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Main Street Novelty Shop

Updated: Jan 23, 2020

We have previously established that when the St. George Hotel was still standing, its close neighbor to the west was the minuscule Modern Beauty Shop building. The hotel also had another close neighbor on the east side – a small conventional store building that appeared to have been there for a number of years. It’s possible that this building was put up following the fire that destroyed Vandergrift’s store only a couple of years after the opening of the hotel In 1897.

In an earlier installment in this series, it was noted that the arrival of the new Merchants & Planters Bank building in the 1960’s, primarily on the St. George site, took out both the hotel and the beauty shop, but it also caused the demolition of this other neighboring storefront. It is not certain which business operated out of this location in the first half of the 20th century, but in the 1940’s and early 1950’s it housed what was known as a “Novelty” shop.

So-called Novelty shops were common in larger cities, such as Birmingham, where customers could find all sorts of hobby-related items such as model airplane kits and supplies, electric train sets and accessories, doll clothes and playhouses, and everything a magician would ever need in order to mystify an audience. Various arts and crafts supplies could also be purchased there.

The first incarnation of the Novelty store in Montevallo was the Rainbow Novelty Shop. A grocery store two doors down on the corner was also known as the Rainbow Market, so both stores may have had the same owner. A small art supplier had been based in the St. George Hotel for years, so its proximity may have inspired the idea for this kind of business. The Rainbow and its successors were a poor imitation of the big-city Novelty stores, but they did meet the needs of Alabama College students and local children and teenagers and became a good source for all-occasion gifts and presents for Montevallo shoppers.

We briefly featured Fancher Radio and TV Repair as well as Marie’s Gift Shop in our earlier installments on the Albright Building and the Whaley Shopping Center. It was not long after getting her new business off the ground that Marie Fancher soon outgrew the small space where she began in an annex to her husband’s radio and TV repair shop, so in the mid-1950’s they left the Albright building and moved into the Novelty Shop space about a block away. The repair shop took over the back of the store and Marie suddenly had so much display and storage space that she quickly began to expand her gift and accessory lines and also began to stock ladies’ and children’s “ready-to-wear” clothing. The Fanchers worked out of this store until just before construction on the new bank began in the mid-1960’s and then took advantage of a vacancy in the Whaley Center on Main Street and moved back toward the center of town. They remained a Whaley occupant for more than ten years and that is where they were when they decided to close the business and retire in the late 1970’s.

A “Throwback Thursday” Sidebar

In the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th, a number of mining companies operated in the Cahaba River valley just west of Montevallo so as to exploit the rich seams of coal that ran through the hilly, rolling terrain of the region. When a mine showed the potential to produce thousands of tons over a period of years and needed hundreds of miners and laborers, the owners routinely constructed small villages or “camps” near their mines to house their employees and their families. Within just a few miles from Montevallo were the communities of Aldrich, Dogwood, Maylene, Boothton, Marvel, Piper, and Coleaner – company towns that owed their existence to coal mining.

When the mines began to close in the 1940’s, people living in these communities were forced to look elsewhere for work and housing. Some moved to other parts of the United States where mining jobs were available, but others stayed closer to home. Montevallo became the beneficiary of a number of these skilled and energetic but displaced refugees of the mining camps.

Tom Fanchers’ ancestors were among the first settlers in Bibb County in the early 1800’s, but Marie’s father was an immigrant from Yugoslavia who traveled to the United States after 1900 with a group of friends and entered the country through Ellis Island and New York City. Her maiden name was Samsal. John Samsal made his way to West Blocton to dig coal and got on at Piper around 1930. The story of the Samsals is told in an excellent book, “The Struggle and the Joy” by James H. Walker. Its subtitle is: “An American Coal Town – Piper, Alabama.” It was first published by the Birmingham Public Library Press in 1993 but it has gone out of print and can be difficult to find.

Marie and Tom Fancher both grew up in Piper and that’s where they first met. In the 1930’s Piper had its own elementary and high school and they were both products of that system. Marie was a cheerleader for the football team and Tom later worked at the Commissary for the Little Cahaba Coal Co., the only store in town. They lived in Piper for their first few years of marriage but moved to Montevallo when the mines at Piper closed in the 1940’s. About the only thing that remains today of the Piper community is a historic marker on Bibb County highway 24 about a mile from the Cahaba River bridge.

Montevallo became home to Tom and Marie, where they lived when their son Tim was born. They had many friends and made a good living out of their Radio and TV Repair business combined with the ladies dress and gift shop. Tom died at age 92 in 2004 and Marie died at age 98 in 2015. They are buried together in the Montevallo City Cemetery.

Thank you Clay Nordan, Vice President of Montevallo Historical Society, for this information!

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