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Brier Patch owner is planning retirement

In her early days, she was known as "the Doll Lady." Later, she became known for running the city's only tanning salon. Now after 30 years of working in downtown Thomson, Johnette Bell has announced her retirement.

Mrs. Bell's decision was a surprise to many people, including herself. She said her original plans were to stay in business at least one more year in her new location on the corner of the Knox Shopping Center. But the bad economy has taken a toll on her store, The Brier Patch.

"I really will miss being downtown working" Mrs. Bell said. "It was a real hard decision to make. Each month, I hoped something would get better. I'm getting too old to spend the two quarters that I've got saved. So, it's time to get out."

When her daughter, Beth, was born premature more than 45 years ago, Mrs. Bell said she was searching for a "soft doll" to put in her crib "because she was really dainty." But all she could find in stores were the standard, hard plastic dolls.

"So, I took a pillowcase and made a soft doll myself," she said. "It turned out to look like a little orphan Annie with a green dress with pink flowers on it."

Rather than "Annie," Beth named the doll "Beulah," and she "dragged it around everywhere she went" for several years. Mrs. Bell still has the doll today.

When friends saw the doll, they started requesting their own. Pretty soon, Mrs. Bell was busy making dolls. One day, J.D. Matthews, who owned a gas station on the corner of West Hill and Jackson streets, invited her to sell her dolls there at a produce stand.

"I taught myself to do all this stuff. I didn't think I was all that good at it. But, J.D. insisted I bring it to the corner and it started a whole new career for me," Mrs. Bell said. "People started calling me the doll lady."

The ragdolls were a big hit with tourists passing through for the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta every year. And the now defunct WRDW radio station bought four sets of Raggedy Ann's and Andy's in 1976, which they gave away as prizes.

After the produce stand closed, Mrs. Bell opened a flea market on Greenway Street with her friend, Faye Story. Not long after that, she became the secretary and bookkeeper for Sheik Hawes, who owned a hardware store on Railroad Street.

"It was the best job I ever had," she said. "He also let me sell my crafts in his store. He'd go to Rotary every week and brag about what I'd made. When he died in 1991, his wife gave the building next door to me at his request."

Thus began The Brier Patch, which stayed in business on the corner of Greenway and Railroad streets until last year, when it was demolished to make way for the new city-county government complex. Mrs. Bell said her husband, Billy, was her "right-hand man" at the store.

Anytime business slowed down, Mrs. Bell was able to take advantage of an upcoming fad and cash in on it. Throughout her 17 years on the corner, Mrs. Bell found success in:

Painted pants suits for ladies. "Those were so popular, I was staying up all night making those."

Coca-Cola wagons. "They went hog wild over those. Billy made them and other wooden items for about 15 years."

Rabbit dolls wearing dresses or overalls. "I started making those in January to get ready for Easter, but they sold all the way through Christmas."

Holstein cow items. "It was crazy. I could paint anything white and put black spots on it and it would sell."

Beanie Babies. "They did quite well for about two and a half years. Then, the war started and I did yellow ribbons."

University of Georgia and Thomson High School purses. "Not only were they fun to make, but it was a huge challenge to find the material."

Painted jackets made from sweatshirts.

Embroidered initial purses. "That kept me open last year. And, I always sell a lot of bows."

In the midst of all that, Mrs. Bell's daughter suggested she add tanning beds to her shop in 1993.

"I had never been in a tanning bed in my life," Mrs. Bell said. "So, I didn't know anything at all about them."

Mrs. Bell initially bought three tanning beds, but ended up with 12 after one year. Before she moved The Brier Patch to its new location on Main Street last year, she had 21 beds and a spray tanning booth.

"They were a huge success for many years," she said. "But I didn't have hardly any tanners this year. I guess it's the new location and the economy."

In 2006, Mrs. Bell was named the Small Business Person of the Year by the Thomson-McDuffie Chamber of Commerce. The next year, she received the Volunteer of the Year award. In addition to running her business, Mrs. Bell volunteered for quite a few years with Camellia Partners, the Downtown Development Committee, Dearing Mayfest Committee and the Festival Off Main Committee.

There's no set date for The Brier Patch to close. Mrs. Bell said she can't afford to keep it open too much longer, but she'd like to sell as much of her stock and fixtures/furniture as possible before closing.

But retirement does not mean she will laze her days away. Mrs. Bell will continue to decorate houses during holiday seasons, and she has "a lot of unfinished project at home" to work on. She looks forward to having the opportunity to attend her three grandchildren's soccer games and ballet recitals.

"But the first morning I wake up, I will finish a mural in my sunroom," she said, adding that it's a Gone with the Wind themed mural.

"I've just been wanting to do it for years. Then, I'm going to paint my house. And after that, I'll find something else to do."

Web posted on Thursday, October 07, 2010

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