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What began as a humble little stand on Southern Pines' Broad Street in 1974 is now Gulley's Garden Center. In the middle of a bustling downtown, Gulley's offers customers and passersby a lush sanctuary. It didn't happen overnight.
When owner Pete Gulley and his wife Linda opened for business in April 1974, he'd just graduated from Sandhills Community College's horticulture program on the GI Bill. They liked the area, and decided to stay.
"We were originally on the corner, two doors down," says Gulley, "and we just kept growing and buying lots as they became available."
It wasn't as simple as that, however
Gulley explains he was in the right place at the right time, but not immediately. His business opening coincided with the reinvention of Southern Pines. Visitors were treated to golfing weekends and were then sold plots of land to build homes in an ideal community
"You could see the potential," says Gulley. "But we thought we made a mistake at first. You could shoot a cannon down Broad Street. People left in the summer."
At first, Gulley rented his space.
The landlords "must have been desperate because the lot had been vacant for years. I didn't have the rent and offered to pay it at the end of the month. They agreed. Then they asked for a deposit. I didn't even know what a deposit was!" he recalls. "There were times I only had two dollars in my pocket."
Gulley would bring in what little stock he could, sell it, and run out to get more. As the population grew, so did his business. Landscaping was his primary business; he started the nursery as a holding area.
A seemingly insignificant event, he and his wife went furniture shopping early in his business venture. It was there he noticed how the furniture was merchandised, using decorative touches like lamps and plants to make the floor space look like a room in any home. Gulley decided to apply the same principles to his own business.
"I put in great big, wide walkways, planted beautiful shrubs and flowering plants, added some water," says Gulley. Today, the grounds look like a park.
Gulley also incorporated some of his other interests over the years. Having served as a weapons specialist and radio operator in the Special Forces during the Vietnam War, he collects military memorabilia. His extensive collection is now housed upstairs in one of the buildings on the grounds. Ranging from the Civil War on through the Gulf War, the collection attracts patient husbands whose wives are planning gardens, as well as small classes from local schools.
"It's an attraction, anything that'll attract people," Gulley says. "People can look and touch. And you've got to work, so it may as well be fun."
Gulley began attending gift and garden shows in Atlanta, Dallas, Chicago, and England's Glee Garden Show, always adding products to his mix. That's how his Christmas shop got its start.
"We started small, and the more we made, the more we put into the business. We're always looking for the newest products to stay ahead of the big boxes," he says.
Today he and his staff attend shows three or four times annually, but that's just one way he competes in an increasingly competitive business. Not only are Gulley's prices often on par or cheaper than his big box competitors, Gulley's Garden Center carries "high end products, and a tremendous selection of shrubs and trees that aren't found everywhere," says Gulley. "And we have knowledgeable staff who can tell you how to plant it, in what kinds of soil, how to care for it. We have at least 15 employees, and we never lay off anyone. Even on a rainy day, everybody works. We've had the same staff year in and year out. If they leave, we lose our knowledge."
Employee Carol Gelfo left her job in banking to work at Gulley's about a year ago.
"It's a little Shangri-La. It reminds me of summer camp. We've even had a few water balloon fights!" she says. "Pete's great. He's a curmudgeon, but he's a fun guy and definitely knows his plants. I've taken some horticulture classes, and I've learned more in a week here. It's just a wonderful family and a great business."
Gulley's son, Graham, and his wife Angel, and daughter Megan Gulley Hart work in the business as well.
Customer service plays into differentiating the family business from the competition, too. Gulley's once large landscaping business accounts for just about 25 percent of the business today. He says that most landscaping customers are older, or they don't want to be bothered planting, and they don't have to. For a small fee, Gulley's staff will do the planting for them.
Lyn Austin is a long-time Gulley's customer.
"I've been coming here as long as I can remember," she says. "Any time I have a problem, I'll bring in my little leaf, usually in a plastic bag, and they always fix me up. The staff is very friendly. At the beginning of the season I came in, and a man helped me pick my hibiscus and roses. He must have spent 45 minutes helping me pick pots."
"We have a loyal customer base, and we have new people in every day," says Gulley. "People are always bringing in leaves so we can identify a problem and tell them what to do about it. We have young couples coming in for advice on how to landscape their new homes, what kind of grass to plant, where to put the shrubs, and I'll draw them little sketches. We give lots of free advice. The business is something we just build over time."
Mary Griffin is a local freelance writer.
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