When Gail Downs and her late husband Don first opened Gail’s Antiques in August 2002, it was one of only a very few businesses still in existence in Historic Downtown Senoia.
These days, thanks to the city’s foresight and the business community’s investment, things are very different along Main Street. Not only has Gail’s Antiques seen an uptick in sales over the last few years, but vacant buildings are pretty much a thing of the past.
And Downs has been a central figure in the revitalization process. Currently she is the longest-serving member of Senoia’s Downtown Development Authority, and she says she is amazed at how far the little town on Coweta County’s eastern border has come since her first days in town.
A graduate of Russell High School, Downs and her husband Don brought up their two boys in north Fayetteville. She worked for Delta Air Lines. He worked in the air courier business.
Over the years, the couple’s mutual love for antiques grew, and they found themselves taking twice-yearly road trips to Ohio and Pennsylvania looking for those missing pieces to their collections. For Don it was pretty much anything to do with military history spanning the War Between the States and World War II. For Gail, it was antique dolls.
Why did they drive all the way up to Ohio and Pennsylvania to find antiques?
“We had a saying that Sherman had burned all of our stuff here in the South, so the really fine antiques and the really old stuff was in the North,” Downs said.
Back home, their storage spaces were filling up with antiques, which gave the Downs Family an idea. Start an antiques business.
“The way you become an antiques dealer is you just get to much stuff and you’ve got to find an outlet for it,” said Downs. Eventually, that led her to rent a permanent room inside Attic Treasures, which was located on North Jeff Davis Drive in Fayetteville. From there her antique career blossomed.
Downs was still working for Delta when she and her then-recently-retired husband moved to Senoia. They bought their circa 1834 home on Sept. 11, 2000.
“I always wanted an old home, an historic home,” she said. “We would always come down here and look at the old homes.
“My husband wasn’t keen on the idea,” Downs remembers. “But because he knew that’s what I really wanted, he said, ‘Okay, let’s find one’. So we drove up one day and saw a for sale sign. I wanted a wrap-around porch and a white picket fence, and it had that.”
After Sept. 11, 2001, everything changed for Downs. Delta had to cut costs due to shakeups in the travel industry, and Downs accepted an early retirement offer. By Jan. 1, 2002, she joined her husband in retirement.
And that’s when the real work began.
“I had always wanted my own antiques store,” Downs said.
That summer, Downs and her husband rented a building from Paul McKnight, Jr., and Gail’s Antiques continues to thrive in that same spot 12 years later.
“When we first opened, there was hardly any traffic down here,” said Downs. “My first customers were actually overflow customers from Hollberg’s Furniture across the street. They would go to Hollberg’s and then they would come across the street, I guess out of curiosity, to see what I had in here.”
Downs says her Fayetteville customers eventually found her in Senoia as well, but times were lean in those first months.
“At the time, we had a truck and two cars, and we parked all three in front of the shop to make it look like we had customers,” she laughs. “There were days when I didn’t see one person.
“My husband, there were days when he would get so bored sitting down here,” Downs said. “He would sometimes say, ‘Gail, how do you do it, sitting down here without seeing anyone?'”
Since those first days, Downs has seen lots of people, and some have been famous.
For that matter, Downs and her husband became famous when they played extras in the 2006 film “Broken Bridges”, which featured Toby Keith, Kelly Preston and Burt Reynolds.
While filming crews were still in town, Reynolds paid a visit to Gail’s Antiques.
One of Downs’ favorite regular visitors was the late Herb Bridges, an ordinary man who became famous as the world’s most prolific collector of “Gone with the Wind” memorabilia.
“Herb Bridges used to stop here and visit every time he was in town,” said Downs. “Sometimes, he would stop by and leave me notes if I wasn’t here. I saved every one of those notes.
“I really missed seeing him, because we had great conversations about Gone with the Wind, and I would ask him about some of his collections,” remembers Downs. “He was just the nicest person.”
Another one of Downs’ claims to fame is that Scott Wilson, who played “Hershel” in “The Walking Dead”, once rented the house next door to Downs. They became friends, and Downs said she was one of many fans who were upset when his character was “killed off” the show.
While she acknowledges that the world’s most famous zombie show has had a big part in helping Senoia through otherwise lean economic times, she says she hopes Senoia will in the future have the chance to be known as more than just “the ‘Walking Dead’ town”.
“I’d like to see more movies made here like ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’,” said Downs. “Before ‘The Walking Dead’, ‘Fried Green Tomatoes’ was our claim to fame.”
Downs says she thinks the renovated downtown district would look good in future Victorian-era films, and she says the Hallmark Channel should consider filming in Senoia as well.
“When we first moved here, my husband and I felt like we had stepped back at least 50 years in time,” said Downs. “I had never lived in a small town before. Not like this.”