About A & A Vacuum Mart...a story about Love, Family, Community and Dedication.
FOR OVER 60 YEARS & THREE GENERATIONS – WE ARE A FAMILY BUSINESS
Chuck Lord, a man well over six feet tall, with a booming laugh and a friendly smile, had a lucrative career as number one salesman for the Eureka Company. His territory included the Southeast, and he was also in charge of the warehouse for all the products Eureka sold. A great job with a fantastic future. Why on earth would he sacrifice such an opportunity to buy a lazy little vacuum store in Mobile, Alabama; a non-descript shop located on Houston street tucked between a home and a small CPA office. FAMILY. Chuck and I had been married for fifteen years, and we had five children with another on the way. His Eureka job required that he spend at least three nights out of town. A worthwhile sacrifice for a man with a young family, but as our family had grown, we realized that his absence from our lives was not good for me or for the children … .. especially our oldest son, Michael. who was thirteen. He was just at that age where a boy needs his dad most.
Chuck had called on the owner of the Vacuum Store in Mobile to sell his products, and he was aware that the gentleman was eager to sell his store. Prior to any commitment, Chuck took me to Mobile. I had never been there, but it was love at first sight, especially when we drove down Government Street. Oh, how I admired the beautiful old Oaks that stretched their limbs from one side of the street to the other forming a literal tunnel of greenery under which we drove. I turned to Chuck and said: “I would love it here! We can do this .. .I know we can. And, just think, you will be home every night–we can all sit around the table together and enjoy one another, just the way a family should!”
Chuck submitted his resignation to Eureka’s main office, much to the shock of his boss, and we bought the little vacuum business. We moved to Mobile, complete with five children and Grandma (my mother), and even with a dog and cat in tow. Being so close to the end of my pregnancy, I had been unable to drive the distance with Chuck and the children. Instead, the doctor had insisted I travel by plane. Luckily, my sixth child, Tony, was thoughtful enough to wait for two weeks before his birth after our arrival to our Mobile home. A few years later, we were certain that our family was complete, when the good Lord surprised us with the last addition of our family. Our little Joe became the joy of all our lives.
Getting our little business started was not an easy task. Few people knew of the existence of the vacuum shop hidden on the slowly declining, midtown street. Business was very slow, but Chuck had a shrewd sense of merchandising and an overabundant desire to succeed. A solid, fearless work ethic coupled with a genuine friendliness for people began to draw a loyal clientele, and he kept these friends of A & A Vacuum by treating everyone with the same respect and honesty he expected from others.
As each of our sons grew old enough to help in the business, Chuck and I both agreed their involvement was the best life training we could give them. He explained the importance of treating customers with the utmost respect and friendliness, never forgetting their decision to drive past large retail stores–often driving many miles out of their way–in order to shop with our little store. Chuck knew people enjoyed the advantages offered by an exclusive, privately-owned establishment such as A & A Vacuum, and he drilled the differences into the hearts and minds of his sons. This was how they learned the values of cheerful customer service, attention to detail, and thorough knowledge of the products they serviced and sold. The result of this was customer service that included meeting people out in the parking lot: New customers were often surprised and impressed when Chuck or the boys would meet them at the car to carry in their vacuums in need of repair or maintenance. When a customer came in to buy a vacuum, the expertise garnered by Chuck and his sons ensured customer satisfaction no matter the budget. A & A Vacuum prided itself on displaying and selling every type of vacuum, and, Chuck and the boys were skilled at demonstrating each one, explaining designs and purposes. The purpose was not just to explain, but to demonstrate the pros and cons of each machine, allowing customers to use them in the store. By the time a customer had selected a vacuum, they had been given the knowledge and skills needed to be considered their own ‘expert’ with the machine they chose to take home.
Maybe even more importantly than the purchase of a vacuum, is the regular service involved in its care, and no one in town provided the kind of service offered through A & A Vacuum. Rather than simply accepting vacuums for repair to be mailed off to a ‘service center’, as the department and chain stores did, our shop not only received every make and model, but we did the repairs personally, often while the customer waited. With such exceptional, friendly customer service and the emphasis on maintaining excellence in product knowledge, our. clientele grew. People told their friends about us and described the big guy who resembled John Wayne.
We have often been asked if moving to Mobile, Alabama to own and operate a vacuum store (of all things) was a good move for our family. Absolutely. Mobile, itself, is a family-oriented city–a “big, small-town city” where everyone knows everyone else even if it is a once, twice-removed kind of relationship. The move allowed Chuck to be a fully-involved father, especially as the children began to enter into their teen years. Many of our customers have become dear friends. Mobile felt instantly like home the minute we entered the community and has, in reality, been our home these many years.
