Chris Starrs | For the Athens Banner-Herald
Stuart Cofer encounters frequent affirmations that convince him he went into the right line of work way back when.
And as his family business – Cofer’s Home & Garden Showplace – celebrates its 100th anniversary in Athens, Cofer reflected on the things that change and the things that stay the same.
“You look around the Athens area and you see your plants in somebody’s yard and I know they’re my plants because we sell so many unusual and unique plants I know they came from us,” said Cofer, 62, who started working for his father at the age of 10. “When you see those plants 25 or 30 years later, you get a good feeling knowing you helped beautify the Athens area and the things you sell go to make the environment a beautiful place.”
Established in the fall of 1922 by Cofer’s grandfather H.L. Cofer on Lumpkin Street (just down from the Georgia Theatre), the company has transitioned from a downtown seed and feed store to one of the area’s garden and landscape leaders.
Now located on Mitchell Bridge Road, Cofer’s also held down two Broad Street addresses (where Zombie Donuts and Cloud 9 Smoke and Vape Company now reside), had a store on Atlanta Highway, and for a few years in the 1950s and 1960s had an outpost in downtown Gainesville.
Cofer’s been a family business in every sense of the word. Stuart Cofer is the third generation to run the business (his father, Hal L. Cofer, and uncle, Donald Cofer, succeeded the founder) and once his son Stephen graduates from the University of Georgia, he’ll keep the familial chain strong.
“My son represents the fourth generation of Cofers, and less than 4% of family businesses make it that far,” he said. “So it’s a pretty special deal.”
Now in his 43rd year in the family business, Stuart Cofer said he began working for his father for 25 cents an hour, “making boxes, cleaning up, helping stock shelves, taking stuff to cars, watering plants.” He left Athens for about five years, working in Los Angeles and Atlanta, but came home for good in 1988. He said his father and uncle were responsible for transitioning the business from the seed-and-feed years.
“They made a lot of changes in the company,” he said, pointing out that at one point there was a Cofer’s downtown and a Cofer’s on Atlanta Highway. “They sold pots and pans and we even had a pet department at one time, had a lawnmower repair shop inside the store. They changed the store as Athens changed.
“When they started, Athens was still basically a farming community. As the University grew and Athens got more urbanized, the store changed with it. My grandfather wouldn’t recognize the store if he walked in here today and I credit my father and my uncle Donald for the changes.”
Stuart Cofer said his uncle ran the Atlanta Highway store and his father ran the downtown store until it closed in 1987.
“When we closed downtown in 1987 we were a full-fledged lawn and garden center,” he said. “As far as I know, we’re the oldest family-run garden store in the state of Georgia.”
When asked his thoughts on interesting changes in the business he’s been in for decades, Stuart Cofer said smaller gardens are infinitely more popular than bigger beds.
“Gardens have gotten smaller and smaller over the years,” he said, adding that the store still had regular customers that traveled from Hartwell, Greensboro, Elberton and Gwinnett County. “We used to sell beans and peas and corn in pound packages and now we sell in quarter-pound or less because people have smaller gardens.”
Stuart Cofer said has no immediate plans for retirement and added he still loves the work.
“I’ll probably work here until I’m 70,” he said. “I enjoy the job and we’ve got a great customer base and great employees. So it’s still fun to work. As my son gets more involved and trained in the business end I’ll start easing back.
“I won’t do like my father, who was from the generation born in the Depression years and he was a workaholic, literally six days a week most of his life. I have total faith in the employees we have here and my son that they can run this company just as good, if not better, than me. Then I’ll step back and let those guys enjoy the party.”
Cofer’s Home & Garden Showplace will host an open house March 25-27 and on April 19 will offer a seminar featuring landscaping ideas, successful tomato cultivation and hydrangeas and other plants. For more information on events, visit www.cofers.com.