you will find an eclectic assortment of antiques and collectables, including primitives, country architectural pieces, gardening items. The antique shop has earned dedicated customers from all over the United States. The store’s biggest achievement, however, is saving Bell Buckle. Fifty years ago, the historic buildings housing the shops of Bell Buckle today, including Bell Buckle Café and Phillips General Store, were set to be demolished.
“The story starts when my mom was pregnant with me, back in 1971,” Billy said. “My mom and dad, Albert and Nancy Phillips, found this shop here, which originally was a dry goods store. It had been open in the 1880s and had been boarded up since 1940. For three decades, that store was boarded up with all the original inventory.”
Those items, including the original clothes and shoes hanging on the walls, rolling ladders and the original counters and shelves remain in the store today.
“So, my mom wiped up the dirty window and saw this really cool display that looked like a dollhouse,” Billy said. “She told my father she wanted that showcase.”
The first time Nancy asked about the display, she was told it was not for sale. But Nancy didn’t give up easily. She called the owners of the store again.
“My mom said, ‘Would you please sell that to me,’” Billy said. “The older gentleman she talked to said, ‘Yes, it’s $750.’ My mom told him that was awfully expensive for a showcase. The gentlemen answered, ‘I meant it’s $750 for the building and everything in it. And mom and dad literally bought the building, with the showcases, all the clothes, all the shoes, all the original store counters, and the rolling ladders for $750. They opened their antique shop in January, and I was born Feb. 17, 1971.”
It took a strong will and determination to keep the store in business.
“When they bought the store, the city was about to bulldoze this row of historic buildings,” Billy said. “Most of these buildings were from the 1870s, the 1880s and early 1890s and were slated to be torn down approximately a couple of months later. A Piggly Wiggly would be where our store is standing now. The parking lot for Piggly Wiggly would have been where Bell Buckle Café is standing today.”
The building housing the Bluebird Ice Cream Parlor today and several other historic buildings in Bell Buckle were also slated to be torn down and replaced with a metal pole building for a warehouse for the Piggly Wiggly, said Billy.
A building had to be 100 years old to be on the National Register of Historic Places, according to Billy. The shop Nancy and Albert had just bought was built in 1871.
“It was a few months shy of being able to be on the Register of Historic Buildings,” Billy said. “My mom and dad helped to get an injunction and get it tied up long enough to keep it in court, so it could get on the national register.”
Not only did Nancy and Albert save their building they saved the entire row of buildings.
“They got the building on the national register, saving that building,” Billy said. “But they couldn’t do just that building because it shares the same fire wall on each side, so they got the entire block done. So it literally saved the entire town.”
The local community worked together to save Bell Buckle’s charm and personality.
“It wasn’t just my mom and dad – other locals helped too,” Billy said.
The town was in bad condition. The stores had started closing after the Great Depression. Some of the buildings didn’t have electricity or running water.
“The buildings were not maintained. They were having roof problems and other issues,” Billy said. “But what was amazing about the stores closing up was that they still had the original fixtures – it was like time stood still.”
Through hard work and determination, Bell Buckle has earned its legacy.
“We have been really, really proud of our second ‘Golden Era,’ as we call it, because 100 years ago Bell Buckle was thriving, and now, 100 years later, Bell Buckle is thriving more than it ever has before,” Billy said.
Today, Billy enjoys talking with people from across the nation who visit Bell Buckle. He shares with them the story of the town and the story of each item displayed at Phillips General Store.
“Our genre covers shabby chic to farmhouse to primitives,” Billy said. “Primarily what we sell are items from the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s, but we focus more on the 1850s to the 1890s…We are probably one of the most eclectic stores in Bell Buckle. We have pickers that buy for us at auctions all across the country.”
Phillips General Store employees 15 people who buy in about 20 states.
“I love meeting folks and finding out why they’re here and why they gravitate to certain things,” Billy said. “The antique shop is full of memories.”
Antiques connect generations. Most customers purchase antiques because of the memories they bring. They buy an item that reminds them of their parents or grandparents, said Billy.
The interaction of connecting generations makes the antique store special.
“Antiques are part of our history,” Billy said. “We have a personal connection with items even if we don’t know it. You gravitate to things and memories. You gravitate toward people the same way.”