How many times did our sons hear the phrase from an old Navy guy …. “A clean ship is a happy ship.” meaning, “Before we leave tonight, vacuum the carpet and put the vacuums back where they belong. Oh the grumbling and fussing our boys did, but, Chuck knew that it was important to walk into a clean, neat store the next morning. And, as the boys fussed, Chuck would throw back his head and laugh but I notice that my sons use the same phrase on their children.
Our store soon became too small for the amount of traffic we had, so we bought a larger building on D.I.P. and Duncan which served us well for many years. It had a cozy little kitchen, and Chuck kept the coffee perking all day. As folks in The vicinity became acquainted with this big, good natured fellow, they stopped by frequently for a visit.. .. the Parish priest, business owners in the area as well as vacuum reps. It was a friendly, welcoming atmosphere and our customers seemed to appreciate it.
‘Grandma’ became Chuck’s secretary. She had her own little office and kept our books for many years …. until she retired in her early eighties. Everyone loved ‘Miss Vi’, as she was known, and were genuinely glad to visit with her when she stepped up front to greet our customers. Our daughter stopped by often to bring treats to the boys, and it was Jenny’s job to take Grandma home because she left a few hours early.
Everything seemed perfect and then tragedy struck. Our darling little Joe, only three and a half years old, died in an accident. It seemed that all of Mobile turned out to share our grief, and although such a death can be devastating to a family, we grew closer, seeming to cherish one another more.
Chuck was constantly motivated to do better, and he felt we needed a presence in West Mobile. So, he bought a large building, redesigned it to suit our needs, and we opened for business. Sure enough, the West Mobile people seemed delighted that they did not have to drive all the way to the Loop to do business.
When Chuck was in his mid-to-late fifties, he contracted a virus that practically destroyed his heart muscle. This quickly led to congestive heart failure. He grew weaker and weaker, and I’m sure he had accepted the inevitability of his death. It was at this point when his physician, Dr. Martin Lester, made arrangements for him to. go. to. Ochsner in New Orleans to. see if he might be eligible for a heart transplant. His condition had deteriorated so quickly that the doctors decided to buy time for him by implanting an electric heart. It worked beautifully. I had moved to a hotel next to Ochsner so I could be close to him, and he was allowed to stay with me.
The electric heart lasted for several months and then began to fail. An emergency alarm was sent out to try to find a heart that would be compatible with his body. Just as all seemed hopeless, they called me to come immediately to the hospital: A heart had been found for Chuck. Though his recovery was long, the transplant was successful, and soon we were able come home.
Chuck was not one to be idle. Even though he moved slower and suffered a lot of pain, due to his having his chest cut open twice, still his mind was active and eager to become involved with a project. After much consideration, he decided that our customers on the Eastern Shore might be glad to have a closer location to repair and buy their vacuums. So, he bought land on Greeno Road and designed a building. He oversaw all the work and construction. The first day of the Grand Opening, we had several customers, and today our Fairhope store is as thriving and busy as the Cottage Hill store.
Chuck was very proud of his family …. seven children and twenty-six Grandchildren. He rarely missed a “grandparent’s day” or a soccer game or a graduation. His presence was as important to the grandchildren as it was to him, and their Grandad was the first one they ran to after a game to demand: “How’d I do, Grandad? Did you see me kick that goal?”
Ultimately, because of the harsh, anti rejection drugs Chuck had to take because of his heart transplant, other vital organs began to fail. His kidneys finally failed completely. Very weakened in body, Chuck did not let this unfortunate development keep him down. Up until the day he was taken to the hospital, Chuck got up each morning–with a little help from me–showered, shaved, dressed in a crisp clean shirt and Khaki slacks, adjusted his suspenders over his shoulders and sprayed on a liberal dose of his spice aftershave. And each day, he soldiered on, driving to the shop and using his walker to get in the front door for a few hours’ work. He was an example, not only to his children, but to our many dear and loyal customers who have become our friends over the years. Thank you all so much.
Truly Chuck was an inspiration to us all. He had a quick sense of humor, a passion for knowledge, and always had a book close by. He was particularly interested in history and religion. I am ashamed to admit that I never checked a dictionary or an encyclopedia–if! wanted the answer to a question, I simply asked Chuck and he always knew the answer. I once asked him: “What would you do if you only had one week to live?.” He peered over-the edge of the paper he was reading and replied: “Exactly what I’m doing right now. I’ve lived the best life I know how to live.”
Sadly, Chuck died in April of this year, and there aren’t words to express how we will miss him. His children and I were gathered around him it was just as if he had simply fallen asleep. Chuck’s faith and his family were the two most important things in his life-He didn’t preach about them, he lived them. And our family is blessed to have had him as our inspiration and example.