When Gary Shelton remembers his decision to open his first grocery store in 1987, his stomach still twists into knots.
”It was really a scary deal,” he said. “I had been with Safeway since I was 16 years old, but they were pulling out of Texas. We borrowed a lot of money, hocked everything we owned. It was scary.”
But as he prepared for this weekend’s 25th anniversary celebration of a company that has become a string of nine Market Place stores in five counties with 400 employees, the Fort Worth native has much to be thankful for.
“We survived Wal-Mart Super Center coming in,” Shelton said, recalling the 1986 arrival of the 200,000 square-foot store up the hill from his Decatur store on Farm Road 51 South.
“Most people who are at ground zero for a Wal-Mart Super Center are history a year later. We’ve made it for 16 years. That’s a badge of honor, I’d say.”
At the top of Shelton’s other accomplishments, the grocer prizes the fact that his family members – wife Margie, son Jeremy and daughter Suzanne – have worked and blossomed alongside him.
Margie, a certified floral designer, operates a flower shop in each store, selling arrangements, plants and gifts. Jeremy is in charge of advertising, pricing and buying for Market Place while Suzanne is in charge of human resources, marketing and store remodels.
“Suzanne started in the store when she was 11, and Jeremy started when he was 13,” Shelton said. “The law says you’re not supposed to work until you’re 16, but they were exempt because this is a family-owned business.
“Suzanne was bagging groceries at 11, and by the time she was 12, she was checking groceries. She was tall and slender and looked older than she was.”
Shelton has five Market Place stores in Wise County – Decatur, Bridgeport, Alvord, Boyd and Chico – with others in Denton, Gainesville, Jacksboro and Nocona.
The Decatur store will celebrate its 25th anniversary Saturday with 25-cent hot dogs and an appearance by Dallas Cowboys football great Walt Garrison from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Decatur customers should register for prize drawings.
Shelton had worked nearly 25 years for Safeway, when owners decided to sell their Texas stores. Safeway offered to move Shelton to one of its groceries in another state, but Shelton worked out a deal to buy its Decatur store instead.
The 27,800-square-foot store had been built in 1983, going in alongside the city’s first Wal-Mart, back before Wal-Mart sold groceries. The building Wal-Mart left behind when it moved up the hill and opened its Super Center, is now occupied by Tractor Supply, Family Dollar and O’Reilly Auto Parts.
Originally, Shelton named his stores IGA Foodliner, after the wholesaler International Grocers Alliance that had backed him on his original store purchase. When the wholesaler went out of business in 2007, Shelton slowly began changing his stores’ names to Market Place.
“Nobody would loan me any money,” he said. “My first loan was for 20 percent, and the note had to be paid back in three years. My payment to the wholesaler was $4,200 a week. I paid myself $300 a week, plus groceries.”
For two years, Shelton and his family commuted daily to Decatur from their home in Fort Worth because with all the store payments, they couldn’t afford a home here, too. But that changed.
“From when I opened for business 25 years ago, 75 percent of the people [the other 1987 businesses] are gone,” he said. “As an independent, you either get better or you’re gone.”
Shelton bought his second store, in a 10,000-square-foot building on 16th Street in Bridgeport, in 1989. He has since rebuilt the store and nearly doubled it in size to 19,600 square feet.
“When the Wal-Mart Super Center opened [with its competing grocery], we’d have probably gone out of business if we hadn’t bought the Bridgeport store,” Shelton said. “It really hurt our business in Decatur at first.
“I knew I had to ‘rethink this one’ or I was going to go out of business. We focused on customer service and on our meat and produce, which I think are Wal-Mart’s weakness.”
Market Place still cuts meat fresh daily. Its produce departments buy locally from farmers and growers whenever possible.
Shelton also put a new priority on finding values he could pass on to his customers.
“Being local in a community counts for something,” he said, “and being nice counts for something. But the bottom line is you’ve got to figure out how to give them a good deal to stay in business.”
Shelton is a past president of the Decatur Lions Club and the Decatur Chamber of Commerce and is currently board president of Wise County Council on Drug and Alcohol Abuse.
Margie Shelton is First Chair Board Member of Wise County Committee on Aging – Meals on Wheels. Market Place and its customers raised $4,500 in donations recently for Meals on Wheels.
Since 1992, Market Place has partnered with the Lions Club to serve more than 16,000 lunches for Wise County Olympathon.
“We thank our customers for shopping with us the past 25 years and hope we can serve them for 25 more years,” Shelton said.