When Gary George and his wife Patricia purchased Barnes Supply Co. from Lee “Shorty” Barnes, they closed the deal over a pitcher of lemonade on the Barnes’ front porch. It was September of 1991. Shorty had opened the store in 1946, and the George family has brought it into the present, making it the oldest standing business in the Ninth Street District.
Gary George started his working life at the American Tobacco Company, as did his father and grandfather before him. Starting in 1973, just after his high school graduation, George worked in the prefabrication section of the plant, cutting and and sorting tobacco into different blends. In 1986, the American Tobacco Company closed and George decided to try his hand in other professions - including a course in radiology at Durham Regional Hospital - before deciding to purchase Barnes Supply Co. and try his hand at running a business. When George and Patricia bought the store, their sons Jason and Jonathan were both under the age of six. Jason was just an infant.
Now, the George sons are readying themselves to take the reins from Gary, and have already been integral to the store’s management for years. Jason and Jonathan remember being at the store on weekends and holidays when they were children, helping out at the register and interacting with customers. At the age of fifteen, the boys started working in the store officially, work that became full time after graduating from high school. Gary and Patricia have always saved college money for the boys, but until now, it’s gone unused - both sons have built Barnes into their futures. “I’m a very lucky man,” says Gary George of his wife and two sons. The family works together and lives close together, he says, and “all without much friction.”
Gary, too, has memories of coming to Barnes as a child with his own father. He recalls walking around the store, which back then was primarily hardware and lawn and garden supplies. After his father got what he needed at Barnes, they’d walk up to the middle of the block, across from the still-functioning Erwin Mill, and have a milkshake at McDonald’s drugstore. On the way, they’d pass the service station which is now Cozy.
Though it initially took Gary George many long nights of troubleshooting and self-instruction to learn the ropes of a new business, Barnes has never had a year without growth. The key to that growth? According to Jonathan, it’s a willingness to change. The George family has seen a good deal of change in this West Durham neighborhood. Their next door neighbor, the popular Elmo’s Diner, used to be Ninth Street Bakery (which is now downtown) and before that, was the Atlantic Beauty College. Now, Elmo’s and Barnes share the block with brand new condominiums (many of which are pet-friendly - which is lucky for both Barnes Supply and the pet owners!). Barnes Supply has wisely adapted to all this change in Durham, rather than resisting it. Though they still carry a great deal of garden supplies, including the rows of flower and vegetable seedlings that brighten the Ninth Street sidewalk in the spring, they have evolved to meet the needs of Durham’s growing community of pet owners. Local pets love the store just as much as their owners do; in fact, many neighborhood dogs insist their owners bring them in for a treat each time they walk past the front doors. The folks at Barnes love this kind of visit because, while they’ve learned to adapt to changing times, the one thing that hasn’t changed at Barnes is their commitment to customer service. They are on a first-name basis with many of their customers (and their customers’ dogs) and are always welcoming to new faces. To the Georges, Barnes is more than just a store - it’s a community of family, friends, and of course, their pets.
The George family spends a good deal of their time at the store. But when they’re not at Barnes Supply, here’s what they might be up to:
Spending time with their rescue dog, a pit-lab mix named Lizzie. She’s a bit spoiled and naturally, they only feed her the very best dog food, Taste of the Wild.
Offshore fishing. The Georges are outdoor activists and love to spend time on the ocean, fishing for dolphin fish (mahi-mahi), tuna, and marlin.
Enjoying the city of Durham. Gary says that he finds the revitalization of his hometown exciting. “It makes me feel proud to be from this city,” he says.