Nancy Hatfield and Betty Mote

By Angela Spencer Published March 8, 2015 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: William Harvey

Betty Mote, left, and Nancy Hatfield pose for a photograph inside their family’s furniture store in Searcy, Sowell’s Furniture, which is celebrating its 70th year in business.

After purchasing a warehouse that had been used to bottle Coca-Cola to expand his furniture store, John Sowell — Nancy Hatfield and Betty Mote’s father — commented that when he was a child, he didn’t even have enough change to purchase a bottle of soda. After running a booming furniture business in downtown Searcy, he had the funds and the need to purchase the whole building.

Sowell died in 2006, and Hatfield and Mote have been running the family business together for the past several years. Mote has been at the store since 1975 — going full time in 1991 — and Hatfield joined her six or seven years ago.

John and Lora Sowell purchased the furniture store in 1945 when Mote was 4 years old and Hatfield was not yet born. The two girls grew up as the children of a prolific business owner, and when their parents went to Dallas for markets to see what new items were available, the girls — especially Hatfield, when she was younger — would tag along.

“I thought it was a vacation,” she said. “We would stay at a Roadway Inn, and they had a swimming pool. Back then, that was a big deal. We didn’t have a swimming pool.”

After Hatfield stopped going on the trips, Mote would attend the markets with her father. She was more interested in the business aspect than in a vacation, and when their father stopped going, Mote continued to go to Dallas.

“You make friends through the years with the sales reps,” she said. “I didn’t dread it at all.”

Both Mote and Hatfield started working with the family business early.

“I worked every Saturday starting at 12 [years old],” Hatfield said. “As people would come in to make a payment, I would take their check and write a receipt and — believe it or not — I would count up the balance at the end of the day. I don’t know what my work ethic was like, though.”

Mote said she was at the store a lot, and her duties stretched outside of the physical store. At one point, Sowell purchased a building on Market Street that had been vacated.

“My daddy rented that building to put old used furniture in,” she said. “When he bought it, it was a total store full of junk. He would let me go over there and sell whatever I wanted to at whatever price I wanted to. I had a friend who would come help me. It was like playing store, but it was real money. It was fun.”

The sisters both graduated from Searcy High School, then went on to get degrees at Harding University in Searcy. Mote earned a degree in business; then she and her husband moved to Memphis, Tennessee, for three years for her husband’s job as a coach. After that time, they returned to Searcy when an opportunity for her husband opened up in their hometown.

“He continued to coach at [Harding] University and then transferred to Searcy High School as head coach and athletic director,” she said.

A few years later, Mote started working in the family store again.

Hatfield got a degree in home economics at Harding University, then went to San Antonio and Dallas, Texas, for her husband’s continuing education. Her husband is a doctor, and he went to medical school in San Antonio and did his residency in Dallas.

“I never dreamed that we would move back,” Hatfield said. “His job opportunity here brought us back. He’s an ear, nose and throat doctor, and Searcy didn’t have one. It just happened.”

Hatfield taught interior design at a high school, and when Hatfield and her husband were in Dallas, she started an interior-design business that utilized both her degree and her knowledge from the family business. She continued in this vein when the couple moved back to Searcy.

“I could do that and still be an at-home mom,” she said. “I had that interest. As my children got older, I had more design clients. I always shopped here [at Sowell’s], and I said that up front to my clients. I told them I’d help them make whatever decisions needed to be made, but I will only shop here, and if you want to shop elsewhere, I’ll still encourage you to make a good choice.”

Mote started working at Sowell’s again in 1975, and she worked from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. while her children were in school.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to pick them up and be off when they got out of school,” she said.

She worked that schedule until the sisters’ uncle, Cecil Childers, retired from helping Sowell run the store. When Childers retired in 1991, Mote started working at the store full time.

Meanwhile, Hatfield’s design business continued for 30 years.

“When all of my children graduated, married and moved — which was about six or seven years ago — our daddy had already passed away, and our mother had already passed away, and I thought it was my time to [help run the store],” Hatfield said. “I had time. Betty could have Saturdays off, and I liked working Saturdays because my husband has never had a partner, so he’s on call 24/7. For us to leave town is major.”

Hatfield said she enjoys working on Saturdays because she gets to help more couples who have come in to look for furniture. Often, they have to wait until the weekend to go shopping together, and that is when Hatfield gets to help them make decisions for their family.

Sowell’s Furniture utilizes Hatfield’s talent — along with the talent of other employees — and offers customers complimentary design assistance.

“We tell our customers up front that it’s with the understanding that you’ll shop with us,” Hatfield said. “Within the last year, we’ve had several customers — three or four — who have moved here, and we have done their whole house. That’s a fun project. I used to do that with my design, and it really is fun to be able to walk through and make suggestions. We did a whole house, and the only thing we ordered was an ottoman. We were able to get everything in our store.”

As the sisters carry on their father’s business, they continue to meet families — often several generations of families — that have shopped in the store. A few months ago, Hatfield interacted with a couple from Newport who were celebrating their 68th wedding anniversary, and they purchased their first furniture from Sowell when they got married.

“Near the week of Thanksgiving, this couple came in to purchase new mattresses,” she said. “They were going to be celebrating their 68th wedding anniversary that Thanksgiving week. They married on Wednesday, celebrated Thanksgiving,and then on Saturday, they came to Searcy to buy their furniture. That was in 1946, and they bought a sofa, a matching chair, a three-piece bedroom set, a dinette, two occasional tables and a little decorative set, which she still has today. … It made such an impression on my mind. To have someone that’s been married for 68 years and celebrating their anniversary with us is wonderful.”

Aside from the store, Mote and Hatfield both have deep roots throughout the community. Both are active at the Downtown Church of Christ, and each has other civic interests that allow them to be involved in different aspects of the city.

“We’re both pretty grounded in Searcy,” Hatfield said, “even in different directions. We have different circles that we work with. That’s a plus here because we know more people.”

Sowell’s Furniture will celebrate its 70th anniversary this year. For more information on the store, visit www.sowellsfurniture.com. Sowell’s Furniture is at 207 W. Arch Ave. in Searcy.

Zoned Editions Staff Writer Angela Spencer can be reached at 501-244-4307 or aspencer@arkansasonline.com.

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