The recent passing of Billy T. Smith in August, a lifelong resident of Forest Park, brings to a close another important chapter in the history of that city. Billy was the last of the three brothers who created and built the business called Smith Hardware on Main Street in Forest Park.
Older brothers Mike Smith and J.W. Smith started the store in a small location on Main Street in 1947. Billy joined them full time as the third partner after serving in the military in the Korean War in the early 1950s.
As time went by, other relatives and friends joined the store, it joined the Ace hardware cooperative system, and it grew to become one of the premier retail businesses in south metro Atlanta in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
By the 1980s, the big superstores began to dominate the retail business, but Smith Hardware remained an important part of the community until it closed in 2006 after a 60-year run.
At one point in the 1950s, Forest Park was called one of the fastest-growing towns in America. To help power this growth, Smith Hardware also grew rapidly and literally provided the tools, supplies and services that small businesses and homeowners needed as they created a vibrant, classic Southern town.
At the peak of Forest Park’s growth cycle in the ’50s and ’60s the hardware store had as many as 25 people working on Saturdays during the busy seasons.
These experienced hardware people were able to provide personal service to each and every customer, including helping them select their items and carrying heavy items to their car if needed.
The store always reached out to the community. From providing the “pot-bellied stove” to sitting around for conversation in the late ’40s to its hallmark service — the interest-free, open-book credit provided to customers over the years — Smith Hardware was always a welcoming place for the residents of Forest Park and surrounding areas.
While the success of the store is traced mainly to the complete hardware inventory and the knowledgeable and courteous staff, the framework for all of this was created originally by the three Smith brothers.
They each brought exceptional talent to their respective responsibilities in the business. Mike guided the financial side of the business and kept the books. J.W. was the floor manager and brought outstanding public relations skills not only to the store, but also by serving the community in various ways. Billy was the one who kept the amazing hardware inventory up to date and ready each time a customer walked in.
Obviously, things change as the years go by. Towns change and businesses navigate through their life cycles.
The 20th-century history of Forest Park, its people and its businesses will always include the story of the three Smith brothers who created not just a hardware store, but a Forest Park institution.
Joel Smith, son of Mike Smith, lives in Stockbridge and worked at Smith Hardware in the 1950s and ’60s.